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                                                                                                                           Asean Affairs August 23, 2013  

Singapore's future way/challenge towards a society of happiness


The Republic of Singapore just celebrated its 48th birthday on 9 August 2013. Since the independence in 1965, the city-state has accomplished its impressive and glorious journey, “from third world to first”. What then is the next step for Singapore in the future?

The Singapore National Pledge has the answer. It clearly outlines the blueprint of Singapore is “to achieve happiness, prosperity and progress”. So far, Singapore has already enjoyed the prosperity and progress, so it is time to march towards the dreamland of happiness.

Unfortunately, Singapore ranked only 90th out of 151 countries in the Happy Planet Index (HPI) 2012, published by the Centre for Well-Being of the New Economics Foundation. What is going wrong with Singapore society’s happiness? There are at least two outstanding social issues.

Frist, the widening income inequality. Singapore's Gini coefficient has been above the warning line 0.4 for decades, and rose from 0.454 (before Government transfers and taxes) in 2001 to 0.478 in 2012.

In comparison, Singapore’s income gap between rich and poor was higher than the well-developed Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries and even worse than the still developing China.

Second, the flagging social compassion. Singapore’s rank in the World Giving Index (WGI), compiled by the Charities Aid Foundation using data gathered by Gallup, fell significantly from 91st in 2010 to 114th in 2012.

In comparison, Singapore was far behind its regional peers Hong Kong (19th), South Korea (45th), Taiwan (52nd) and even lower than the least developed country Bangladesh (109th).

There is an old Chinese saying, “Inequality is more troublesome than deficiency.” But fortunately, Singapore has not suffered social unrest from its income inequality like China, because of its two distinguishing advantages.

On one hand, there is no ‘official’ poverty line in Singapore and poverty has nearly been eliminated. Singapore's former representative to the United Nations, Kishore Mahbubani, once declared that "there are no homeless, destitute or starving people in Singapore. Poverty has been eradicated."

On the other hand, those poor may envy rich, but there is little social hatred towards rich people in Singapore, which is a society based on rule of law. Therefore, people generally view rich’s wealth accumulation is based on personal competency and efforts, without corruption or illegal incomes.

Although it seems Singapore is not facing direct and urgent threats from social inequality, it is not easy for people to live happily in such a snobbish and selfish society, where pressures from cruel competitions prevail, while most rich lack benevolence and generosity.

Singapore has been a very successful business society, but the key to a happy society lies more on the harmony and solidarity among those community members. Therefore, Singapore’s future challenge is how to create a city-state of happiness, where individuals enjoy quality life while also caring for others.

In the future, Singapore Government needs to take better care of those needy and less fortunate residents, while a social culture of philanthropy should be further encouraged and fostered.

Meanwhile, individuals also need to adjust their mind-sets so as to live happily. Happiness is basically an emotional perception in essence. Usually people feel happy not because they obtain more but demand less.

There is no question that happiness needs certain secular supports, such as food, money, as well as social status and fame. However, it is wise to maintain our material desires at a proper level, otherwise ‘going too far is as bad as not going far enough.’

‘Natural selection and survival of the fittest’ has been viewed as a universal rule. Therefore, it is understandable that Singapore has to compete hard so as to survive in the global arena and so do Singaporean.

However, it seems that social competitions and comparisons within Singapore has gone too far. Singapore society is commonly perceived as ‘materialistic, competitive and elitist’ by its own residents.

Especially, elitism in Singapore has led to the partial definition of personal success which is mainly featured by high degrees and decent jobs. As a result, fierce competitions are inevitable within schools and beyond. The happiness will hardly sustain if people study and work purely for social status and personal face.

Both Singapore government and people need to reflect what kind of life they really want to pursue in the future. Continuous economic growth and income increment is important, but maybe happiness is a ultimately more meaningful goal.

The writer, an alumnus of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, is a socially responsible investment analyst and independent commentary writer based in Singapore.

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