Rich but feeling empty, exhausted and alienated


Wealth does not buy happiness. The state of Singapore society today is perhaps proof of this adage.

A newly-released joint study by Gallup and Healthways is a wake-up call to anyone who still thinks that prioritising economic growth is the master key to happiness. Especially coming, as it does in Singapore’s case, with a widening income gap and a shrinking space for self-actualisation (rights and freedoms) such prioritisation only increases tension, stress and conflict. Quality of life diminishes.

Out of 145 countries surveyed, Singapore ranked a miserable 97th.

An estimated 146,000 phone and face-to-face interviews with adults (aged 15 and older) across 145 countries and areas were conducted between 1 January and 31 December 2014.

The index is built up from ten questions, grouped into five elements of well-being:

  • Purpose: Liking what you do each day and being motivated to achieve your goals
  • Social: Having supportive relationships and love in your life
  • Financial: Managing your economic life to reduce stress and increase security
  • Community: Liking where you live, feeling safe and having pride in your community
  • Physical: Having good health and enough energy to get things done daily

Responses used a 5-point scale ranging from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree” with a statement presented. The report however, does not make it clear how responses are then translated to the categories Thriving, Struggling and Suffering. All it does is to explain that

  • Thriving: Well-being that is strong and consistent in a particular element
  • Struggling: Well-being that is moderate or inconsistent in a particular element
  • Suffering: Well-being that is low and inconsistent in a particular element

Nonetheless, on a comparative basis between countries, we can expect Gallup to have applied a consistent interpretation.

Results for Singapore

pic_201506_33The web-published report does not provide fine-grained information about Singapore’s scores, but it does give sufficient information to paint a dismal picture.

With respect to Purpose, only 10 – 20% of Singapore respondents were thriving. This placed Singaporeans in 111th position for this element relative to the 145 countries surveyed. You could say that in general, Singaporeans didn’t like what they had to do each day, and were lacking in motivation.

With respect to Social, again only 10 – 20 % of Singapore respondents were thriving. We were nearly at the bottom compared to other countries, ranking 123 out of 145. In general, we were reporting rather arid personal lives.

With respect to Financial, the picture was vastly different. Over 40% gave responses that Gallup classified as thriving. We ranked 9th out of 145 countries. The average Singaporean was a lot more financially secure than people in most other countries.

With respect to Community, we sank again. Only 20 – 30% were thriving, giving us a middling score: 72nd out of 145 countries.

With respect to Physical, we sank lowest of all. With only 10 – 20% responses classified as thriving, we ranked near the bottom: 137th out of 145 countries. It could be said that we felt our health was suffering and that we didn’t have the energy to get what we wanted done.

To make up an overall index, Gallup ranked countries by the percentage of responses who were thriving in at least three of the five elements, indicative of a well-balanced life. In Singapore, only 12.7% were. Compared with other countries, this ranked us 97th.

This survey is consistent with what many people here feel: empty, exhausted, alienated. We’re a grumpy, stressed out and dissatisfied society.

* * * * *

It is however interesting to look at how other countries score. Below, I have extracted a shortlist of countries we’re usually interested in. The pattern tells us quite a bit:


Countries seem to cluster into three broad groups:

Developed countries with strong social safety nets score well. They have relatively high percentages thriving in three or more elements, suggesting that people there live relatively well-rounded lives.

Less-developed countries, particularly those in Asia, seem to break into two distinct sets. Those that are developmentally ambitious such as South Korea and China score poorly, even lower than Singapore. Perhaps their high level of dissatisfaction is inextricably linked to their striving, but since striving produces unequal wealth and outcomes, this in turn feeds back into dissatisfaction. Less developed countries that are not developmentally ambitious do as well as developed countries with good social safety nets. Perhaps strong communities, and a certain equality in poverty makes for a better sense of well-being.

Here is proof that our obsessive focus on GDP numbers is failing to translate to a sense of well-being among people. Surely, this is not new. Many others have warned that income and wealth gaps, especially when income and wealth distributions do not conform to symmetrical bell curves, create cost of living difficulties for the majority. In attempting to cope, people work long hours, perhaps in jobs they hate, but can’t walk away from. Relationships and physical health suffer.

Similarly, many academics and commentators have raised the issue of social safety nets and asset prices — particularly homes. Indeed, what the above comparative study shows is that addressing these issues correlate well with people’s sense of well-being.

Moreover, the obsessive focus on GDP comes with a bias in favour of immigration. Immigration is not all bad, but it is never cost-free either, especially in its social dimension. It has been argued that it widens the income gap too.

The ruling party is ignoring this simple fact at its peril: a uni-dimensional focus on economic growth produces unbalanced lives and unhappy people. That it has not seriously suffered at the polls is due to another fact: however grumpy voters may be, there isn’t much of a choice from among opposition parties. But then, to keep the opposition from growing, the ruling party resorts to nasty measures undermining human rights and political rights which in turn further erode a sense of well-being.

pic_201506_34Singapore appears to be caught in a vicious cycle. Ever richer, ever unhappier. With a ruling party that keeps hoping that financial security (or at least the illusion of it) will buy acquiescence.

Do you spot a bubble? I do. Do bubbles always burst eventually? I think so. There is a political crash coming.




3 Responses to “Rich but feeling empty, exhausted and alienated”

  1. 1 joe lee 1 September 2015 at 07:46

    being rich is still afterall better than being poor.

  2. 2 citizen 9 September 2015 at 16:06

    Did you give permission for Samir Neji or had he seeked permission to use this page for his political farce?

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