Seoul the city with best quality of life? Maybe not

Children play in a fountain to beat the heat in central Seoul on July 22, 2016. AFP
Fireworks bloom over the Seoul skyline during the Seoul International Fireworks Festival. PHOTO: KOREA TOURISM ORGANIZATION

SEOUL - It started with a social media rant.

A Korean friend, seeing a report that Seoul was the "happiest city in the world", posted on Facebook: "The most ridiculous article I've read this week!"

I was not surprised. How can Seoulites be so happy when they are stressed out by long hours of work (not counting the time spent drinking with colleagues until midnight) and the relentless pursuit of academic excellence?

How can they be so happy when their country has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, spends little on social welfare, and is still trapped in a deeply rooted culture of hierarchy?

Young people, especially those lacking opportunities or struggling to find jobs, have even coined the term "Hell Joseon" to vent their angst on what they describe as the regression of modern society to a feudalistic one controlled by elites, where commoners like them are forever stuck at the bottom rung. Joseon, the last dynasty in Korea, ended in 1910.

As it turns out, the news got it wrong.

The report was based on a recent study by Dutch design and consultancy firm Arcadis, and a check with the company revealed that the writer had somehow misinterpreted the results.

The study reviewed 100 cities to determine the Sustainable Cities Index 2016. Seoul was ranked 7th on the index, behind Zurich, Singapore and Stockholm which took the top three positions. The results were based on three categories of sustainability - social, environmental, and economic.

The South Korean capital was placed first in the category of social sustainability, which rates indicators like health (life expectancy and obesity), education (literacy and universities), income inequality, work-life balance, dependency ratio, crime, number of green spaces, and the cost of housing and living.

Some of the statistics may look good. Seoul ranks high on life expectancy (82.3 years, 11th in the world according to World Health Organisation) and literacy (highest among 34 countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, according to an OECD report), and low on crime (its crime index of 14.99 according to statistics website Numbeo, is the lowest in the world).

"These indicators can be broadly thought of as capturing 'quality of life'," said an Arcadis spokesman, refuting reports that linked the category to happiness.

But does this really mean that Seoul offers the best quality of life in the world, ahead of its closest European contenders Rotterdam, Hamburg, Vienna and Berlin?

Not necessarily.

South Korea's income gap is the worst in the Asia-Pacific region, with the top 10 per cent of its population getting 45 per cent of total income, according to the International Monetary Fund.

The country's dependency ratio, or percentage of working age population, has also fallen from 81 in 1960 to 37 last year due to shrinking fertility rates. This figure is one of the lowest in the world, according to World Bank.

Property prices in Seoul have been rising, especially in the coveted Gangnam and Seocho districts where prices have crossed the 1 billion won (S$1.22 million) mark. The average home price in the capital city is 500 million won, the highest in the country and nearly twice that of the neighbouring Gyeonggi province.

What's worse, work-life balance remains a distant dream for many office workers who feel obliged to stay back at the office until their boss leaves.

Would one be happy living in such a place? I decided to conduct my own straw poll to find out.

Out the 10 Korean friends who responded, four gave a rating of eight to nine out of 10 to describe their happiness level. They raved about the city's excellent public transport and healthcare systems, abundance of opportunities, variety of cultural venues and events, exciting night life and low crime rate.

The rest gave a mixed reaction and lower scores of six to seven.

Some common gripes are poor work-life balance, the overtly competitive education system and lack of childcare facilities. A married friend even said she hopes to migrate to another city for a few years, so she can raise her child in a multiracial environment.

A friend said the root of unhappiness for many Koreans is social pressure and the hierarchical social structure, while another said a lot of work stress comes from demands for immediate results - a consequence of their "ppali ppali" (hurry hurry in Korean) culture.

Mr Aaron Page, Arcadis' country head for Korea who has lived in Seoul for nine years, chimed in and rated the city seven out of 10 for quality of life. He praised the city's healthcare services and public transport system, but added that "a move towards greater social and economic equality would improve quality of life for many in Seoul".

As for me, Seoul is an option for long-term stay but my heart remains in Singapore. I'd like my daughter to grow up in a place where she gets equal opportunities, where she can stand on her own without conforming to social pressure, and where her work is appraised based on talent and performance, not seniority or connections.

Quality of life is more than just statistics. It affects how satisfied you are with your life and how far you can go in pursuing your dreams.

Singapore has a lot more to offer for that, especially for a modern, independent woman.

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