Professor Tan Sri Dato' Dzulkifli
- Comment -
New Sunday Times – January 4, 2009
IT is that time again when it is customary to wish everyone a Happy New
Year! The operational word is, of course, "Happy"!
But it may not be so for this year, if what have been forecast for 2009 is
to be believed. Many pundits have predicted that the worst is in store with
unemployment on the rise as more companies fold up. The stock market is
predicted to be on the decline with extreme volatility.
Recession and depression have not been completely ruled out. Bailouts, even
nationalisations, will continue, and the global confidence in the US
currency will stay low.
More will be facing severe hardships for the first time in their lives. The
US is essentially bankrupt and running on borrowed money and borrowed time,
according to one authoritative opinion.
So what is so "happy" about the new year? Nothing, if the challenges for
2009 are not recognised and acted upon. Some may say it is impossible
judging by the number of suicides reported as the result of the 2008
It will become almost intractable as long as "happiness" is understood only
as a function of economics and material wealth creation.
Unless this is decoupled, the wishes for this year are a mere hollow
verbalisation—an empty wish!
Fortunately, this is not necessarily the case. Some studies did show that
wealthy people are no happier than poor people. At times, the latter are
even happier despite not having enough.
For those used to the life of abundance, often the source of unhappiness is
not being able to have more and more. To many of them "having" seems to have
no limit, which is definitely a false impression. Even though wealth can
bring in some form of happiness, it is often shortlived.
Worse, it can lead to the belief that happiness can be bought and this
starts a vicious cycle. For such groups of people, they are unable to keep
their state of "being" (such as the state of health, social well-being,
spiritual endowment) and state of "having" mutually exclusive. Under
unfavourable economic situations, they are the first to suffer.
In contrast, those who have been trained to focus more on their state of
being rather than having, are able to cope without compromising their state
of happiness which, incidentally, unlike wealth, has no limit.
They have managed to organise their lives and needs according to what they
have and also the efforts to sustain them. So, for them, a "happy" 2009 come
what may, is more meaningful and certainly a more superior position to be
Indeed, increasing the concept of happiness (or satisfaction with life) is
currently a major area of research in economics and psychology, most closely
associated with new developments in positive psychology. In fact, it has
also become a feature in the current political discourse in many countries
considered to be economically successful.
A BBC survey, for instance, found that 81 per cent of the population think
the government should focus on making them happier rather than wealthier. As
a result, there is an increasing political interest to use measures of
happiness as a national indicator in conjunction with measures of wealth.
This is because despite the increase in economic measures (e.g. gross
domestic product) in many developed countries, the level of "happiness" has
been shown to either remain the same over decades, or in a downward trend.
The pioneering work of Adrian White on Subjective Well-being (SWB), based on
meta-analysis of data set did indicate that most of the countries that would
otherwise rank among the top using economic indices failed to be in the top
20 using the SWB index.
For example, in 2006, the US was ranked 23, Germany 35, UK 41, Singapore 53,
France 62, China 82 and Japan 90 to name a few. Malaysia is 17 on Adrian's
If the question of disparity is taken into account, it can be more alarming.
The Gini coefficient, a commonly used measure of inequality, is said to have
risen in two-thirds of developing Asian countries since the early 1990s,
according to the Asian Development Bank. Emerging economies like China are
seeing a Gini coefficient increasing from about 0.30 in the late 1970s to
about 0.45 in 2005.
According to Chinese research, cited by the United Nations, between 30 and
40 per cent of the urban-rural income gap can be explained by unequal access
to such public services.
In other words, for the new year wishes to keep its meaning in the future, a
more balanced growth is necessary and an acknowledgement that everlasting
happiness is never a tradable commodity.
The writer is the Vice-Chancellor of
Universiti Sains Malaysia. He can be