Commentary: Singaporeans are happiest being the (un)happiest in Asia

Unhappy Singaporeans could be a little happier with some perspective

The response of Singaporeans to the recent World Happiness Report 2024 ranking the country as the happiest place in Asia was entirely predictable, as they uttered a collective: “Sure not?”

Released on 20 March, the annual report placed Singapore top in Asia for the second year running. The top three happiest places in the world were all from Scandinavia: Finland, Denmark and Iceland. 

Overall, Singapore was ranked 30th in the world, ahead of the likes of Taiwan (31st), which faces a perennial existential threat from China, and South Korea (52nd), which has one of the highest suicide rates in the world.

It is also telling that “the top countries no longer include any of the largest countries” such as the United States or the United Kingdom, according to the authors of the report.

So I guess we must be pretty happy then. Although you wouldn’t be able to tell from our response.

Source: Kat Egoshina on Unsplash

How accurate is this report?

Besides six key factors such as gross domestic product (GDP) per capita, healthy life expectancy and social support, there were up to 3,000 respondents in each country who were asked to rank how happy they were from one to eight. 

Responses from the past three years are used to provide an “up-to-date and robust estimate” of life evaluation, said the authors. “A sample size of 2,000 to 3,000 is large enough to give a reasonably good estimate at the national level.” 

But netizens here had their doubts, to say the least. 

“How???” said one, followed by a series of laughing emojis.  

Another said: “Happy for the rich and wealthy I suppose.”

“The only moments Singaporeans (are) happy is when they come to Malaysia,” said another dryly. 

Being unhappy is what makes us, us

It all reminded me of a conversation I had with my sister-in-law when she became a citizen years ago, where I told her: now that you are a Singaporean, you must learn how to complain.

At risk of sounding like a Government spokesman, the old cliche still rings true — we simply don’t know how good we have it. 

In light of the recent political and corruption scandals here, a South Asian colleague told me: “You Singaporeans don’t know what corruption is — just wait till you come to my country.”

Don’t get me wrong: I am not suggesting that we sit down and shut up. We should speak up about issues and causes in Singapore. We should all be asking more of our Government and our politicians, and more importantly, doing our part to make society better. 

Source: Within Studios by The Majurity Trust on Unsplash

And there are real and pressing problems to be addressed — inflation, widening inequality, one of the lowest birth rates in the world and institutions that are overly dominated by the ruling party, to name just a few.  

But we need to recognise that Singapore is an outlier in that things — transport, Government bureaucracy and more — largely work in an efficient manner. Few countries, even advanced and prosperous ones, can say this. Singaporeans, who are so well-travelled, will know this by now. 

Just try choking in the smog of Hanoi — briefly ranked the most polluted city in the world last month — or fighting the traffic jams of Jakarta. How about getting by on US$204 a month, the minimum wage in Cambodia?

Ever been stranded in the middle of nowhere by a public transport worker strike? Or how about facing down a Government official who wants a bribe?

Source: Mark Stoop on Unsplash

The grass is always greener

Perhaps having clean streets, Taylor Swift concerts, largely affordable healthcare and the best airport in the world have made us all — and here comes the Government’s favourite word — complacent. Maybe even a little spoilt. 

Sometimes, it takes an outsider to see things differently. A Pinay friend and Swiftie summed it all up: “It’s so liberating to just enjoy a concert, dance your heart out, and not worry whether there’s a pickpocket or how you’re going to get home.”

By all means, complain when the complaint is warranted. But maybe Singaporeans could all be a bit happier with just a little perspective. 

In the meantime, I’m going to find something to complain about so I can post it on social media.  

Nicholas Yong is a veteran journalist who has worked at media outlets such as BBC News and Yahoo News Singapore over the past 17 years.

Also read: Commentary: China’s football team (unwittingly) revives Singapore football

Commentary: China’s football team (unwittingly) revives Singapore football

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Featured image adapted from Eugenia Clara on Unsplash and Shawnn Tan on Unsplash.

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