Monday 22 October 2012

Whose job is it to provide happiness?

Singaporeans, having been dependent on Govt for so long, expect the state to solve problems
By Zuraidah Ibrahim, The Straits Times, 21 Oct 2012

Overall, how anxious did you feel yesterday?

This was one of the questions posed in a survey that Britain conducted recently to gauge citizens' well-being. It found that owning a home and having a job tended to make people more satisfied with life. More controversially, being married was found to make Britons happier.

The results of the survey were not particularly earth-shaking, and critics panned it as a "statement of the bleeding obvious", among other things. British Prime Minister David Cameron defended it, claiming that it was not some woolly walk into people's psychological states but a useful tool that could inform policymaking.

Like Britain, several other governments are trying to come up with more holistic measures of progress. Bhutan has famously adopted Gross National Happiness as a guiding principle for its government.

The idea has reached Singapore, too. Many are sceptical of the single-minded pursuit of economic growth measured by gross domestic product, questioning who exactly benefits and at what cost. So it was perhaps a sign of the times when, in the first "Our Singapore Conversation" exercise last weekend, the subject of happiness bubbled to the surface.

When asked to imagine Singapore headlines they would like to see in 10 years' time, two groups of participants came up with "No. 1 in happiness". A third group's dream headline was that Singapore's score in a "global fulfilment" index would surpass 80 per cent.

It was charmingly Singaporean, of course, to think in terms of numerical scores and rankings even when striving for something as intangible as happiness, a notion that sages and saints have spent lifetimes to dissect and divine. And perhaps that sums up the existential angst associated with being Singaporean.

We've been cultivated to want to keep running to get ahead - or even just to stay on the same spot - and it is hard to escape from this condition. Psychologists might say we are caught in the "hedonic treadmill". Google this term and you may recognise yourself in the definition. The theory goes that the more you have, the greater your expectations grow, such that there is no permanent gain in your happiness.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has noted this phenomenon of ever-rising expectations, citing how Singaporeans rushed for the latest iPhones and how many feel "they must have the latest and bestest".

Although this treadmill tendency is supposedly global, one suspects it might be more acute in Singapore. Perhaps there are cultural reasons. Some of us still believe that modesty demands that we downplay our achievements: We claim that our lives are only "so-so", and even if our children are fine, we are reluctant to say it out loud, lest the gods get jealous or we tempt fate to teach us humility. In the process, maybe some of us believe our own fiction that we have little to be happy about and a lot to be angsty about.

But it is surely also because of the national narrative that we have lived with for decades - that Singapore has no room for complacency. In the brutal global competition, we risk losing our lunch if we rest on our laurels, we have been told repeatedly.

This condition of vulnerability has been cited as a key justification for dominant government. But now one wonders if Singaporeans' dependence on the state to solve problems is backfiring. Perhaps one reason people find it hard to be happy is that they lack a sense of control in their lives. No matter how hard they try, they believe that their well-being is ultimately at the mercy of various government policies.

One approach to the problem is for the Government to retreat and open up space for the private sector and civil society to solve problems. After all, as Singaporeans' needs become more diverse, it is getting harder for the Government to be all things to all men, women and children. And many observers inside and outside the country have long been critical of Singapore's nanny state approach to governance.

Such paternalism has been blamed for the lack of entrepreneurship, creativity and citizen initiative, among other things. So could Singapore become more like other countries, where there is less reliance on government?

A less interventionist government may work in theory, but there is the problem of what economists call path dependence. With Singapore having gone so far down the road of big government, it is extremely difficult to cross over to a different path.

Politically, as well, it is hard to see how the Government can suddenly tell people that they should depend less on the state. Its legitimacy has been based on delivering what people need by the bucket-load, rather than just doing the minimum well.

It is not surprising that Singaporeans who are at their wits' ends trying to secure their well-being in tough times feel that the responsibility must lie with their elected representatives to create the conditions for a better life. They would reject claims that the problem is just a matter of rising expectations for the latest gadgets and other luxuries.

They would say that many of the current obstacles to well-being are not about mere perception but in fact objective realities that result from ineffective government policies. These range from housing prices straying out of reach, to anxiety about the cost of health care.

It is inevitable that Singapore develops more holistic measures of progress. Economic growth was once the figure that the nation was obsessed with. It is still crucial, but it is clear by now that even a high and rising per capita income is not giving Singaporeans the sense of well-being they crave. Adjustments will have to be made to the country's understanding of what it means to lead a fulfilled life.

Introducing new measures of well-being may be fraught with difficulty but it may be worth doing, if only to make us remember the real goals of growth.

What is harder to settle, though, is the question of where responsibility should lie for achieving each of these targets - with the state or with households. That may end up as the most contentious and divisive issue in Our Singapore Conversation.

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