Monday 15 April 2013

Taking the pulse of Singapore society

Collaboration and community action are the goals of social health project, which finds room for improvement in many areas
By Radha Basu, The Sunday Times, 14 Apr 2013

Unusually for high-achieving Singapore, it was one report card that was not full of As.

A recent research study by the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre (NVPC) assessed the state of nine key areas affecting Singapore society.

Of these, five - income security, health care, individual well-being, family, and housing and transport - were deemed to have shown negative trends, which meant that most indicators studied had worsened over the past decade.

Another three - social connectedness and community cohesion, education and culture, and values - were rated neutral. Only one - civil and political participation - scored a positive result.

The ratings in the first Singapore Social Health Project were based on dozens of specific indicators on each area examined. The wage gap between the rich and the poor, for instance, was a key indicator in the section on income security.

The conclusions were based on desk-top research by a small NVPC team that pored over public data sources, including government statistics and academic and media reports here and overseas.

The report faced much scepticism when it was released late last month, with some commentators wondering if it was even possible to measure social health.

Others questioned the methodology, asking why social media, for example, was used as a source and and why the report focused more on challenges than substantial government efforts to tackle them.

But the project's main architect, NVPC chief executive and Nominated MP Laurence Lien, says the report seeks to look beyond Singapore's robust economic growth figures and develop a "multi-dimensional measure of social progress".

Indeed, stellar economic growth and high standards of living do not always correspond with individual well-being and happiness.

While there is some good news - Singapore continues to dominate the top of international education indices, for instance - much of the report paints a less rosy picture of life in one of the world's wealthiest nations.

Among other things, it cites official data on how real incomes are falling for the poorest even as the cost of living is on the rise, how wage gaps are widening and people are sinking deeper in debt.

The average household income from work per household member in the bottom 10 per cent of the income ladder was just $440 per month last year. Given the rising cost of living, this reflected a decline of 1.2 per cent in real terms from the previous year.

The Gini coefficient - a measure of the wage gap - meanwhile increased from 0.473 to 0.478, remaining among the highest in the developed world.

Hefty home loans are the main reason indebtedness is on the rise, the report says, with consumer loans up from $41.7 billion in 2000 to $179.5 billion in 2011.

Individual well-being is on the wane too, it says, pointing out that Singaporeans continue to work long hours, even as employed people work less in much of the developed world.

The average annual hours put in by working people in Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries fell from 1,844 hours in 2000 to 1,776 hours in 2011. The average working Singaporean, by contrast, clocks well over 2,000 hours a year.

Mental well-being too seems under threat, going by the rise in the number harbouring suicidal thoughts. Last year, 986 people were arrested for attempting suicide, up from 706 in 2007. Suicide prevention agency Samaritans of Singapore (SOS) received more than 44,000 calls to its 24-hour hotline in FY 2011, up from around 40,000 two years earlier. E-mail messages to SOS by distressed folk seeking help are also on the rise.

Chronic diseases, meanwhile, are on the rise. While higher health-care costs have led to an increase in government subsidies, the lack of a cap on out-of-pocket expenditure by individuals could lead to "financially catastrophic medical expenses for people in need of intensive medical care", warns the report.

While such a report is something new in Singapore, similar efforts to track well-being and social health are under way elsewhere.

Mr Lien tells The Sunday Times that the project is very much a work in progress and is not a critique of government performance in the areas studied.

Instead, it attempts to bring together information to give citizens a chance to take part in a more informed discussion of key challenges and what people value as a society.

Above all, as an initiative from the national centre promoting volunteerism and philanthropy, it is a call to action for citizens, companies and the community to analyse problems, donate generously and work with the Government to devise data-driven solutions that can pave the way for a better future.

This may sound Utopian, but it has been done before.

Mr Lien was inspired by a similar community-led initiative in Boston, helmed by the non-profit Boston Foundation which, like the NVPC, promotes informed giving and community action.

For more than a decade, the Boston Indicators Project has given residents of one of America's oldest cities access to an online repository of data and information, fostered informed public debate and tracked progress on a shared set of civic goals that stretch all the way to 2030.

Aside from tracking the city's progress and challenges in 10 areas, the project issues research reports on specific themes, such as poverty. It also aggregates public and private research on Boston and has hundreds of collaborators.

Many of the project's goals have already borne fruit. As part of a push to grow jobs in emerging industries, for instance, the state of Massachusetts has become second only to California in venture capital funding to jump-start the clean technology and energy industry.

Increased community spiritedness and civic action are acknowledged as welcome by-products of the initiative.

Boston may be one of America's richest cities, but hunger is on the rise there and the poor are poorer than they were 20 years ago, according to the report.

In recent years, an annual walk to raise funds for emergency food programmes has seen more than 40,000 participants - roughly one in every 15 residents.

The Singapore project clearly has a long way to go. But it is worth noting that the Boston project also started small, compared to what it is today. Its first report, in 2000, contained only "baseline" data.

These days, the project tracks the city's performance in 10 sectors and has hundreds of collaborators who make available their own research on the portal. Critically, local government was a key collaborator right from the start.

For Mr Lien, collaboration and community action are key aims of the Singapore project.

Some researchers - such as Associate Professor Tan Soo Jiuan and Dr Tambyah Siok Kuan of the National University of Singapore (NUS) who have been studying happiness and well-being here for the past 15 years - have already responded positively and want to be involved in future reports.

The NVPC hopes that for-profit, non-profit and government agencies will work together, not just to share data and reach a consensus on areas to track, but also to devise solutions for difficult problems.

"It is time we measured what we value as a society, addressed challenges openly and collaborated to find better ways to solve our nation's problems," says Mr Lien. "These issues cannot be tackled by a solo driver."

Former government chief statistician Paul Cheung believes this is a worthwhile effort.

He points out that the notion of progress - what we mean by it and how we track it - is being redefined in many places across the developed world, including Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan.

"The government has its own definition of progress. But the people may have a different one," says Professor Cheung, who joined the Social Work Department at NUS earlier this year after nearly nine years as director of the United Nations Statistics Division in New York.

He says the Government should also publish its set of "well-being indicators" after extensive public consultation.

The governments of many developed democracies, such as Australia and Britain, have already taken the lead, he points out. Some, like Australia, have moved from measuring well-being to tracking something even fuzzier: people's aspirations.

At the same time, there is also a need for more independent research by Singapore's universities, think-tanks, foundations and civil society agencies, says Prof Cheung.

"This is democracy; it allows the diverse opinions to be harnessed and distilled."

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