Singapore confronts an emotion deficit

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Commuters on an SMRT North South line train arrive at Bishan train station interchange in Singapore. Photo: AFP

Thanks to Singapore's strength in finance, pharmaceuticals, electronics, and other industries, its economy almost doubled in 10 years, making the country of 5.3 million people one of the world's wealthiest, with per-capita gross domestic product of $33,530. But Fun City it ain't.

US pollster Gallup conducts surveys in more than 140 countries to compare how people feel about their lives. Singapore ranks as the most emotionless society in the world, beating out Georgia, Lithuania, and Russia. Singaporeans are unlikely to report feelings of anger, physical pain, or other negative emotions. They're not laughing a lot, either. "If you measure Singapore by the traditional indicators, they look like one of the best-run countries in the world," says Jon Clifton, a Gallup partner in Washington. "But if you look at everything that makes life worth living, they're not doing so well."

Some of Gallup's questions are straightforward. Evaluate your life on a scale of zero to 10: Danes are the most satisfied and people from Togo in West Africa are the least. No surprises, too, when Gallup asked people to say whether life would be better or worse five years from now: The award for most pessimistic goes to Greece, ground zero of the euro debt crisis. The people most likely last year to report feeling stress, anger, sadness, worry, or pain were Iraqis.

Not many Singaporeans answered yes to those negative questions. But not many answered yes to the questions measuring happiness: Had they smiled yesterday? Learned something interesting? Felt respected or well rested? Only 36 percent of Singaporeans responded affirmatively to either the positive or the negative questions. Clifton says one reason Singaporeans are so dour is their lack of satisfaction at work: According to Gallup's research, only 2 percent of the country's workers feel engaged by their jobs. The global average is 11 percent.

Singaporeans recognize they have a problem. Li Bona, 29, an assistant manager at Changi International Airport, which wins kudos as one of the world's best, says schools discourage students from thinking of themselves as individuals. "When you are taught not to be different from other people, you are less willing to express yourself," he says. So Li and his fellow Singaporeans "feel uncomfortable when we try to express what we feel or what we think." Staying emotionally neutral could be a way of coping with the stress of urban life in a place where 82 percent of the population lives in government-built housing. "We are taught to keep going and not make too much of a fuss," says Leong Chan-Hoong, a research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies.

The country's leaders want to promote a more free-wheeling society. In a speech last August, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told Singapore's Tiger Moms and Dads, "Please let your children have their childhood! No homework is not a bad thing." Progress is slow. William Wan is general secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement, a government-funded organization that has been working since 1997 to help Singaporeans be nicer to one another. Singaporeans still "take ourselves a bit too seriously," says Wan, who wishes people would loosen up a bit. "We don't clap very loudly," he says. "I've been to concerts where people don't even applaud as much as they should."


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