What is 'sejahtera'?

Professor Tan Sri Dato' Dzulkifli Abdul Razak
Opinion - The New Strait Times
November 11, 2018

MUCH has been said about the 2019 Budget’s three areas of emphasis: implementing institutional reforms; fostering an entrepreneurial economy; and ensuring socio-economic wellbeing of Malay-sians.

While most commented on their quantitative dimensions, few said much about the qualitative aspects, creating a kind of value bias against the latter. This has many vital implications with regard to ensuring a more holistic and human-centric representation of the 2019 Budget.

This is best illustrated from the aspect of the third focus area: to ensure the socio-economic wellbeing of Malaysians, which in Malay reads as memastikan kesejahteraan rakyat. It is as though this aspect is the accumulation of the other two — institutional reforms and entrepreneurial economy — to arrive at the state of wellbeing (sejahtera) limited to the socio-economic realm.‎ The limitation becomes even more obvious when rendering of “socio-economic wellbeing” of Malay-sians falls short of fully explaining what memastikan kesejahteraan rakyat is all about (the word “socio-economic” is not even implied).

After all, as explained in the 2019 Budget, this aspect has a broader spectrum, embracing the quality of life and welfare, health and social welfare protection, and employment and employability as its subthemes as the overall targets. The reality is that the keyword sejahtera is more comprehensive and sophisticated than just “socio-economic wellbeing” — which is just one layer of its meaning. Sejahtera is a rather multilayered concept that conveys a deeper meaning than any single word can convey. As such it has no equivalent in other languages, neither can it be accurately translated into different languages due to its close cultural leaning and nuances to the local Malay(sian) tradition.

Hence to understand it from a one-dimensional perspective is to miss the whole point and can even give a very distorted meaning. What would be most sorely missed is the qualitative-cum-intangible aspects that are today’s major concern. Health, for example, is not just about the absence of disease or illness that may be quantifiable, one way or the other. However health is also universally recognised as the state of emotions, sans “physical” diseases, that could lead to a situation of tidak sejahtera (read depression, stress, violence) without any clear signs and symptoms until perhaps it is too late to deal with.

A recent report that cited the case of some 20 per cent of students in Penang experiencing depression and about six per cent attempting suicide is an alarming case in point. This is just the tip of the tidak sejahtera iceberg beyond socio-economic terms. Indeed, sejahtera is foremost spiritual in nature, embracing both emotional and ethical dimensions that are too often left out in the limited understanding of the word. In short, it is defined by values and virtues as its basic framework.

This takes us to the concern that Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad has been expressing all along: values must come first before any form of skills or competencies. In fact, with good values, it is a lot easier to acquire skills and competencies of all sorts because the ethical and moral disciplines are well nurtured as a base for any skills and competencies to be built upon. He was recently quoted, on his working visit to Japan, reaffirming his conviction leading to the establishment of the Look East Policy some 30 years ago.

Good moral values should be given attention and taught to children from kindergarten to university, said the prime minister. ‎Accordingly, he remarked that the “n‎ational educational system should teach students good values and character” beyond imparting (marketable) knowledge which is the true purpose of “education” as per the “Falsafah Pendidikan Negara” (later “Kebangsaan”) (national education philosophy) .

Quality of life is another area that “socio-economic wellbeing” is inadequate at addressing. It fails to grasp the full meaning of the entire human person (life). “Life” as in quality of life is invariably related to the “spiritual being” first rather than the material being which is socio-economically defined and determined. Otherwise, values/virtues such as happiness, love and mutual respect will be marginalised.

In a nutshell the element of “sejahtera” must be fully understood, internalised and practised because it is the fountainhead of good values/virtues that are innately human (and divine too) that will lead to a righteous and balanced way of life in nurturing the human person as advocated by the “Falsafah” which is in no uncertain terms the basis of the national education system from pre-school to the university and beyond. The urgent question is whether this is taking place in a continuous, holistic and integrated manner (as advocated by the “Falsafah”).

Until this happens, “sejahtera” in all its forms and taglines are nothing but empty clichés. Applied to a document as critical as the 2019 Budget (the latest to leverage “sejahtera”), the outcome may fall terribly short of what the word is supposed to convey qualitatively as a way of life based on values and virtues that Malaysia desperately finds wanting especially of late. Salam sejahtera.