Wednesday, 4 May 2011

In search of a better quality of life

DIPLOMATICALLY SPEAKING By DENNIS IGNATIUS
duta.thestar@gmail.com




Most people in the developing world are generally unhappy with their lives. Some 79% of Malaysians considered themselves to be struggling!



The Gallup survey of 124 countries sought to categorise people into three groups — those who were thriving, struggling or suffering.

The survey found that majorities in only 19 out of 124 countries considered themselves thriving. Unsurprisingly, more people in the developed world felt that they were doing well compared to those from the developing world.

Income levels are, of course, a key determinant of wellness. Countries with higher per capita incomes invariably tend to have better healthcare, social safety nets and opportunities for advancement.

As well, developed countries tend to have a better overall environment for the pursuit of wellness. An independent judiciary, a responsible police force, less corruption, and equitable laws that level the playing field for all citizens facilitate wellness.

In short, political systems that are accountable to their citizenry and responsive to their needs generally provide for a better quality of life, and that is the key.

Denmark, Sweden, Canada, Australia and Finland were among the top five countries in the world where the majority of people felt good about their lives. In Denmark, 72% considered themselves as thriving.

And what of Malaysia? The survey revealed that Malaysians are an unhappy lot. Seventy-nine per cent of the population considered themselves to be struggling.

To put this in a wider context, Malay­sia fared worse than Lebanon or Russia but did better than Mon­golia, Uganda and Mali, if that is any con­solation.

In high-income Sin­ga­pore, 61% considered themselves as struggling, suggesting that the quality of life there is not as great as its leaders think it is. Perhaps the restrictive political environment in the island republic might have something to do with it.

The world wellness survey tends to correspond with the data contained in the World Bank’s Migration and Remittances Factbook 2011 (MRF2011) which came out in February. It must come as no surprise that people who are struggling or suffering usually vote with their feet and flee for greener pastures.



Torrents of people from Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America are moving, legally or illegally, to the developed world. Third World nationalists, dictators and mullahs might inveigh against the West but many of their own people are risking life and limb to head West. Those that can’t make it to their preferred Western destinations end up in the relatively more prosperous developing countries like Malaysia.

Thousands of people from all over Asia and Africa now live in Malaysia, legally or otherwise. In fact, according to the MRF2011, Malaysia has become one of the top destinations for Asian migrants who already account for 8.4% of our population. The remittances from these migrants amounted to more than US$ 6.8bil (RM 20.3bil) in 2009.

And while poor unskilled migrants flood into Malaysia, skilled Malaysians are leaving in greater and greater numbers.

The MRF2011 data indicates that more than 1.4 million Malaysians, or 5.3% of our population, have already left. Included in this figure are 1,727 locally trained physicians.

The US, Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Singapore were the main destinations.

The continuing outflow of skilled Malaysians, coupled with the rising inflow of unskilled migrants, cannot be good news for the long-term future of our nation.

Cheap labour might boost our industries in the short-term but will do nothing to help us in the critical areas of innovation, research and entrepreneurship that is vital for our future prosperity.

The other thing about unhappy people is that they tend to send their money abroad because they lack confidence in the future of their own countries.

Here again, Malaysia is one of the chart toppers with more than US$ 8bil (RM 23.8bil) going abroad last year. How long can we continue to bleed this way?

What all these say is that Malaysians are not happy with the way things are going and with the overall quality of life they now experience. It suggests, as well, that they have no confidence that things are going to improve anytime soon. It also means that our present efforts to persuade talented and skilled Malaysians to return home are unlikely to be successful.

Offering tax incentives and better remuneration alone are not going to cut it with people whose priority is a better quality of life for themselves and their families.

The message that the Gallup Wellness Survey sends to many Third World governments, including our own, is that they need to do a better job in improving the quality of life of their citizens.

For us, that means seriously tackling the growing racial and religious divide, significantly improving our education system, providing equal opportunities for all Malaysians to prosper, and being attentive to the plea for better governance.

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak appears to be acutely aware of the challenges that Malaysia faces. Let us hope that the government’s plans to improve the wellness of all Malaysians bear fruit.

In the meantime, we will continue to hear that sucking sound of men and money moving abroad much to our detriment.

Datuk Dennis Ignatius is a 36-year veteran of the Malaysian foreign service. He has served in London, Beijing and Washington and was ambassador to Chile and Argentina. He was twice Undersecretary for American Affairs. He retired as High Commissioner to Canada in July 2008.

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