Penang: A paradise lost?

Professor Tan Sri Dato' Dzulkifli Abdul Razak
My View - The Sun Daily
October 17, 2018

FINALLY, truth be told yet again when the headline screamed: 18.5 % of students in the state of Penang suffer from depression.

That Penang is named this time has some special significance as it is known to be the most vibrant scholarly state in the country, if not the region. Many of the schools in the state have stories to tell as being the first for this and that, going back into history. Illustrious names are associated with them no less than the first prime minister of Malaya and then Malaysia.

The first university outside Kuala Lumpur is located in Penang, being the second oldest in the country, celebrating its 50th anniversary next year.

When talking about activism of all sorts Penang again leaped forward. It is the state where the world famous Consumer Association of Penang (CAP) – also celebrating its 50th anniversary next year – makes its mark globally.

So are strings of other non-governmental organisations then and now, locally and internationally – Pesticides Action Network and Consumer International are two random examples.

Culturally, the vibrancy is second to none with the Unesco World Heritage Site being awarded to the state because of its unique diversity in living cultural heritages of multiple origins. It is the one resort island where we can find mosques, churches, temples and other houses of worship standing side by side in "perfect" harmony.

With this comes the myriad of food and culinary delights beginning with those in the street stalls to fine dining at high-end outlets. These are accessible 24/7 and well acknowledged worldwide as the world's best "people's restaurant" as it were, with Asam Laksa topping the menu.

The natural scenery that stretches from the sea to the jungles and beyond the hills as far as the eye can see is a beauty to behold.

Many fall in love with Penang the moment they step foot on the island befitting the name, The Pearl of the Orient.

To some it is paradise on Earth where the state of mental health is at its prime dazzled by the near-Shangri-La ambience.

So when the word depression is uttered, it broke into a nightmare begging the big question: how is it that students are implicated – almost 20% of them – when they should be having so much fun ahead of their counterparts in other states – to live and enjoy, to learn and experience life?

Indeed, it is beginning to sound quite the contrary although to some there are no surprises. The tell-tale signs have been there since some years ago but we were too busy with ourselves to take notice or to give enough attention to the students and youths under our care as parents, teachers, community leaders and above all politicians.

So reportedly, once again, we were told that mental health problems among Penang students are now recognized as fast becoming a worrying trend, with a fifth of the population said to be suffering from depression. This comes no less from the director of the state Health Department, based on findings from the National Youth Health Survey 2017.

However, as usual it was quickly doused with the same cliché that the situation is "under control" (then why is it rising?) and yet there is "the need to take necessary action to help the students". Yes, but why only now when the writing was on the wall ages ago? What action was taken then that could have resulted in a positive outcome instead?

It is contradictory, when it is further emphasised that the problem is "quite serious and must be tackled because it not only affects an individual but also the community at large.

"Imagine, 9.5% of secondary school students admitted to plans to commit suicide while 6% tried to do so," as it was made known during the launch of Mental Health Day and the Healthy Students Programme last week. The finding of 6% trying to take their life at such a tender age cannot be swept under the carpet.

More worrying still is when there seems to be a "breakdown" of the paradise-like image caused by "numerous factors, which affected the youth's emotions, leading them to be involved in unhealthy activities, including addiction to internet". The addiction issue has been the concern of this column ever since but until now it's as though it doesn't matter.

Compounding this, is what comes out of the horse's mouth: "The internet addiction can influence their emotions to commit crime such as cyber bullying and others. If this is not contained, it will lead to an unhealthy environment for them."

For all intents and purposes, this is an overdue wake-up call where some concrete actions should have been laid down long before. But sadly none of this was done in earnest while the addiction threats continue to gnaw at us.

All these remain ironic as we continue to give so much hope and expectations to the youth (anak muda) as leaders of the future especially after the 14th general election power transfer. We now have the youngest minister of Youth and Sports allegedly in the world just as we have the oldest prime minister – both of whom we are very proud of. But those "record-breaking" claims are demeaning if the headline we read today continues to haunt us as a nation.

In fact this column wrote an open letter (My View July 11) to alert the Ministry of Youth about the forewarning signs of the very same life-threatening concerns – drug abuse (including tobacco use), depression (including suicide) and internet addiction (including various screen devices). It was during 100 days of the new government, with so much expectations for a game change beyond the usual ones that offer name and fame, and a medal to show off.

After all, the latter means little if our youth, as a constituency of the future, is losing ground especially at the school-going age, where else but in a paradise called Penang.