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Happiness and the Great Malaysian Dream

In crisis-ridden Malaysia today, it is critical for us to evaluate the nature of the 'prosperity' we seek

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We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.

– Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

The basic thrust of Malaysia’s Vision 2020 was focused on economic prosperity, social wellbeing, world-class education, political stability and psychological balance. 

The question is, was happiness factored into the scheme or was it assumed that economic prosperity or economic prosperity for some would automatically bring happiness for all Malaysians? Would we then have political stability, social wellbeing and psychological balance?

Whichever way the dice was thrown, 2020 turned out to be a time of reckoning.

Just when you think you’re playing your cards right, God shuffles the deck.

– Mark Sheppard

I remember a fonder time prior to 1969, when fathers came home from work at teatime, when the sun was still shining, and mothers were our counsellors.

Back then, families played and took walks together in the park and neighbours were our best friends. Friendships were authentic and bonds were strong. It literally took a village to raise a child as everyone kept watch: they were all our children and we cared for each and all.

Every day was an opportunity to share something with a neighbour – a cake, some fruit or some bread. We grew fruit trees and vegetables in our garden and the harvest was so plentiful we could give some of it away as gifts.

Towns were sparsely populated, even large towns. Open spaces and lush greenery added to the serenity. Flowering trees provided shade for rest and rainfall cooled the air. Winds blew strong and running against it was fun.

Villages were vast farmlands and many families were self-sufficient. The nation had food security.

Life was carefree. Jobs were lifelong careers in one firm, one place.

Traffic jams and large shopping complexes did not exist or were rare. Provision shops provided for most of our needs. Clothes were sewn at home and hand-me-downs were the norm. People were handy: they fixed the plumbing, some were electricians, others did carpentry and some could even build an entire house.

Public transport was reliable.

Being old was gold, and time moved slowly. Family and friends provided entertainment.

Space was not the luxury of the rich. Few were a whole lot better than others.

The mood was: 

Let each one do what each one knows best

Nothing to refuse and nothing to shirk

For none is master of the rest

But all are servants of the work 

– Dorothy Sayers, The Makers

We strolled or cycled to school. Taking a bus was such a thrill. We travelled like a caravan and older children held the hands of the younger ones.

Teachers were our parents in school – highly respected and dedicated to forming our minds, moulding our character and forging a nation.

We were taught to have an attitude of gratitude, and nothing was an entitlement. It is in giving that we receive: be a giver rather than a getter, we were told. ‘We’ was more important than ‘I’.

My school song rang:

Let all voices unite in joyful harmony,

Our good behaviour in school and out reaps joys untold

School days are numbered and one day we must take our place
As loyal members of our beloved Malaysian race

Truth and charity will be our rule.

What was inculcated in us both at home and in school was that the measure of a person was:

Not how did (s)he died, but how did (s)he live

Not what (s)he gained, but what (s)he gave

That regardless of birth, it did not matter

what was a person’s station,

but had (s)he a heart

And how (s)he played his/her God-given part

Was (s)he ever ready with a word of good cheer

To bring back a smile, to banish a tear

Not what was his/her creed,

But had (s)he befriended those really in need?

Those were happy times when trust was deeply valued: “To thine own self be true” was the counsel we held firmly to. So integrity mattered most, a man’s or woman’s word was his or her bond.

Peace and genuine harmony prevailed. We were resilient.

Then in 1969, everything changed and thus began a radical social experiment; a social reengineering.

The architect stood forth and said

I am the master of the art

I have a thought within my head

I have a dream within my heart

Come now good craftsman ply your trade

With tool and stone obediently

Behold the plan that I have made

 – Dorothy Sayers, The Makers

Did this social experiment make Malaysia a happier place? It is interesting to examine this in the present situation, especially as the fabric of Malaysian society is not only multiracial but also multi-religious, with most claiming to practise their faith devotedly.

Presently, political confusion and an uncertain economy prevail. Many are in distress, with the middle class fast falling into the low-income group. White flags have sprouted in some places, turning Malaysia into an international spectacle.

A major trust deficit plagues the nation. A wide divide separates the rich – unaffected by their buffer of wealth – and the rest. So much fear fills the air with gloom.

Albert Ellis in his book Rationality and the Pursuit of Happiness wrote that it is the irrationalities of the world that create the conditions for people’s emotional distress and unhappiness.

What are these irrationalities? At the outset, it appears that surely Malaysians are ‘wealthier’ than before 1969. Perhaps, but are they happier? This then beckons the question, what is happiness?

The perception of hedonic wellbeing is based on the notion that increased pleasure and decreased pain leads to happiness. Hedonism focuses on having things and doing things. For such happiness, we must have more money, the most prestigious car, a fab new spouse, parties, overseas travel or expensive leisure pursuits. We must have a job that gives power and control.

In a world dominated by consumer materialism, we are told that to be ‘happy’, we have to own more things. There is a contrived plan to get us to spend resources to keep up with trends so we can be happy.

And so, shopping complexes sprouted, marketing fashionable international designer brands and creating the notion that we had to get these items to move ahead and be happy. Advertising feeds on our egos –  it tells us we have not made it if we cannot afford pricey objects – and plays on our deepest insecurities.

Renting a house turned into a bane, and those who were starting their careers felt they now had to own a house. This was now seen as a measure of economic success. Unsurprisingly, property prices spiralled.

Public transport was neglected to promote the national car. Having the latest model was a must.

But people did not earn enough to afford a car, a house and designer goods. Never mind, they could now turn to bank loans and credit cards to help keep up appearances. The car and house were apparent assets, even though personal debts mounted.

The wise adage “Neither a borrower nor a lender be; for loan oft loses both itself and friend” was dismissed in favour of the clarion call to buy now! Debt –  the very thing that holds human beings hostage – became vogue.

In crisis-ridden Malaysia today, it is critical for us to evaluate the nature of the ‘prosperity’ we seek. We need to ask whether the ‘pursuit of happiness’ through the political and economic plans for development of the Great Malaysian Dream is sustainable?

In our present dire straits, there are only two types of politicians, according to Viktor Frankl:

  • those who think the ends justify the means
  • those who are fully aware that there are means which will desecrate even the most noble ends

Let’s look at which of the two political means was applied in Malaysia from 1969 to now:

  • Did the reengineering of the education system create critical thinking Malaysians and foster creativity, innovative thinking and improved communication and understanding? Was there sufficient focus on research, innovation and invention? Were institutions nurtured to reach top quality international standards, comparable to those in developed countries, enabling greater competitiveness?
  • Was access to public universities with economical fees equitable?
  • Did race-based policies unite or divide Malaysians? Indeed, did they benefit the intended ethnic group equitably, across the board?
  • Was there adequate investment in developing a world-class public healthcare system across all cities, towns and villages in Malaysia in the quest to achieve the Vision 2020 goals?
  • Has this historically agricultural country, rich in resources both on land and sea, achieved food security?

The pandemic has stripped away many things we once took for granted. Many injustices are now starkly exposed. The sheer moral depravity, corruption and oppression of the poor are evident.

Now is a time of reflection. What does it mean to be human? Research shows that humans are not just material beings with neurons seeking pleasure and avoiding pain.

Both Greek philosophers, Socrates and Pythagoras, observed that the human being is not just a body, but also a divinity, a soul. They also observed that eudaimonia – the flourishing life that happens when you live your life in accordance with this divine life – ensures happiness.

Eudaimonic wellbeing is achieved through consciousness – not attachment to things, knowing that they will pass. It is a detachment from material things, which can be lost. It is about living with a sense of purpose, a meaningful life. It is living a life of virtue in pursuit of human excellence, doing something for humanity.

Many people want things, they want power, they want control – all of which are fleeting. The cause of suffering is attachment to the impermanent, temporal or transient.

Unless we can see meaning in suffering, we will be prone to despair, which can lead to suicide. The suicide rate has risen in Malaysia: the police recorded 468 suicides in the first five months of 2021, compared to 631 in 2020, and 609 in 2019. Life had lost meaning for these people. 

Surely it is foolish to define our happiness by what is out of our control or by something that is impermanent. If nothing else deeper holds us, we will fall to pieces.

Develop equanimity, a state of psychological stability and composure, undisturbed by the experience of, or exposure to, emotions, pain or other phenomena that may cause us to lose the balance of the mind.

By nurturing wisdom, we can experience equanimity, along with peace and composure amid adversity.

Human life is not based on material stimuli. It is the journey of the heart, the soul and the mind.

The soul is not consciousness. The soul’s journey does not end with death. 

God is infinitely wise

God is infinitely good

God is infinitely loving

If we, at the end of our bodily lives, have to return to God, then in life we must strive to become like God, infinitely wise, infinitely good and infinitely loving.

Live life as a soul that is a work in progress – a soul seeking oneness with God.

To thine own self be true.

– William Shakespeare, Hamlet

Mildred Lopez is from the accountancy profession specialising in revenue law, forensic accounting and financial criminology. She uses her expertise in social innovations to nurture and capitalise on resources to provide creative solutions

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