Dear Mr Coclanis,
I refer to your 29 Jul 2014 Straits Times article “S’pore’s no utopia but still a good place to live in”.
The government’s recent expansion or extension of social welfare does not surprise Singaporeans. Singaporeans know that the government is trying its best to win back votes after having suffered the stinging pain of the loss of a GRC back in 2011. All the recent hullabaloos can be traced back to 2011.
Singapore’s material, social well being and living standard are well below that suggested by our high per capita GDP because:
• Our wage share of GDP is lower than most Western nations
• If foreigners and foreign owned multinationals are excluded, our remaining indigenous per capita GDP (GDP of locals) is much lower
• For the same GDP, we are putting in far longer hours
• Most international indexes place Singapore amongst the highest cost of living. For the same per capita GDP, higher cost of living means lower standard of living
This is illustrated in the Economist article “http://www.economist.com/node/17079148” which shows our relatively low standard of living compared to Australia, Hong Kong, Canada, Japan, France, Germany and Sweden despite our better or similar per capita GDP.
First problem with Economist Where-to-be-born index
Anyone who thinks that the Economist Where-to-be-born index tells us the actual quality of life in a country will be sorely mistaken. It does not. Instead, the Index tells us what the quality of life for that country should be based on regression. The problem with any regression is that the actual data points hardly ever fall on the regression line, so for practically all countries, the actual quality of life will deviate from what the Economist deems it should be.
• The life satisfaction scores for 2006 (on scale of 1 to 10) for 130 countries (from the Gallup Poll) are related in a multivariate regression to various factors. As many as 11 indicators are statistically significant. Together these indicators explain some 85% of the inter-country variation in life satisfaction scores. The values of the life satisfaction scores that are predicted by our indicators represent a country’s quality of life index. The coefficients in the estimated equation weight automatically the importance of the various factors. We can utilise the estimated equation for 2006 to calculate index values for year in the past and future, allowing for comparison over time as well across countries.
[The Economist International, The lottery of life methodology - How we calculated life satisfaction, 21 Nov 2012, http://www.economist.com/news/21567049-how-we-calculated-life-satisfaction-lottery-life-methodology%5D
Below is an example of a regression between life satisfaction and per capita GDP (Income, Health, and Well-Being around the World: Evidence from the Gallup World Poll, Dr Angus Deaton, page 4). Clearly, most data points don’t fall on the regression line. Take Russia for example, the regression line predicts that for Russia’s per capita GDP, it should be experiencing a life satisfaction score close to 6 (dotted line), but in fact, Russia’s life satisfaction score is only about 5.
Coming back to Singapore, the strength of our underlying indicators leads the Economist to predict that we should be experiencing a high life satisfaction score of 8.0 that should put us in world No. 6 position. But in reality, our life satisfaction score is far worse than 8.0. Anyone impressed with our No. 6 position is merely being impressed with the high hopes the Economist have for us, not the reality that we experience daily which the Economist isn’t telling.
The reality is that Singapore is ranked:
• 33rd by United Nations World Happiness
• 36th out of 129 countries in the Gallup World Poll (2007 – 2010) which asked people how satisfied they are with their lives as a whole
• 37th in the World Values Survey which asked similar questions on life satisfaction
• 109th out of 148 countries in the Gallup World Poll (2008 – 2011) which asked people how happy they were the day before
• 97th out of 156 countries in the Gallup World Poll (2005 – 2011) which asked about joy and laughter the day before
[Straits Times, Why Singaporeans are the happiest in the region, 17 May 2012]
The reality is that Singapore scored:
• 6.6 out of 10 and ranked 33 out of 156 countries for the question “How would you rate your life, on a scale of zero (worst possible life) to 10 (best possible)?” in the Gallup World Poll (2005 to 20011)
• 6.8 out of 10 and ranked 36 out of 129 countries for the question “On a scale of zero (least satisfied) to 10 (most satisfied), how satisfied are you with your life as a whole?” in the Gallup World Poll (2007 to 2010)
• 6 out of 10 and ranked 109 out of 148 countries for the question “On a zero to 10 scale, how happy were you yesterday?” in the Gallup World Poll (2008 to 2011)
[Straits Times, How Singapore Scored, 17 May 2012]
Second problem with Economist Where-to-be-born index
According to the Economist, the indicator with the biggest weightage – the GDP is not the prevailing GDP but the forecasted one in 2030. After all, it is a Where-to-be-born index not a Where-to-be-now index.
• Being rich helps more than anything else
• A forward-looking element comes into play, too. Although many of the drivers of the quality of life are slow-changing, for this ranking some variables, such as income per head, need to be forecast. We use the EIU’s economic forecasts to 2030, which is roughly when children born in 2013 will reach adulthood.
[The Economist International, The lottery of life - Where to be born in 2013, 21 Nov 2012, http://www.economist.com/news/21566430-where-be-born-2013-lottery-life%5D
Since the Where-to-be-born index essentially predicts the future, we need to ask ourselves how good the Economist has been in making such predictions. Turns out the Economist also had a Where-to-be-born list back in 1988 and by comparing the two lists (http://www.businessinsider.com/wond-economist-where-to-be-born-index-2013-1?IR=T&), it is not hard to see that the predictions have been quite far off the mark.
Alternatives to Economist Where-to-be-born index
For these reasons, the Where-to-be-born index cannot be the closest thing to a Rawlsian index when other quality of life or life satisfaction indexes exist that are based on actual, real data.
• World Happiness Report 2013, Singapore ranked 30th in happiness with score of 6.546
• Happy Planet Index 2012, Singapore ranked 90th with an index of 39.8
• Mercer Quality of Living Index 2012, Singapore ranked 25th
• EIU Best City 2012, Singapore ranked 22nd
• International Living Quality of Life Index 2011, Singapore ranked 93rd in Quality of Life final score
• Gallup Global Wellbeing study 2010, Singapore recorded a miserable 19% thriving compared to 31% to 82% for Western countries
• Satisfaction with Life Index 2006, Singapore ranked 53rd with a score of 230
When so many international indexes put Singapore in a mediocre position for quality of living, life satisfaction or happiness it is hard to see how Singapore has acquitted itself well when judged by Rawlsian criteria.
The supposed hallmark of Singapore moving quickly to recalibrate public policy has been for the worse, not for the better when it comes to individual rights and personal liberties. It is now against the law to walk in a group of five, so five friends in Singapore cannot walk together in public without risking being hauled to jail. That’s how bad we have become. Singapore continues to languish near the bottom of press freedom and democracy index year in year out.
Don’t make a habit out of aping our government in blaming citizens for our brain drain problem. Singaporeans are not so unrealistic that they cannot embrace or enjoy the lives many have led since happily moving on to Western countries.
Judging by the rankings in the numerous alternatives to the Where-to-be-born index, there are plenty of places preferable to Singapore one can land at. While Singapore is a good place to live in, it is far from being the best.