The Edge: My say - What do Malaysians want?
By Nicholas Khaw / Contributor to The Edge Malaysia

Published 8 December 2014

KHAZANAH RESEARCH INSTITUTE’s recent State of the Households report puts into focus the idea that understanding Malaysian households is crucial in understanding national issues. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) corroborates this view in its recent release of Malaysia’s Human Development Report 2013, where, as the title goes, the theme of development should be based around the human factor.

I tend to agree though I also believe that there is a lot of merit in trying to drive development by driving GDP growth. For instance, GDP growth is strongly positively correlated with many good things in the world (note: I did not use the word “cause”) such as reduced infant mortality, higher life expectancy and even measures of subjective well-being such as satisfaction with life and happiness.

Certainly, GDP growth alone is not sufficient in generating development. There are many pitfalls in the overwhelming focus on GDP growth that are very well pointed out by the two reports above. Furthermore, it is also not clear that GDP growth necessarily translates into improvement for the people, particularly when the income share of capital has been diverging further and further away from the income share of labour around the globe, a fact well-documented by Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century.

We need to care about people and, to complement the two reports above, which do wonderful jobs in describing the state of households and the people now, we also need to try and understand what exactly households and the rakyat want in Malaysia.

The World Values Survey (WVS) is the largest non-commercial, cross-national, time series investigation of human beliefs and values ever executed and is the only academic study covering the full range of global variations in all of the world’s major cultural zones.

The WVS is intended to help scientists and policymakers understand changes in the beliefs, values and motivations of people throughout the world. It consists of nationally representative surveys conducted in almost 100 countries, including Malaysia. In economics, the WVS is used most frequently in the field of cultural economics and political economics, which attempt to explain the influence of culture, in the former, and politics, in the latter, in impacting economic outcomes.

In the most recent survey wave (2010 to 2014), a total of 1,300 individuals in Malaysia were surveyed. The WVS is meant to provide a nationally representative sample and, as such, we can treat it as a prima facie base to investigate what Malaysians actually care about, complementing research work performed by Khazanah Research Institute and the UNDP, which investigated the present state of Malaysian households and the people.

Perhaps the most philosophically meaningful question in the WVS is, “Taking all things together, would you say you are ‘very happy’, ‘rather happy’, ‘not very happy’, or ‘not at all happy’?”

Strikingly, Malaysian are statistically significantly happier than the rest of the world, with the average Malaysian stating that they are somewhere between “very happy” and “rather happy”. Malaysians are also significantly more satisfied with their lives. On a scale of 1 to 10, Malaysians report that their present satisfaction with their lives is approximately 7.

I understand that the reader may baulk at these results, given the myriad of issues going on in Malaysia right now, but recall that this is a nationally representative sample (if we assume they did it correctly, which I do) and there may be a wide range of Malaysians with a wide range of views that may differ from those of the reader and the reader’s social network.

Another interesting data point is that Malaysians, on average, believe that religion is more important in their lives relative to the rest of the world. Specifically, rounded up, the average Malaysian would say that religion is “very important” in their lives.

This can be very beneficial. For instance, a recent paper by Filipe Campante and David Yanagizawa-Drott, economists at the Harvard Kennedy School, show that the practice of fasting during Ramadan leads to increased levels of self-reported happiness and life satisfaction among Muslims. Furthermore, Malaysians also place a higher importance on family, leisure time, politics and work relative to the rest of the world, but friends are just as important to Malaysians as they are to the rest of the world.

The WVS also allows us to observe gender attitudes. For instance, it asks questions such as, “Should women have the same rights as men?” and “On the whole, do men make better political leaders than women do?” Relative to the world average, Malaysians are more gender equal with regard to the former,  but less gender equal when it comes to the latter.

Malaysians believe, more so than the world average, that equal rights between women and men is an essential feature of a democracy, scoring an 8 on a scale of 1 to 10. However, they are more likely to agree that men make better political leaders than women, relative to the rest of the world. This is also true of Malaysian attitudes towards women as business executives.

Next, in line with Malaysia’s desire to be a harmonious and truly Asian society, Malaysians are not more likely to mention that they would not like to be neighbours with people of other races, relative to the rest of the world. This does not mean it is not an issue, however. Of the 1,300 respondents, approximately 30% said that they would not like to live next to someone who is not of the same race.

Furthermore, Malaysians are also significantly less likely to mention that they would not like to have people of other religions as neighbours. While this is a good thing, it is also true that approximately 30% of respondents said that they would not like to be neighbours with someone of a different religion.

These statistics are but a small portion of what the WVS has to offer researchers in trying to understand what Malaysians wants. It discusses the issue of trust; the issue of perspectives on what national priorities should be; and perspectives on public policy, elections, and science and technology.

Certainly, given that this is a nationally representative sample, it should in no way replace qualitative engagements with individuals, but should be used alongside such research methods.

Thus, if we are to truly understand the state of households and “humans” in Malaysia, we need to dig much deeper, understanding what people actually want to draw up a policy strategy for Malaysia’s development.  

Nicholas Khaw is an economist-in-training at Harvard Kennedy School. Prior to this, he was an assistant vice-president of the research division of Khazanah Nasional Bhd.

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