Happiness is not for sale

  • Opinion
  • Saturday, 27 Oct 2012

Singaporeans continue to find that prosperity and joy are not identical, or even compatible.

A FEW years ago a Cabinet minister visited Bhutan and came back declaring that in his view the tranquil mountainous kingdom “is not the Shangri-La on earth”.

National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan told Parliament that he had met a cross-section of people from the Prime Minister to the chief monk to ordinary folks.

His conclusion was that “the Westerners’ romanticised version of this ancient kingdom does not fit the reality of what I saw. Bhutan is not Shangri-La on earth”.

His remarks were made in reply to an opposition MP’s proposal to start a National Happiness Index in Singapore, similar to Bhutan’s.

Workers Party Chairman Sylvia Lim had suggested that it was time for Singapore to “focus on happiness as a national goal”.

Khaw’s Bhutan viewpoint was no surprise to Singaporeans who have often heard former premier Lee Kuan Yew say that building GDP must take precedence above all else.

With prosperity you can do many things; without it, trouble, he often said.

The Government has come under pressure to put less emphasis on materialistic pursuits to give higher priority to people’s welfare – hence the interest in Bhutan.

To many Singaporeans, happiness means wealth, despite the rat race, rather than Bhutan’s quiet spiritual harmony.

Money-wise, it’s a rather one-sided comparison. The Republic’s per capita GDP is US$56,532 (RM171,858) to Bhutan’s US$2,299 (RM6,989).

So, how much happier are Singaporeans by comparison, informed people are beginning to ask.

The GDP always comes first. The political leadership would hear what the Wall Street Journal declared in August: “Singapore – the world’s richest country.”

Tiny Singapore had become the wealthiest nation in the world by GDP per capita, beating out Norway, the United States, Hong Kong and Switzerland, it reported.

One would have expected this achievement to be decisive in the Singapore-versus-Bhutan debate.

However, I found that many young Singaporeans, despite their materialistic outlook, do not see their type of modernity and relentless pursuit of wealth as a better model for anyone.

A common topic in recent discussions was the unhappiness of young Singaporeans over the rising social tension caused by stressful living and overcrowding.

They have told ministers they want greater government efforts to build a more gracious society. Others want more attention to people’s welfare.

Shortly after the “richest country” label appeared, Cabinet minister Lawrence Wong spoke of the increase in angry comments posted by Singaporeans on the Internet.

I wrote in this column four months ago that as pressures increased, tempers in this overcrowded city were getting shorter.

“Law-and-order Singapore is experiencing a rise in social friction with more people involved in quarrels and fights on its overcrowded streets,” I wrote.

Since then we have been getting a fair bit of angry, foul language over the Web.

Wong, the new Minister of Culture, Community and Youth, attributed this to stress and tension caused by a globalised world and competition.

“Perhaps it is also a reflection of our present circumstances – we live in a globalised world of rapid change, forcing us to compete like never before,” he added.

“And these kinds of changes and challenges cause stress and tension. So they make people worry about the future, and sometimes people get riled.”

The Credit Suisse Global Wealth Databook 2011 says that although Singaporeans may be the world’s wealthiest people, “they are not necessarily a happy lot”.

In fact, Business Times reported last year that Singaporeans were a gloomy people.

They are worried about property prices, taxi fares and inconsistent public transport. Much of the angst stemmed largely from the middle class, it said.

Happiness is, of course, a subjective emotion and world rankings depend on the criteria used.

Frequently quoted is the Happy Planet Index (HPI), which ranks Singapore a lowly 90th out of 151 countries – based on happiness, life expectancy and environmental sustainability.

Singapore’s brief history has seen a rapid transformation of a poor squatter population to an affluent middle-class society with high living standards.

But the best achievements were recorded in the first 30 years of independence under the first generation leadership, termed the Golden Years.

This has, however, not been matched in the past decade which also noted the following:

> Singapore is seeing the highest levels of employee burn-out in the region, reported The Straits Times.

> Singaporeans feel more stressed and overworked compared to six months ago; eight in 10 said their workload had increased, said a JobsCentral online poll.

> Some 76% of workers said they were dissatisfied with their jobs, the second lowest globally in terms of career satisfaction, said global research agency Accenture.

> Singaporeans work the longest hours among top cities, clocking 46 per week, said a recent survey by Savills.

These discoveries do not necessarily make people unhappy. A twitter survey published in May said one out of four Singaporeans was unhappy.

In another dismal gauge, suicide rates among Singaporeans and permanent residents rose to 361 in 2011 from 353 the previous year, said Samaritans of Singapore.

Recently a Caucasian tourist asked in a letter to information website Temasektimes: “Where are the friendly Singaporeans?”

“Nobody smiles or returns a greeting anymore,” said long-time observer Brian Wilson, a regular visitor for 25 years.

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