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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

A nation in crisis

by Stanley Koh | FMT

Is the barometer of our nation’s social health showing critical signs of a national coma? Is our nation mentally sick?


Between now and the first quarter of 2012, the temperature in anticipation of the next general election is likely to heighten as Malaysians will go to the polls to elect their government.

After the shocking results of the 2008 general election which saw the ruling Barisan Nasional regime losing its two-thirds majority and its 53-year authoritarian style of governance shattered, Malaysians are gradually awakening to the fact that there is no more justification for their leaders knowing what is best for the nation.

This approach which worked well for decades due to the wisdom of the founding fathers is obviously eroding with the new generation of leaders and the one-party state system.

What aspects of society should matter to Malaysians at the coming election?

Are there aspirations for the old ruling regime to provide more democratic space for its citizenry or is it time to drastically change the government?

What will be the deciding factors in the forthcoming election? What are the concerns of Malaysian voters and their mindsets as the national polls draw near?

For one, the gulf between the election promises by BN and the realities of its performance seems to be widening.

And above all, government leaders of the ruling regime seem to be living in a microcosm, in a realm remote from everyday realities.

Despite decades of promises to improve the quality of Malaysian life, eradicating poverty regardless of race and promoting a noble culture and good values, among many others, Malaysians are seeing the country’s social and mental health slipping into critical territory.

News headline can be shocking: a baby thrown out of an apartment window, abandoned babies left at garbage sites, Childline Malaysia receiving 3,243 calls from children about mental health problems or a eight-year-old school girl raped within the school compound.

Are these just the “tip of the iceberg” of our social health under the BN government whose priority is mega multi-million ringgit projects instead of human lives?

Today, it is a foregone conclusion even around the world that the definition of progress no longer hinges or is measured in terms of technology or material standards of living alone. Rather, a society that is morally, aesthetically, politically or environmentally degraded is not an advanced society.

Almost everywhere in the country, the symptoms of the breakdown of the traditional order are evident and to many, public perception seems to be deteriorating.

Is our nation mentally sick?

The variety of “social ills” runs like a restaurant food menu. Is the barometer of our nation’s social health showing critical signs of a national coma? Is our nation mentally sick?

Is our national social health condition reaching a crisis point due to over-emphasis on physical development and wealth generation while neglecting human spiritual progress?

Or is the BN government incapable of thinking out of the box to face the profound social and cultural changes over the decades?

Irish-American psychologist Patrick Fagan, who proposed the index called “Rejection/Belonging”
ratio which serves as a barometer of the social health of a nation, said: “The way to measure how a nation is doing is by observing how many divorces and out-of-wedlock births there are.”

There is a saying that proof is better than argument.

Recent statistics show that the nation’s divorce rates are high, with average cases reaching 20% per year, and the majority are Muslims. Between 2000 and 2003, reported figures more than doubled to 6.3% among non-Muslims.

Cases of domestic violence based on official statistics since 2000 which recorded 3,107 cases keep climbing till today. Crimes against children involving rape, child abuse, sodomy and outrage of modesty have also increased over the years in major states like Selangor, Johor, Perak and Sabah.

The types of child abuse also included abandonment, physical beating, emotional or psychological torture. In 2003, the authorities received 768 reports including sexual abuse on those below 18, of which 430 cases involved incest and sodomy.

The track record of the BN administration over the decades shows that it is fighting a losing battle on many fronts.

According to news report disclosed by the Malaysian authorities, the population of drug addicts have exceeded one million. In 2005, more than 71,000 contracted AIDs and another 8,000 were HIV positive.

Broken homes and juvenile crimes in 2002 rose from 6,213 to more than 8,000 a year later, an average of 10 cases daily. In 2005, the government admitted the rise of juvenile crimes involving drug abuse, gambling, sexual offences, theft, traffic offences, possession of firearms and others.

Between 1990 and 2003, official figures cited some 70,430 infants were born out of wedlock.

Today, increasing crime rates are forcing three-quarters of Malaysians in urban towns and cities to imprison themselves at home behind security barriers supervised by CCTVs within gated residential zones.

Social problems affecting families include debts to loan sharks, embezzlement, bankruptcies, addictive gambling causing family breakdowns and juvenile crimes.

Snatch thefts which ran into thousands of cases between 2000 and 2005 are now less reported in the mainstream news unless they involve death of victims.

The tipping point

It is a major concern that the nation under the BN administration is responsible for the lame economy and poor economic prospects.

The current poor performance of the ruling regime in handling the withdrawal of subsidies on essential food items, which caused an adverse chain reaction in escalating prices of food and living costs, inevitably aggravated the social health of the nation.

The correlation between the family institution and the economic costs of living can make or break families. The lack of a “social security safety net” under the 53 years of BN rule has deprived Malaysians within the middle-income and poorer sections of society of a higher quality of living.

Statistics from the opposition show that the worse aspect of BN’s governance is social and economic management. It claimed that 2.6% was the average increase (in income) of Malaysians between 2000 and 2010 in comparison to the worldwide average of 3.2% (including all poor countries).

The scenario is not comforting with 40% of Malaysian households earning less than the average income of RM1,500 per month (the lowest income group).

If these claims are true, the impact of the fuel-price inflation on living costs can be devastating to the majority of Malaysians and the family institution. In turn, this adverse social economic impact can take a turn for the worse.

Over the years, the number of Malaysians seeking psychiatric help had already reached an astounding 20% of the total population. It was predicted that “mental illness” could be the second most major disease by 2014.

The number of suicide rates among Malaysians is not comforting either. In 2005, the Mental Health Report cited that one of 10 Malaysians had mental problems, citing a forecast of 10 to 12 suicide rates among 100,000 of the Malaysian population. There were 1,700 suicide cases during the eigth-month period in 2005 or 2,555 human lives lost every year.

Will these statistics do justice to re-elect a one-party system government which had governed for the past 53 years?

Costs of living, salary adjustments and debts or loans are close to the family institution. In 2009, a survey involving some 5,500 respondents indicated that 69% of them were extremely worried about rising costs of living.

Today, the scenario has worsened. Social ills and a moral crisis in public perception towards the governance of the nation can be a tipping point at the next national polls.

The usual justification and lame excuses – blaming the erosion of the Malaysian traditional values on industrialisation and the modern lifestyle – are no longer acceptable.

The catalogue of social ills officially acknowledged is only the tip of the iceberg. Thousands of cases went unofficially reported and statistics are undermined or hidden from public view.

A nation is made up of families. When a government fails to live up to its expectations in tackling social ills by hiding reality, pretending or posing to give an impression of a nation being well, when it is not, it risks the “tipping point” of another voter backlash.

While history is made up of decisions, a government should be wise to the fact that history can be a stern judge.

Stanley Koh is a former head of MCA’s research unit. He is an FMT columnist.

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