Most Malaysians are happy and calm

New Straits Times | KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 23 2004: Malaysians claim they are healthy, reasonably happy and calm. But far too many are working longer hours, not watching what they eat and turning into couchpotatoes. For more than half of the population, especially working adults, there is no time for exercise. Work takes up a huge portion of their lives and, for a third of Malaysians, leisure is increasingly defined as time in front of the television set. These worrying trends were noted in a nationwide survey carried out by Merdeka Centre for Opinion Research late last year. The poll, supported by Friedrich Naumann Foundation, is the second in a series conducted for the New Straits Times. The first, in November, focused on how Malaysians handled stress and coped with daily pressures.

More than 800 respondents were randomly selected along ethnic, gender and state lines in the second poll which looked at lifestyle and healthcare concerns. Possibly the most intriguing finding was that 70 per cent of Malaysians said they led calm lives. Across ethnic lines, Malays appeared calmest, followed by Indians. However, one in five Chinese said they were stressed. A probable explanation for this is that many Malay respondents were from the rural areas where life in pastoral settings is slower and more gratifying. Most of the Chinese lived in urban areas where the daily pace can be dizzy and hectic. Sociologists say Malays and Indians are generally more willing to count their blessings, whereas the Chinese tend to be more driven and determined about goals and ambitions. Some social observers believe patience plays a huge role in the way Malays cope with adversity. Even if they are unhappy, they persuade themselves to be grateful.

The belief that rewards will come in the next world is a major influence on how Malays view life. The poll shows that people in the lowest income bracket are as likely to report happiness as those with more money, a finding which supports the general theory that money alone does not bring happiness. However, as pointed out by some social observers, the insistence on being happy and calm may be an indication of denial. As most Malays believe it is wrong to be ungrateful, the rate of unacknowledged depression may be higher than assumed, said Prof Norani Othman, of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia. But this is not necessarily negative, she added, because the ability to take responsibility for feelings of disaffection could mean that Malaysians would not blame the Government for everything that goes wrong in their lives. Nor would they expect the Government to fix everything immediately. The capacity to postpone joy or to defer gratification means that many Malaysians can live with less. This message was conveyed in the high and consistent level of emotional well-being noted in the survey, said Ibrahim Suffian, of the Merdeka Centre. “For many people, things are under control. There are pressures but none so insurmountable that people are angry or unhappy,” he said. Ibrahim, who has been tracking public opinion on national and current issues for some years now, said the higher level of tolerance may stem from the fact that many respondents were second- generation non-peasants. Such people, he said, tended to be more patient and forgiving. The survey also showed that married people were happier.

The married were also noticeably calmer and more at peace with themselves and the world. Another finding was that happiness tended to increase with age, with those above 55 twice more likely to report feeling happy than those under 30. The Malaysian love affair with food was also measured, with one-third of respondents claiming they watched what they ate all the time. Across ethnic lines, the Chinese seemed more cavalier with only 30 per cent saying they were careful about what they ate. Close to 40 per cent of the community also claimed they were not bothered about weight gain or loss and only six per cent said they gave serious thought to slimming programmes and diet advertisements. The findings underscore the age-old belief that Chinese give top priority to nutrition and have few taboos when it comes to food. As one keen observer and member of the community jokingly said: “We eat anything that moves!” A quarter of Malaysians said they consumed vitamins and supplements all the time and a further 13 per cent said they took it most of the time.