Singapore is ‘happiest place in Asia’

Dear Mr Dan Buettner,

I refer to the 5 Dec 2010 Straits Times report of your latest book which features Singapore as the happiest place in Asia.

You said Gallup, the World Values Survey and the World Database on Happiness are the three most authoritative and authentic happiness indices and that all three pointed to Singapore as the happiest place in Asia. Your latter statement unfortunately, is not true. Referring to data from all three happiness surveys shown in part in the table below:

Singapore is ranked:
– 21th out of 44 Asian countries in the Gallup ‘Daily Experience’ index
– joint 16th out of 44 Asian countries in the Gallup ‘Percentage Thriving’ index
– 4th out of 41 Asian countries in the World Database on Happiness index
– 1st out of 25 Asian countries in the World Values index

Thus, Singapore is first in Asia for only one of four indices in your chosen surveys. The fact that Singapore’s ranking can vary from as low as 21st out of 44 countries in one index to as high as 1st in another goes to show that there is no consistent evidence supporting the claim that Singapore is Asia’s happiest.

Furthermore, since the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is ranked higher than Singapore in three of the four indices, the title of the happiest place in Asia should belong to UAE, not Singapore. Incidentally, the only index which Singapore topped is the one which omitted the UAE. That index, the World Values Index also happens to feature the least number of countries, only 25 compared to 41 and 44 countries respectively in the other two surveys. The much smaller coverage of countries by the World Values Index limits its validity as a comparator across Asia.

Also, Kuwait and Thailand have done better than Singapore in two of the four indices and countries like Japan, Taiwan, Malaysia and Indonesia have rankings that are comparable to Singapore’s. To single out Singapore when it is just one of many similarly ranked countries in Asia would be to paint a false picture where only one Garden of Eden exists when in reality, many comparable gardens co-exist. Furthermore, being top in Asia is meaningless when Asia as a whole lags behind other regions like the Western nations.

Our high home ownership is merely superficial in nature. About 50% of home owners are still in debt and have therefore not fully owned their homes. Even if they fully own their homes, their supposed homes are 99 year leasehold apartments that must be returned to the government at the end of the lease. So technically, home owners are merely holding on to their apartments for 99 years, they do not really own them. Moreover, sky high property prices means that the cost of home ownership is exorbitant and damages our financial security instead.

If all that matters are basic happiness prerequisites like decent food, basic shelter, adequate health care and mobility, then we might as well all be pet dogs. Tolerance, equality, security, trust, recreation, financial security, green spaces despite high population density and safe streets for women are commonly available in many first world cities and countries including Hong Kong and Japan.

Making two four-week trips to Singapore merely qualifies you to a tourist’s view of Singapore. Have you ever experienced property prices climbing rapidly out of your reach within a short span of just two, three years? You pay comfortable housing prices in Minneapolis, what can you possibly know of the sufferings we Singaporeans bear?

Most of the people you interviewed are rich and successful people. How can you have a balanced view if you don’t interview more of our poor and unhappy? Focusing on finding happy people merely accentuates your bias towards Singapore being happy.

The supposed policies that made Singapore happy are policies proposed by Dr Albert Winsemius, the Dutch economist sent by the United Nations in the 1950s to help Singapore industrialise. Thus, if there ever was a happiness architect for us, it would have been Dr Winsemius, not MM Lee. While MM Lee was a major player, the most important contributions came from everyone else but him.

You are impressed by a man who is good at impressing people. But impressions can be deceiving. Would a man of integrity lock people up for no good reason for thirty years? Be careful who you worship for you might end up worshipping Stalin or Kim Jong II instead. No one else has done a better job at manufacturing the myth of government led happiness. The manufactured happiness you refer to is the kind that the North Koreans are good at churning out. It requires dedicated propaganda through media manipulation aimed at convincing the people that they are living in utopia. There is a lot you need to read apart from state sponsored texts to get a truer sense of how Singapore prospered. If happiness is simply a matter of government policy, wouldn’t it be easy for governments all over the world to simply copy policies that are so well documented? Clearly, happiness is not just about government policies. Happiness, at its most fundamental, is the achievement of goals and dreams by citizens given the freedom to do so.

Perhaps the simplest indicator of how happy a place is, is its rate of emigration. If so many Singaporeans are opting out from this place, how happy can we be?

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