Singapore: all is not well

Singapore: all is not well

On Friday, the world did not end, as an ancient Mayan calendar had forecast, but it seems most Singaporeans would not have minded much if it had.

Last week, a world-wide Gallup survey revealed that Singaporeans are, by quite a wide margin, the world’s saddest people.

Although more than 80 per cent of Thais and Filipinos said they were happy, more than half the Singaporeans surveyed admitted they were pretty miserable.

Indeed, they are several percentage points below the next glum lot, the citizens of Armenia, followed by those of Iraq, Yemen, Belarus and Afghanistan.

It seems weird that Singaporeans, living on their prosperous, manicured little island, are more downcast than war-torn Afghans, repressed Belarussians and dirt-poor Yemenis.

But take a step back, and it becomes perfectly logical.

After all, what’s there to be gleeful and fancy-free and full of the joys of spring about Singapore? The people work, eat and shop. And that’s it. Each moment is like going to school or university or army camp or the office – all the time. Everything is a task to be accomplished.

As one commentator wrote on Yahoo News Singapore after reading the Gallup report: “When you run a country like a business instead of a country, what do you expect?”

They don’t even make babies – shopping takes precedence. There is no other place on earth where the state promotes shopping as a meritorious and productive activity, as it does in Singapore.

When you visit and tell Singaporeans you are from Phnom Penh or Paris or Patagonia, their first question is: How’s the shopping there?

Oh, Ron. It is monumentally depressing.

Not for the ruling People’s Action Party, of course, because shopping is harmless and distracts the hoi polloi from thinking about politics and keeps the domestic market humming. What it doesn’t do is elicit positive answers when Gallup pollsters ask: do you smile a lot, do you do interesting things, do you have a sense of enjoyment and feel you are treated with respect?

Most Singaporeans clearly do not.

Nor, without wishing to sound absurdly pompous, does their working-and-shopping lifestyle engender that sense of spiritual well-being and serenity we all cherish.

Being obsessive about eating is no substitute either, not when you gush over staples like chicken rice, char kway teow and laksa as if they’re akin to discovering Xanadu.

When your life is largely filled by work and fleeting kicks from shopping and eating, you’re going to get very glum very fast.

So it’s no surprise that in another poll last month, Singaporeans were ranked as the least emotional people in the world.

They hold things in, including happiness. Frankly, most of them wouldn’t know a warm gun if it shot them.

That partly explains why the suicide rate, officially quite low, is actually, as hospital directors privately confide, shockingly high.

Under pressure not to record them as hangings or ingestion of poison or defenestration, the suicides are registered as respiratory failures, or nervous seizures, or simply as accidental deaths.

Smoking is another give-away. Singapore has among the most draconian anti-smoking laws in the world, yet the locals puff away like there’s no tomorrow.

Just take an early-morning stroll around the café and bar areas, and note the pavements littered with fag-ends.

And that illustrates another myth – the place is not squeaky-clean, nor is it corruption-free. This month, another high-ranking figure, the speaker of parliament, had to resign because of bad behaviour.

It follows other corruption charges this year against the Singapore Civil Defence Force director, senior officials at the Singapore Land Authority and the head of the Central Narcotics Bureau.

When you live a fantasy propagated by a government that supplies adult pacifiers like new shopping malls and food courts and precious little else, you are going to fail the quality-of-life test.

And that’s what has happened to Singapore.

Contact our regional insider Roger at [email protected]