DEC 25 — Anyone who has been paying attention to recent news headlines, or social media feeds, would likely conclude that the world is a dreadful place compared to where we were decades ago. It seems for many, Malaysians included, today feels like bleak times, and the future will be even grimmer.
With all the negativity bias in the media, one cannot be faulted to feel like we are regressing. However, the reality is quite the opposite. There have been significant progress, but unfortunately, good news does not sell as well as bad news, meanwhile gradual progress often does not even count as news at all.
Given that we are more frequently exposed to bad news, and that the human instinct has evolved to pay more attention to negative news than positive ones, it is critical to look at the real underlying statistics. Only then, we can truly be informed by evidences, and not swayed by mere hearsays, sentiments and speculations – all of which can distort society’s perception of reality.
Perhaps the best place to start would be to look at how the rate of child mortality has changed over time – not only that this is an emotionally stressful statistic, many would also consider it to reflect the pulse of national development and societal progress.
Consider that in the mid-1950s, for every 1000 children born, more than 100 would die before reaching the age of 5 – this is more than 10% child mortality rate, which is not something acceptable by today’s standard.
However, in 2018, the child mortality rate is lower than 1 per cent, i.e. about 8 deaths for every 1000 born. This is the rate recorded by advanced economies like Sweden, Japan and the Netherlands in the late 1980s and mid-1990s. Today these countries have managed to lower it to about 2-3 deaths for every 1000 born.
Of course, every death is tragic, and there are still too many children dying in Malaysia – indeed, we have a duty to bring it down further and faster. However, it is important to remember that something can be both – bad and getting better.
When we have 8 deaths for every 1000 children born, it means that there were 992 others that society has successfully protected against all the dangers that could have potentially killed them: bacteria, viruses, starvation, violence and more. This is not an easy feat and societies worldwide often take this for granted.
For this to happen, we need an entire ecosystem to be functional and dependable. The availability of reliable and affordable primary healthcare system throughout the country can only be effective if connected to an extensive transport network ensuring wide community reach. The development of modern sanitation infrastructure helps prevent sewage contaminating our food sources, while the stable supply of power ensures minimal interruption to our public facilities. Improvements in education and literacy has allowed parents to follow written medical instructions and make informed choices concerning the safety and health of family members and the wider community. A growing economy is the mainstay for a more stable income, lifting society out of poverty and enabling access to education, food and clean drinking water.
Coordinated improvements in all these areas, and much more, had to happen in order to reduce the rate of children dying prematurely. This remarkable progress has also led to significant declines in undernourishment and stunted growth among children resulting in the hunger index in Malaysia to drop by half from the early 1990s to mid-2010.
However, this is not all that we have achieved.
Today more than 99% of births in Malaysia are attended by skilled health staff compared to 92 per cent in the year 1990. Consider that in the mid-1950s, there were more than 200 maternal deaths for every 100,000 child births, which dropped to about 56 maternal deaths in 1990 – but today, this number has halved, where the maternal death rate is less than 0.03 per cent.
Whilst child and maternal mortality rates have decreased significantly, more and more people are now also living longer. In the 1960s, on average a newborn in Malaysia was expected to live to about 60 years old, however today the life expectancy in the country has gone up to about 75 years – this is comparable to countries like Japan, United States, Sweden and the Netherlands in the late 70s and early 80s. In 2018, Japan has an average life expectancy of about 84 years – this is the highest in the world, which shines light on what we, as a country, could achieve if we continue to walk down the path to progress.
And we are indeed progressing.
Historically, poor families have prioritized sending boys to schools at the expense of girls, but this has now changed. Today we have attained almost 100 per cent enrollment in primary education for both, boys and girls, and the literacy rate among women in 2017 was more than 96 per cent. With improved access to education, our younger generations, boys and girls alike, are spending more time in schools – from an average of about 7 years in the early 1980s to more than 12 years by 2015.
Women, and men, are now choosing education over early marriages, where the median age of tying the knot has steadily increased. Correspondingly, the number of babies per woman has also steadily decreased from an average of 4 in the 1980s to an average of 2 today. This is in fact a dramatic change seen globally, not just in Malaysia. The escape from poverty, and growth in incomes have led to shrinking family sizes - a phenomenon that happens as countries progress, regardless of religious and cultural backgrounds.
Less and less children are now forced to work at an early age to help support the family. The quality of life in Malaysia has generally gotten better for many compared to decades ago.
Malaysia is now an upper-middle income country on the cusp of transitioning to a high-income economy.
Yet, if the Malaysia of today is truly better than what it was decades ago, then why doesn’t it feel that way for many?
In part, we have evolved through time to be more attuned to negative news. Early humans absorbed the negativity as a means to quick identification of risks and dangers to survive in a fight-or-flight encounter.
On the other hand, we have biases amongst the elites – the likes of politicians, journalists, religious scholars and intellectuals – most of whom are bent towards accentuating pessimism by foretelling prophecies of doom and gloom.
Further, the human tendency is to reminisce the past through a rosy retrospection - a psychological bias of looking back in time more positively than the actual experience, thus contextualizing the here and now more negatively.
Hence, the notion that the world has gotten overwhelmingly worse with time is quite popular worldwide, though this is often not backed by strong statistical evidences.
Of course, there are exceptional cases pointing to a worsening trend, like the increase in pollution levels worldwide, or the rising income inequality within countries. In conflict-stricken nations like Palestine, Syria and Iraq, their conditions were indeed much better in the past than they are today. This should not be trivialized and the importance of ending the conflict as soon as possible can never be understated.
If anything, this is also a stark reminder that the progress we are experiencing should not be taken for granted.
Progress is not a miracle. It is hard work to solve real-world problems. However, progress does not always happen linearly. At times, we may be progressing at a faster pace, perhaps even exponentially.
But there will also be times when we take several steps backwards. It may feel like this is where we are now, a blip in our relatively short history, when considering the rising racial and religious tension in the country. Or with the current state of our education system that is in need of a complete overhaul. Or the politicking among the self-serving elitists in the country that never seem to end. Or the hyper-partisanship that is stalling much of the promised reforms.
The important thing is to keep walking down that path to progress, to keep pushing ourselves in that direction. Slowly but surely, this temporary aberration will come to pass, and in the long run, we will continue down the path to progress.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.