Neither overflowing with laughter nor “misery city”

By Andrew Loh

“It will be a fascinating city, competitive yet compassionate, busy and yet with time to enjoy friendships and recreation. It will be a nation overflowing with laughter, confidence, life,” said then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong in his 2003 National Day Rally.

11 years later, many Singaporeans will tell you that we are a far cry from the goal which Goh envisioned. They will cite various surveys, studies and reports in recent times which all told us that we are the unhappiest nation on the planet, with some of the most disgruntled workers living in one of the world’s most crowded cities.

Indeed, Singapore is overflowing – but not with laughter, as Goh had hoped. It is instead being inundated with people, consumed with materialism, with the average Singaporean struggling to keep himself afloat.

Singapore, it seems, has become a very unhappy place, in spite of all its glamourous trappings of F1 races, shiny plastic supertrees, artificially manicured parks, luxury metal boxes zooming around its roads, and sky scraping condominiums littered everywhere.

And so a BBC article last Friday described us as “misery city.” It’s a little of a downgrade from “Disneyland with the Death Penalty” which we previously was dubbed as.

“Does Singapore deserve its ‘miserable’ tag?” the BBC article by Charlotte Ashton, a freelance writer, asked.

Ashton’s time in Singapore seemed to have gone rather well in the beginning when she first stepped foot on our shores. She seemed to have described what Goh had envisioned.

She “found plenty of apparent happiness” here in tiny Singapore – at the free public BBQ pits of “Singapore’s beautifully-kept parks, always full of jolly families.”

“And in the broad, toothless grin of the septuagenarian vendor at our local food court, who served me my daily dose of delicious, fresh pineapple juice,” Ashton gushed.

But alas, her pastel-coloured, rose-tinted, fairytale world suddenly came crashing down one fateful day while using our public transport system. Ashton, who was pregnant at the time, was on the train when the nausea from the morning sickness got the better of her.

“Worried I was going to faint, I crouched to the floor, holding my head in my hands. And so I remained, completely ignored, for the full 15 minutes it took to reach my station. Nobody offered me seat [sic] or asked me if I was okay.”

The experience was the first where she felt “Singapore had made me feel unhappy”, she said.

The “plenty of apparent happiness” she had seen all around Singapore have, in one unfortunate experience, turned into a “massive compassion deficit.”

An entire nation is condemned.

Ashton’s account has raised such an important issue that the Prime Minister and two other ministers have jumped in with their reactions.

PM Lee Hsien Loong said that while we need not accept everything the writer says, “her article is still a good reminder to us to be kinder and more gracious to one another.”

It is worth noting that the government mouthpiece papers, the Straits Times and TODAY, then took this “us” to mean “Singaporeans” although PM Lee never mentioned citizens in his comments.

PM Lee response

And before you can say, “Woah, one article does not a nation condemn”, ministers Tan Chuan Jin and Lawrence Wong threw in their two cents’ worth and urged Singaporeans to, in the words of PM Lee, “do much better.”

Apparently empathising with what Ashton says, Tan remembers his wife “facing the same situation” on the train.

“Building a gracious society starts with every one of us,” he posted on his Facebook page. While one would not dismiss the experience of Tan’s wife, one does wonder how often she had met with this attitude from fellow commuters since.

Jumping in, but not being as pessimistic or critical as Tan, Wong says he has seen “signs of hope” [according to a TODAY report], of people “[becoming] more gracious.”

One is quite tickled by the all-so-serious manner in which our ministers have reacted to the BBC article.

Their reactions seem to be similar to that of their fellow MP, Baey Yam Keng, in 2012 when he urged Singaporeans to “reflect upon ourselves” if what student Sun Xu had said about us were true.

Sun, a Chinese national who was studying at the National University of Singapore, had described how some “uncles” had stared at him when he accidently brushed into them in a public place.

“[There] are more dogs than humans in Singapore,” Sun later posted on his Facebook page.

It ignited a huge public uproar among Singaporeans, leading to NUS taking action against Sun eventually.

Baey himself had to issue an apology – in Parliament, no less – for his comments which some saw as a defence of the student, an act which was seen as unforgivable.

“In trying to give the benefit of doubt to what the student said,” Baey told the House, “and attempting to soothe the hard feelings of some Singaporeans, I was accused of siding with a foreigner and not standing up for fellow Singaporeans. It was never my intention to undermine Singaporeans but to those whom my words have hurt, I am sorry.”

What should one make of all this?

Personally, I would like to say that Singaporeans are in fact quite a kind lot. There are numerous examples of this – everyday examples as well as not-so-everyday ones.

I take the train on a daily basis and I have witnessed many many occasions where the young gave up their seats to the elderly, pregnant women, and even young students. I have even seen elderly people giving up their seats to the needy such as pregnant women.

We also know the amount of charity Singaporeans pour forth when it is required. Look at our reaction to the tsunami in Indonesia and elsewhere, or the compassion Singaporeans showed toward Sakthivel Kumaravelu when we found out his family was dirt poor back home. One Singaporean even travelled to India to pay his grieving mother a visit and to comfort her.

When brothers Nigel and Donovan were killed in Tampines last year, our hearts broke as one with the parents when we heard the news of the untimely deaths.

A few thousand people – many strangers to the family – showed up to lend support to the parents at the boys’ funerals.

Singaporeans grieved along with the parents. Indeed, many openly wept at the funeral that day.

We do not lack compassion.

So, what am I trying to say?

I think we need to recognise that we do care for others, and at the same time recognise that there will always be the so-called “black sheep” among us, as indeed there are in every society.

We should also realise that while we are still some distance from being that “nation overflowing with laughter, confidence, life” which our former PM hoped we would be, we are nonetheless more than just what one article say we are.

On the contrary, our experiences of Singapore are different for each person.

And our leaders should not use one sole article to brand an entire people or nation as somehow lacking in compassion, as described in the BBC article.

We are certainly not a nation overflowing with laughter but neither are we “misery city”.

The evidence shows quite a different picture, I would argue. We can always do better, but certainly to accuse us of a “massive compassion deficit” is, well, quite ridiculous.