Economic prosperity can’t guarantee happiness

By | April 3, 2007

In fact, it may have quite the opposite effect, if you read into the findings of the Happy Planet Index. Compiled by an independent British “think and do” tank called nef (the new economics foundation), the index “addresses the relative success or failure of countries in supporting good life for their citizens, whilst respecting the environmental resource limits upon which our lives depend”.

For all our obsession with being number one, Singapore has been ranked 131st, significantly lower than our less prosperous neighbours like Philippines (17th), Indonesia (23rd), Thailand (32nd) and Malaysia (44th). Proof that money can’t buy happiness, unless you are a minister or top civil servant in Singapore who stands to benefit from another round of salary hike (I can see more unhappy faces already).

Incidentally, the top three on the Happy Planet Index are the South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu, Colombia and Costa Rica.

Related story:
Singapore’s bleak future

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4 thoughts on “Economic prosperity can’t guarantee happiness

  1. Anonymous

    Why I Would Like to Leave, by Kitana

    Before I went to Canada for a year, I had to go for a medical check-up. During that check-up, the doctor told me that I would love Canada. And he had said that most of the people he knew that went to Canada, either never came back; or when they did, they’d returned to Canada shortly after. Few ever stayed in Singapore.

    At the time, I wondered why. I don’t anymore.

    The government asks us why we leave. They calls us quitters and deserters, for leaving our country, our homeland, for some other place that we perceive to be greener pastures. Why leave Singapore, where we rank tops for good governance (save for voice and accountability, where we scored a low of 38.2% this year), where we are so clean and safe and secure, and where we are so efficient?

    The fact of the matter is, that there are people who will give up all of the above, for more freedom.

    I was happy in Canada. Sure, it was expensive, and taxes were a killer. With a 14% combination of GST and PST on all consumer items, and income taxes hitting a high of 40%; it was definitely difficult to make ends meet for someone who did not work there. And of course, on days where the buses went on strike, I’d be stuck in campus and not be able to go to town. Also, we did have a bit of a furor when Parliament was dissolved late last year, only to have the Conservatives voted in after 13 years under the Liberals. Oh and before I forget, yes it was definitely more inefficient. Expect to wait when you queue up to pay for something; the cashier will inevitably engage everyone before you as to how their day was (and their kids, and their parents, and what they think of the weather; etc). Expect to wait for the buses because the bus driver might have stopped somewhere to grab a cup of Starbucks while doing his rounds (yes, with passengers in the bus). Oh, and how can I forget the drug problem: you can get drugs anywhere off the street if you know where to look; marijuana is about as commonplace as cigarettes and alcohol.

    But for all the possible gripes that I might have about that place, the benefits far outweighed all the detriments (if you even saw them as that) combined. Firstly, we were really free. I’m not just talking about freedom with regard to political freedom to vote, to protest, to strike, to demonstrate, or to have a point of view; but also real freedom of the mind and the body. You can think differently, dress differently, live differently. Society is inclusive.

    The city that I lived in had a whole mix of races and nationalities. I’ve met everyone from locals to the Koreans, Japs and Chinese, Iranians, Iraqis, Philippinos, Latin Americans, French, Africans, Indians etc etc etc. It’s as much a cultural mix, if not more so, than Singapore. And the best part is: everyone more or less gets along. There is no need for the implementation of “Racial Harmony Day” or racial quotas for HDB flats. Everyone just does – because prejudice just does not exist there.
    And it wasn’t just about race and religion; you could be a conservative or a liberal, be it cerebral or waist-down. It didn’t matter. Such criteria was just not a measure of your worth. You could be thin or fat. It didn’t matter too. People weren’t as image-conscious. You could walk down the streets dressed in goth punk outfits with multiple piercings in your face and people would still talk to you normally, and not avoid you. And in Village area, men held hands with men; they kissed on buses, and no one even batted an eye lid.

    In Singapore, can you comprehend this inclusiveness? The majority of Singaporeans are notably close-minded and inflexible. Even if a straight couple were to kiss on the bus, there would be chitters regarding the offensiveness of public displays of affection. When the gay community wishes to throw a party, they get turned down because the overly-conservative majority decides that this is a justification for the prevention of AIDS. Singapore is one of the few countries, if not the only, where drug trafficking attracts a mandatory death penalty, such that the courts do not even have the discretion to pardon the poor 18 year old Nigerian who became a drug mule without him realizing the folly of his error.

    If you decide to stage a demonstration, you require a permit that will always be turned down on the vague notions of security; if you support a party other than the one in power, you risk getting asked for your particulars and photographed. If you hold a view other than the one in the local papers (which is so effectively-controlled, all for the sake of “the national interest”), you are forced to keep that view to yourself. If you attempt to post that view up on a platform, such as a blog, you might be sent a warning letter especially with a threat of defamation. If you decide to print out that view and distribute it on a phamplet, you may get investigated under s 151 of the Penal Code. Oh, and you can’t do podcasts with political content, unless you are the party in power.

    In Singapore, besides the overwhelming humidity, there is a notorious lack of personal space. There are too many people in Singapore. It’s so difficult to find a place which isn’t swarming with people. The roads are full of cars, the buses are packed to full capacity at various times of the day; Raffles Place strikes me as a factory churning out goods as people chope seats with tissue packets on busy lunch hours. And everyone is always in a rush. There is always this inane need to do something, be somewhere, get caught up in this inexplicable rat race, and just work and work and work until you succeed… and then realize that you don’t even know what the fuck ‘success’ really means.

    The stress is crazy; the pressure unfightable. It starts from the time we enter primary school; the education system does prepare us for the real world in that sense – we get exposed to pressure cooker type stress and a level of competition that makes having a life outside of academia almost impossible, unlike in other countries whose universities also produce Nobel laureates. Our parents push us, our schools push us; society pushes us… And our goal is this:

    Money. Money and the economy.

    In Singapore, this is the definition of the good life. Some people may subscribe to religion as what defines a good life, particularly in reaction to the imposition of money as the new god; but for the most part, Singaporeans are a consumeristic and materialistic lot. So many girlfriends see the Mango and Zara sales as the defining point of their lives; or believe that sipping lychee martinis at Zouk Wine Bar is the epitome of class. Everyone wants to get more money, buy more items, be more powerful; be it career success or material possession, this is all that most Singaporeans dream of and spend their entire lives clamouring towards.

    And this works great for Singapore, because all of Singapore’s objectives are geared towards only 1 thing and one thing alone: money. Or in the case of this country, the economy. Everything we do, we do it for the sake of our economy. We have no minimum wage; we have no protection against the ills that globalization necessarily brings us. We have no protection for the rising income equality (all we have is an article in the newspapers telling us to disbelieve the Gini-coefficient), we have no solutions for our elderly except to either dump them in Johor or Batam, or to encourage our young to bring more babies into this pressure cooker life.
    Someone told me that this was not a bad thing. Because we have different races and religions, the economy is the one thing that can unite us. I told him that he was a mere subject of years of successful indoctrination. He talked like just another average Singaporean.

    “Money unites us.”

    In a country where I would like to live, it is not money, but dreams that unite. Dreams that transcend the material; dreams of ideals of maybe caring for a family; caring for the environment within which we live; dreams of bettering oneself, or dreams or learning for the sake of learning; dreams to be whatever I want to be; that unite people.

    In Singapore, it is difficult to dream. Difficult to dream of anything beyond the material. I don’t wish for a future where I am stuck in my dead end job wondering what the fuck I want in my life. I don’t want a future where I die to myself, murder my idealism and my dreams of being different, simply because ‘different’ is a bad word in Singapore.

    And because Singapore is not a place where such dreams flourish, Singapore is just not a place where I envision myself realizing these dreams.

  2. Anonymous

    From: Julie Rogers
    To: Singapore Review
    27 October 2004

    Does Inequality Make You Sick? S’pore ministers salaries

    Hi, I pondered over Catherine Lim’s article “PAP and the people: A return of

    Until recently I knew next to nothing about Singapore so it is a revelation
    that my first introduction to this little speck is through various discussions
    on the internet about Ministerial Salaries.

    Quite frankly I am rather appalled by the fact that ministers in your country
    can earn upwards of USD 1 million. Any officer of the state is a
    public servant and this was a once noble and honourable calling. In the
    civilised world, persons assume this office because they want personally to
    contribute to the well being of the country. Self sacrifice and altruism are
    essential hallmarks for a public office holder and the minister must be ready
    and willing to make these personal sacrifices.

    If the heart is not in this noble service, then it will be wasted effort.
    Money should not be an issue at all and if it is, then your “elected leaders”
    have very ill-placed priorities and are obviously in it for the wrong reasons.

    Even if we were to overlook the misplaced financial motives of your ministers,
    the sheer gulf in income disparity between ministerial salaries and those of
    the working class will create a huge irreconcilable dichord and disenchantment
    with any normal voting public. (A valid point in Catherine Lim’s article)

    But I am told that Singapore is a democracy with elected leaders! So I have to
    assume that Singapore must have a very unique “voting public” which is able to
    silently and willingly take all this in their stride. Singaporeans should take
    note here that Who they vote for and who they elect is a reflection of their
    own core value systems and the undeniable fact remains that Singaporeans have
    elected a group of Leaders who are eminently pre-occupied with escalating their
    on salaries.

    I for one will never be able to accept this unequal state of affairs if ever it
    was my lot. And thank goodness it isn’t for I will never be able to sleep
    soundly at nights knowing that the fate, future and well being of my country
    are in the hands of a bunch of financially motivated hired mercenaries.

    Below is a further write-up of some of the social ills that a huge income
    disparity can create. There is an old saying that the most efficient form of
    governance is a Monarchy, but this assumes the Monarch has the same priorities
    and agenda as the people he rules. Is this the case with Singapore’s Monarchy?

    I repeat that who you elect is a mirror image of your own core values and
    Singaporeans have to ask themselves whether their current leaders who require
    million dollar salaries to be in office, have the same value systems as the
    voters who elected them.

    Lastly, I have also copied in Guniess World of Records to see if this unique
    feature of your country will earn it a place in the world record books.

    Julie Rogers

  3. Elia Diodati

    Mindblogging Stuff: Even so, stats like Happy Planet only indicate correlation, *not* causation. Just because you move to Vanuatu doesn’t automatically make you happy. (Although I’m sure the gorgeous scenery doesn’t hurt…)

  4. Stephen

    True, but one part of the index “addresses the relative success or failure of countries in supporting good life for their citizens”, so that’s already a pretty strong indictment of what the PAP government has not done for its people.


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