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What Singapore's Leaders May Not Know
Business Journal

What Singapore's Leaders May Not Know

Singapore's citizens have an emotional problem. It's not that they have negative or destructive feelings -- it's that they don't feel much of anything.

World leaders are beginning to understand the limitations of measuring only GDP.

It may come as a surprise that Singapore has any problems at all. If you were to monitor the state of the human condition solely through money transactions and 40-hour workweeks, Singapore would be the best in the world. It has one of the lowest unemployment rates and one of the highest rates of GDP per capita in the world. The country is second on the World Economic Forum's Global Competitiveness Index, 26th on the United Nations' Human Development Index (HDI), and fourth in terms of life expectancy.

Yet Singapore trails all other nations worldwide on a key measure that reveals an unusual state of mind: Singaporeans are the least likely in the world to report feeling any emotions at all.

Measuring emotions

Gallup knows this because it has been measuring emotion in most countries since 2005. We quantify emotion using national surveys that include a series of questions about positive and negative emotions. Positive emotions include enjoyment, feeling well-rested, smiling and laughing a lot, feeling treated with respect all day, and learning or doing something interesting. Negative emotions include anger, stress, sadness, worry, and physical pain.

Most Emotionless Societies

The region with the most positive emotions in the world is Latin America. Panama, Paraguay, and Venezuela lead the world. The region with the highest negative emotions is the Middle East and North Africa region. Iraq, Bahrain, and the Palestinian Territories have it the worst.

These rankings focus on one thing: the presence of emotions. You might think that if people have low negative emotions, they will therefore have high positive emotions. That's not always the case. The presence of positive or negative emotions doesn't necessarily mean the absence of the other. In fact, there are countries in which large segments of the population report feeling no emotions at all, such as Singapore.

Robert Kennedy had some great insights about the shortcomings of GDP in a 1968 speech: "The gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile."

World leaders are beginning to understand the limitations of measuring only GDP. Bhutan was an early adopter of gauging emotions with its measure of Gross National Happiness. France followed with its Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress, led by Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen, which explored ways to broaden measures of social well-being beyond GDP. More recently, United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron had the Office of National Statistics add indicators to the country's general population survey to measure well-being. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development -- the club of developed countries -- built the Better Life Index, and the United Nations recently recommended that all countries begin tracking indicators of well-being and happiness. All these indicators exist to measure one thing: the presence of emotions, particularly happiness. What none of them measure is the absence of emotions.

As leaders move beyond GDP to better track the progress and real human development of their societies, understanding daily experiences is essential. Singapore is undoubtedly one of the best run and most respected countries in the world. However, if Singapore wants to continue to advance its society, its next biggest breakthroughs must come from improving how residents experience their daily lives.

When Gallup examined the daily experience of Singaporeans, it found a much different picture than what GDP, unemployment rates, and the United Nations' HDI showed. Recently, Singapore has seen declines in happiness, intellectual stimulation, respect, and even feeling well-rested.

What Singapore's leaders should do

The implications for an emotionless society are significant. Well-being and daily emotion correlate with some of the most important societal outcomes, such as community attachment and brain gain (acquiring and retaining top talent). To continue to be competitive in today's world, Singapore must begin focusing on behavioral-based indicators that move beyond GDP.

The bottom line is that Singaporeans are productive, highly disciplined citizens who are not enjoying their lives much. This culture has won historically, but it will not move to the next level until its leadership takes well-being seriously.

To read more, visit Singapore Ranks as Least Emotional Country in the World on, or visit a related article at Bloomberg Businessweek.

For complete data sets or custom research from the countries Gallup continually surveys, contact us.


Jon Clifton is responsible for oversight of Gallup's global government work and the Gallup World Poll.

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