Interview on VoicesTODAY: Can we be an even more happier society?

I was invited as a guest caller on VoicesToday two Thursdays ago (3 October). VoicesToday is a ‘LIVE’ talkshow by the Today newspaper, which is a “spin-off from TODAY’s popular Voices section, the show is a unique collaboration with Channel 5 which premiered in February 2013.

Last Thursday’s topic was on the issue on happiness, which I had written several times about:

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The PAP’s Policies Have Created Self-Centred Singaporeans

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I had said on the talkshow that, “my perception is that policies do (affect whether Singaporeans can be happy or not), because Singapore is a very small country, so whether or not our society evolves really depends also on the policies that are created. So, because our policies are very geared towards competitiveness, and people in Singapore, it’s always me getting ahead, what can I do for myself and what can I get for myself. So eventually, I think it creates a sense of self-centred behaviour, and that is why surveys in all parts of our society say, when we are on the roads, we might honk, when we go on the MRT, we might squeeze on. So, if we want to change the mindsets of people, we do also need to start with the policies where we allow people to perhaps have a bit of breather.”

The host Derrick A Paulo had then asked, “Is graciousness really a factor in how happy a society we can be?”, with which I had said that, “I think we can look at it from two perspectives. One is from the personal self. As a person, I mean, individually, I would want to be gracious but whether or not the social circumstance allow me to do that is also another factor.”

The excerpt of the above section of the interview can be viewed here:

Singapore’s Social And Political Environment Compromises On Singaporeans’ Ability To Be Resilient

Some of the speakers had later on raised the topic of resilience, to which I had reiterated that, “We are talking about whether individuals can be more resilient but we should always think about whether the social environment and the political environment allows that to exist. For example, there are studies which have shown that with higher income inequality, a society will have a lower subjective well-being and lesser happiness in that sense. And in Singapore, we work the longest hours among the developed countries, we get paid the lowest wages (among the developed countries), so our work-life balance is essentially one of the lowest in the world. So, in that sense, as much as, like you say, everyone in the world would want to have resilience, would Singapore have less environmental and structural capacity to allow that to happen, in that sense?”

Dr Siok Kuan Tambyah, Senior Lecturer in Marketing at the NUS Business School, National University of Singapore, had also agreed to the point when she said that, “But I want to also support Roy’s point that the socioeconomic or political environment that we are in has to support the building of resilience or any kind of infrastructure or supportive system to enable a sustainable well-being, or happiness, over the long run. It’s not just the personal relationships and social networks – those are strong. But, for the research that we have done in Singapore, even the way the government is running the country, that has a very important effect on how Singaporeans feel about their well-being.”

However, Dr William Wan, General Secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement, had seemed to take a contrary perspective. He had then said that, “There are things that are beyond our control. There are things that we cannot do anything about… So, if we keep sort of looking inward, and complain about the environment and do nothing about it, nothing is going to happen.”

Singapore’s Highest Income Equality Among The Developed Countries Have Resulted In Singaporeans’ Lesser Happiness

As I had written previously, people who live in countries which are more equal are more likely to be happier. In a study ‘Progressive Taxation and the Subjective Well-Being of Nations‘, it was said that, “if two nations were equally wealthy and income distribution was the same, people living in the nation with a more-progressive taxation policy were more satisfied with their lives in general and had more positive daily experience and fewer negative daily experiences than people living in the nation with the less-progressive taxation policy. (Chart 1)” The study had also said that, “Nations with progressive taxation could be richer nations with less income inequality.”

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Chart 1: Progressive Taxation and the Subjective Well-Being of Nations

Perhaps Vadivu Govind, another guest caller and a workplace consultant and founder of Joy Works, hit the nail on the spot when she rounded off by saying that, “Servant leadership is important. You know, leaders who are really into serving the greater good and empathising with people – they are the ones creating the policies, so I think, both the individual and the people who make the decisions are important.”

Thus I do not agree with William when he had said that, “there are things beyond our control” and that “there are things that we cannot do anything about”. If we are aware that the PAP’s policies are contrary to Singaporean’s psychological and social well-being, then we have to take a proactive stance of advocating for policies which are more equal and policies which allow people to be able to achieve balance. If the PAP is not willing to look into policies such as by implementing minimum wage and reducing work hours, then we have to seriously consider if the PAP is still healthy for the well-being of Singaporeans.

Does Singapore Need A National Happiness Index?

Finally, when asked about whether Singapore should create our own happiness index, I had said that, “I am actually a bit weary about creating a happiness index because there are already a lot of happiness indexes, some being created, around the world. We do not need to reinvent the wheel. I am also weary because we have created the Eden Index and the Eden Index ranked Singapore the highest but that’s not necessarily the case, because all the indexes in the world have already ranked Singapore at a very low state. So, if we were to look at indicators, research has already shown that income inequality, fairness, the ability to be treated fairly and equally, the ability to have high income, are actually some of the factors that we need to look at. So, these might be the indicators we want to look at. But having said that, I really don’t think we need to reinvent the wheel because there are already many indicators out there which already form a very clear picture.”

I had questioned the validity of the Asia Happiness Index created by the Eden Strategy Institute in a previous article. Eden had said that this index is based on “scientifically-reviewed principles of true happiness”, but its methodology was not based on interviewing people specifically about their subjective well-being. Rather, it had tracked how people socialised on social networking sites. Eden might have ranked Singapore as the happiest country in Asia, but it compared only 5 countries (Chart 2).

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Chart 2: Eden Strategy Institute Asia Happiness Index

Other surveys that have been done had compared 150 countries (Chart 3) and these surveys had ranked Singapore lowly.

Singapore One Of the Most Unhappiest Countries In The World

Chart 3: The Heart Truths The PAP’s Policies Give Singaporeans Heart Attacks?

These surveys had also asked respondents specifically about their personal sense of happiness, and not rely on arbitrary tracking of social media postings. You can see the questions asked in Chart 4 and Chart 5.

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Chart 4: Gallup 

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Chart 5: Gallup

Also, the World Happiness Report 2013 might have ranked Singapore as the 30th happiest country in the world (Chart 6).

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Chart 6: World Happiness Report 2013

But if you drill down into the statistics, you would see that in terms of actually showing positive emotions, Singaporeans ranked 144th out of 156 countries (Chart 7).

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Chart 7: World Happiness Report 2013

And in terms of having showed happiness yesterday, we ranked at 126th (Chart 8).

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Chart 8: World Happiness Report 2013

Why Are Singaporeans Concerned About Happiness? 

But why am I concerned about the state of happiness in Singapore? When it comes down to it all, what is important to ask is, like what Dr Tambyah had asked, “what does happiness mean to Singaporeans”?

Singapore has now reached a point where people are questioning – what am I doing all this work for? We have been told to work hard because we will see our lives improve. But many people are asking, has it? Since 2000, our wages have remained stagnant, whereas for the richest in Singapore, they have seen their incomes grow faster than anyone else, which explains why income inequality has widened so quickly in Singapore. Singaporeans are thus now asking – so what if Singapore’s GDP per capita is the highest or one of the highest in the world? We haven’t seen our incomes grow but prices have grown several times over, and our purchasing power has dropped to the lowest among all the high-income countries and even on par with Kuala Lumpur, but which is several times poorer than Singapore.

When faced with a situation like this, Singaporeans are thus asking – so I spend all the hours at work because the government tells me that I need to help them, and we see the Singapore companies earn all these money with increasing profits, but very little is coming back to us. Singapore has the lowest public spending among the developed countries and Singaporeans have to pay the most out-of-pocket for healthcare. We are increasingly living in fear and insecurities over how our lives will pan out.

To the world, they see Singapore grow richer and richer but what they do not know is that Singaporeans have grown poorer. At this point, Singaporeans are asking – then why am I spending all this time helping you – the government – to grow your wealth when you are obviously not interested in returning the wealth I have contributed to, back? Why should you pay yourselves the highest salaries, where 75% of Singaporeans will never earn in one year what the Lee Hsien Loong earns in one month, and where our Members of Parliament belong the richest 5% in Singapore.

And so, Singaporeans are starting to ask – if the money is not coming back, I live in more fear and insecurities, then what is life really about? Is it really about not retiring where our older Singaporeans have to work on meager wages till their deaths? Is it really not about work-life balance, when it has been shown in other countries where the countries with higher wages and shorter work hours are also the ones with higher productivity? What is the government doing to me? What is the PAP doing to me?

What is life really about?

Happiness Is A Reflection Of The State Of Fairness And Equality

So, why am I talking about happiness? Why are Singaporeans increasingly talking about happiness? More than just the happiness scores illustrating how Singaporeans feel, the happiness scores and rankings are a reflection of the state of fairness and equality in the country, and a reflection of how the people in a country are being respected and valued for who we are as people. The happiness scores and rankings are a reflection as to whether Singaporeans are being treated with dignity.

If surveys after surveys, and rankings after rankings continuously place Singapore as one of the most unhappy countries in the world, and yet we are one of the richest countries in the world, then really, is money everything? If you ask most Singaporeans, we already know the answer. It’s not.

What we want is to be treated with respect and with dignity. What we want is to live in a society that is fair and equal. What we want is to know that it’s not only students in top schools that get ahead but all our young people, and old, will truly have equal chances. What we want to know is that even as a cleaner, service staff, construction worker, or even a nurse – no matter who we are, or what we do, we will all be respected and treated as human beings, equal to one another, because we are.

At this point, many Singaporeans are asking – will this even be a possibility? Will this happen, under the PAP?

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2 comments

  1. I can see

    William seems bend on looking inward and encouraging passivism. That may be true but it does not solve the present problems because not every sector of society can simply turn inwards when they’re too busy making ends meet. Turning inwards is a luxury for certain Singaporeans, especially those on the upper brackets of the income inequality gap. In Scandinavian countries, turning inwards is becoming a norm as people are well-taken care of by the State in terms of policies and this has allowed for a work-life balance and appreciating life in general. One of the interviewee is an ex-teacher and I’m surprised she didn’t mentioned how unhappy most Singapore teachers are because of the system and policies. In fact, many teachers gripe and abhor the MOE’s system in their MyForum’s pages. The fact she is no longer a teacher explains a lot. Many see maternity leaves and part-time teaching as a way out of the madness of MOE’s system. Policies make a difference and I concur there is an attempt to whitewash that; which is the crux of the problem. Even William Xavier is holding back to probe into that further. Again, those on the panel and those interviewed are mostly part of the system that had benefitted them and not all the sector of the Singapore society. How is that 35% who chose Tony Tan and 60% who voted PAP’s policies are indications of a happier Singaporean?

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