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Singaporeans Are Still Emotionally Stressed
Business Journal

Singaporeans Are Still Emotionally Stressed

by Leong Chee Tung

When Bloomberg Businessweek reported that Singaporeans were confronting an "emotion deficit" last year, no one could have anticipated the firestorm of controversy as the article went viral. The 2009-2011 Gallup study on which the article was based polarized opinions: Senior Minister of State for Law and Education Ms. Indranee Rajah wrote an impassioned piece on why Singaporeans didn't deserve the label, while discontented Singaporeans came out in full force over the blogosphere to latch on to a credible source of data that resonated with their subjective experiences.

In the Singaporean context, "all work and no play" may have indeed made us dull.

In a repeat of the study in 2012, Gallup found that Singapore had a double-digit increase in the percentage of its citizens experiencing positive emotions, with the Positive Experience Index rising by 24 percentage points to 70%. This was the largest swing in Gallup's global data set of more than 140 countries and puts Singapore in the top half in positive emotions in the world.

As a Singaporean, I find this new data point intriguing. On the one hand, the increase was spread evenly across demographic groups, suggesting a robust inflection point in society that should be favorable. On the other hand, Gallup did not note similar increases in other corresponding indexes in its World Poll data set covering evaluative well-being, satisfaction with community basics (such as housing, education, and healthcare), and confidence in national institutions -- and even saw a slight decline in optimism.

At the same time, many advertisement campaigns were running during the 2012 study period to capitalize on residual patriotism to capture dollars from Singaporeans and provoke resentment against a faceless Western corporation. Perhaps by the time Gallup conducted the 2012 study, all the attention that the 2011 study received contaminated the results -- Singapore's 2012 Positive Experience Index score is one of the highest in the past five years. It may be useful to take the study at face value and consider any structural factors that may have caused this shift.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong alluded to a "turning point" in his National Day rally speech last month, giving the speech at ITE College Central to "underscore [his] long-standing commitment to investing in every person, every Singaporean, to his full potential." Beneath this statement is the paradox that Singaporean society is attempting to reconcile: Singaporeans have the sense that we are approaching the "backward bending" segment of the labor supply curve at which high average wages, low unemployment, and increased value placed on work-life balance are encouraging society to trade off more labor for leisure. At the same time, growing income inequality, population pressure on infrastructure, and the rising cost of living suggest that it may be premature to rest on our laurels and that significant emotional stressors exist for Singapore residents.

Opting for leisure over labor?

Exploring whether Singaporeans have been trading more labor for leisure and therefore increasing our propensity to experience positive emotions, this phenomenon seems to be more anecdotal than systemic. In 2012, Singaporeans worked an average of 46.2 hours a week, just as many as we have over the past 10 years. This is also more than the averages in Hong Kong, Korea, Taiwan, and Japan. Singaporeans not only work relatively long hours, there are also more of us working: Our labor force participation rate was the highest on record in 2012 at 66.6%.

This would not necessarily be problematic for our emotional well-being if working was a joyful endeavor. But with 91% of the population either not engaged or actively disengaged with their work and 76% of Singaporeans indicating that they are dissatisfied with their jobs, it seems that in the Singaporean context, "all work and no play" may have indeed made us dull.

The Three Types of EmployeesWith leisure being a scarce commodity, the quality of leisure and its concordant effect on our emotional well-being become even more significant. The Singapore government has made a point of jazzing up Singapore's image with the development of Marina Bay, opening two integrated resorts and casinos, and hosting the world's only Grand Prix night race. The "City in a Garden" initiative efficiently provides for recreational and social spaces within a high-density urban environment with 0.8ha of parks per 1,000 residents and 200km of "park connectors," while an average of more than one mass race event was held every week in 2012.

However, the claustrophobia Singaporeans feel manifested in a rare protest against a government plan for population growth, even as growth in the number of permanent residents and nonresidents has outstripped the growth of the Singapore citizen population by multiple orders of magnitude. Moreover, income inequality has increased over the past decade, even after adjusting for government transfers, and is higher than the rest of the developed countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. This indicates that higher quality of leisure may be accessible only to a smaller segment of the population. The fact that expats in Singapore receive the fifth highest pay in the Asia-Pacific region would also grate on the local population.

Helping Singapore residents enjoy more positive experiences

None of these have been significant changes in the past year, though, and the net effect on positive emotions in Singapore is unclear. Gallup's other indicators of societal progress put Singapore in the top 10 in the world for confidence in national institutions, satisfaction with community basics, law and order, anticorruption, communications connectivity, and availability of economic opportunity. Nevertheless, noting that Singaporeans have not actually been substituting more leisure for labor, that labor is currently unlikely to generate much positivity among Singaporeans. And noting that quality leisure may be available only to a decreasing proportion of the population, the most recent Positive Experience Index for Singapore (2012) seems to be an anomaly, possibly related to the publicity surrounding Gallup's earlier study.

Positive and negative experiences provide information about how people feel about their lives beyond tangibles like money. In our personal lives, credit should go to the Singapore government for understanding this and moving quickly to shore up social safety nets, generating "multiple pathways of success" and focusing on inclusive growth. In our professional lives, improving workplaces to deeply engage employees will help Singapore residents enjoy more positive experiences, building on an already solid institutional foundation for the essential elements of our future: "Hope, Heart, and Home."


Leong Chee Tung is Manager, Singapore and Southeast Asia, at Gallup. He is based in Gallup's Singapore office.

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