Wednesday 5 January 2022

True Grit. A series of conversations on Mental Health and Resilience.

Episode 5: Zafri Ab Halim. CEO of Etiqa Family Takaful Berhad. Paul Low. CEO of Etiqa Life Insurance Berhad

Brought to you by Etiqa

In this episode on Mental Health, our host, Azran Osman-Rani, talks to two Etiqa CEOs to get a better understanding of the scope of the problem in Malaysia, as well as an insight into how insurance and Takaful might help make life a little bit easier when families are affected by a mental illness.


Paul Low, CEO of Etiqa Life Insurance Berhad, shares some alarming statistics on the mental health issues in Malaysia and discusses with Azran the growing need for mental illness coverage, especially with the ever-increasing urban pressures. 


What do you see as some of the critical challenges for Etiqa, especially in the context of health and mental health?

The awareness of mental health in Malaysia is actually not that high. The penetration rate of life insurance and health insurance in Malaysia is only about 54%, so there are still a lot of people who are not insured under the insurance scheme.

Etiqa took a leadership position by including some mental illnesses into your critical illness list even before COVID-19 hit. What made you do that?

As an insurance company, it’s our responsibility to make sure that every household, every individual in Malaysia is covered by insurance. Our philosophy is to provide protection for everyone. That’s why even before the pandemic we included mental illness as one of the critical illnesses in our policy.


Can you share some data on mental health issues?

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), one in four individuals suffers from some kind of mental disruption like anxiety and depression. Two out of 100 people in their lifetime will suffer some major depression according to the WHO. 

And in Malaysia, according to the Ministry of Health (MOH), since the pandemic began last year, government agencies have received a lot of calls to inquire about health issues. 85.5% of these calls are inquiries about mental issues. A lot of them need psychological and emotional support and counselling. 

MOH predicts that mental health will be the second-highest health issue in Malaysia after heart disease. The seriousness of mental health is becoming a hot topic nowadays. And with the prolonging of this pandemic, I foresee that the mental health issue will continue to rise. 


What are some of the challenges of Malaysian urbanites with respect to their mental health?

The living cost is higher, there is congestion, and in terms of socialising, some of us are isolated from our community. That poses challenges for those who live in a big city like Kuala Lumpur. To keep up with the pace, especially now with the increasing cost of living, people have to work harder.

And the lockdown actually created disruptions in society, economically speaking. Businesses were forced to close down, workers are let go, and their salaries are being reduced up to 50%. These have added a lot of stress in the family, especially for those families that are not well-to-do. 

Do you have any tips for Malaysians on dealing with mental health issues? 

I think if a person feels that they have suffered from a certain type of anxiety or distress, I think they may want to find a person who they can trust, to really share that feeling with, and also seek professional help before it’s too late. Mental illness is kind of related to a person’s physical well-being, so if a person can exercise regularly, eat well, and sleep well, I think that will help to prevent the deterioration of their mental resilience. 


Any new developments or products on the horizon with regards to mental health? 

We are paying a lot of attention to ESG (Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance) and in line with our push for ESG, we are developing new products as we want to cover every family and provide protection for society.


Any closing thoughts for Malaysians to help us build the resilience and the tenacity to keep going?

I think if we want to be a whole person we need to have spiritually, mentally, and physically, financially stable. If we’re able to manage that well, I think that we can overcome this tough time. I hope that next year will be a better year, and once we have that hope in our minds, we definitely can overcome this tough time.


Azran Osman-Rani also spoke to Zafri Ab Halim, CEO of Etiqa Family Takaful Berhad, to get an Islamic perspective on coverage against mental health illnesses

What do you see as the critical challenges for Etiqa, especially in the context of Islamic finance?

Family Takaful provides protection based on the shariah principle. By contributing a sum of money to a common Takaful fund—we call it ‘tabarru’’—customers will undertake a contract, or ‘akad’, to become one of the participants by agreeing to mutually help each other, should any of the participants suffer a defining loss. 

Among the challenges faced by Etiqa Family Takaful, I would like to highlight three things: One is the medical costs that are increasing on average 13% year on year. As a result, contributions for medical takaful coverage in the country have been increasing at an unsustainable rate in recent years. 

Number two, many customers want their health insurance to coordinate with them on a personal level. Many want their insurer to be trusted advisors that can educate, but not overwhelm them with the information and choices. Health insurances are expected to work with individuals to find the right coverage and help them save money while also guiding them to improve their health, reward their behavior. All of this is a job that requires detailed research and involves cost.

Finally, mental health requires long-term care. We believe that the main reason why it has been so long for mental health conditions to appear in takaful certificates is the expensive cost of treatment which can go on for years. This can be seen in the maximum claimable amount where many companies put a cap where they can claim up to certain limits only. 

Already before COVID-19 hit Malaysia you’ve taken that leadership position and included mental illnesses into your critical illnesses list. What made you do that?

We saw the growing need to provide coverage for mental illnesses due to the increasing trend in the numbers of Malaysians suffering from mental health problems. At the time that we launched our AafiahCare —which happened to be the first in Malaysia standalone takaful critical illness plan that covers his 68 critical illnesses, including for mental health—we were well aware that the staggering 29.2% of Malaysian were suffering from mental illness. At Etiqa, we believe in helping people and making the world a better place. So what better way to prove this than by creating a product that covers a person’s overall well-being holistically.

What about your particular focus on mental issues from an Islamic viewpoint?

If you’re looking at the principle of Sharia, among the key objectives of sharia is to protect the life or they call it ‘aknah’ and to protect the intellect, ‘al-Aql’ of a person. So a sound intellect contributes toward a sound life. In other words, affected mental health will lead to an affected mind, which generally leads to poor decision-making. Based on this we can appreciate how Islamic law protects the sanctity of intellect and life. The promotion of a person’s well-being, including the person’s mental health, is of utmost priority where mental health is part of the necessity of the human being. 

How can Islamic principles help people manage their mental health?

If we are looking at it, there are some established Islamic legal maxims that can be used as guiding principles, which are originally derived from the saying of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. Two of them are no harm shall be inflicted or reciprocated, and the second one, harm must be removed or eliminated. Poor mental health is harm; thus every effort must be explored to remove such harm—including seeking necessary medical treatment. 

Refusing to seek medical treatment may fall under the category of inflicting harm, especially harm to our loved ones. Hence seeking proper medical treatment fulfills the requirement of removing the harm in any given situation. Prevention is better than cure, thus early detection and treatment of mental illness must be given enough attention too.


This series on Mental Health is brought to you by Etiqa. If you want to know more about insurance and takaful products that Etiqa has to offer, including those that cover mental illness, please click here.