Singaporeans, you think you've got problems? Think again

While Singaporeans do like to vent to visitors, their complaints also take other forms and are often directed at targeted audiences for specific policy ends. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

In 2015, The Straits Times, marking Singapore's 50th year of independence, published a delectable collection entitled 50 Things To Love About Singapore, where ST writers contributed short essays bringing to light and celebrating odd and quirky, unexpected and even weird things about the country.

The entire book was fun, but one essay has stuck with me over the years. As everyone knows, public protest is frowned upon in Singapore, but as the writer points out, Singaporeans "do complain".

That's putting things mildly.

In a 1977 parliamentary speech, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew famously observed: "You know the Singaporean. He is a hard-working, industrious, rugged individual. Or we would not have made the grade. But let us also recognise that he is a champion grumbler."

Indeed, it doesn't take a visitor long to appreciate the fact that Singaporeans are perhaps most comfortable while complaining and, as a result, have developed the verbal remonstrance into something akin to an art form - or national sport.

A visitor's first experience with the form probably occurs during the taxi ride in from Changi or maybe at a hawker centre or coffee shop just after checking into a hotel.

Complaints about one thing or another - rising prices, hyper competition, the performance of the Government, the weather, reckless drivers, litterers, poor service, crowded trains, etc - provide much of the soundtrack for one's visit, no matter how short or long.

The fact that much of the yammering is done deadpan and, although sometimes loud, often in a more or less good-natured way renders most complaints alluring, even charming, to the beguiled recipients, who believe that they are experiencing the real Singapore and interacting with real Singaporeans in unguarded ways.

Some legitimate grounds

After granting that there is generally a performative aspect to the complainants' whines - especially for easy-to-fool ang mohs like myself - Singaporeans do have some legitimate grounds for complaints.

The country is extremely competitive and the pace of change is relentless. Wages, especially for low earners, don't always keep up with prices, the Government can be overbearing at times, and the humidity is often stifling.

And so, one must always keep in mind that while Singaporeans do like to vent to visitors, their complaints also take other forms and are often directed at targeted audiences for specific policy ends.

For example, they are sometimes aimed at the Government, whether via interactions at CDCs (community development councils), at feedback dialogues, in communications with their MPs, or via letters to the editor in the leading newspapers, or via social media or online venues.

When they are, they often serve serious and constructive purposes, providing useful feedback leading in many cases to meaningful policy changes without the need for organised protest, much less political violence. Hear! Hear!

National Day perspective

This said, it is always important, particularly around the time of National Day, to put Singapore's problems and Singaporeans' complaints in perspective. So, in the spirit of "keeping it real", as we say in the increasingly dysfunctional country from which I hail - the United States - here are a few contextual points for locals to keep in mind whenever they get the urge to let out a wail.

The next time one has the urge to carp, remember that Singapore "ain't half bad", as the American idiom goes.

In fact, by most criteria, the country's performance is extremely impressive, with rankings at or near the top in an array of league tables regarding meaningful measures of standard of living, livability and civilised life.

For starters, Singapore is a global leader in socioeconomic measures such as gross domestic product per capita, life expectancy (high), infant mortality (low), home ownership rates, proportion of income spent on food (low), school quality and educational performance, access/quality/efficiency of healthcare, and composite measures such as the Human Development Index.

It has low taxes, ranks highly in tabulations relating to global competitiveness, safety and honesty, and very respectably, if not at the very top, in broader measures such as the World Happiness Report (32nd in 2020).

Note that its very high ranking on the 2020 Human Development Index (tied for 11th) falls a bit (tied for 26th) when adjusted for inequality, but part of the explanation for this is likely related to the fact that Singapore is essentially a city state, and large cities are generally more unequal than countries comprising urban and rural areas.

Indeed, as economist Phang Sock Yong pointed out a few years ago in ST, income inequality in Singapore is lower than in other "superstar" cities such as New York, London and Hong Kong.

And in the closest thing we have to a "social justice" measure - the Economist Intelligence Unit of the Economist Group's Where-to-be-born Index - Singapore ranked sixth among the 80 countries rated in the most recent rankings, for children born in 2013.

The strong showing is reflected in Singapore's position of influence and respect in regional and global fora of one type or another, and in less obvious ways as well, including the power of the Singapore passport, ranked this year as the second strongest in the world, behind only Japan.

So, on National Day next month, it's not a bad thing to take stock. Singapore certainly isn't perfect - especially for people living on low incomes - but, as most Singaporeans know deep down, it's a pretty good place to live, all things considered.

Maybe all that complaining helps. Keep up the good work.

  • Peter A. Coclanis is Albert R. Newsome Distinguished Professor of History and director of the Global Research Institute at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. He has lived and taught in Singapore, and (at least before Covid-19) visited often.

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