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Stress: Government plays a part – Dr Ang Yong Guan

Joshua Chiang /

A survey of 8 countries during the economic downturn revealed that Singaporeans were the most pessimistic despite being least affected by the economic downturn. Another survey of 14 countries showed our workers to be the unhappiest of all. There is at least one suicide a day.

According to psychiatrist Dr Ang Yong Guan, Singaporeans are facing an unhealthy level of stress, and it must be linked to our national attribute of kiasuism and helplessness.

“The nation has a role to play in moderating the stress of a society,” he emphasized.

Dr Ang was speaking at the second Post Election Transformation Series talk last Saturday. The talk, attended by 50 people, was organized by Leong Sze Hian and The Online Citizen. Mr Leong spoke for the first one-third of the session on CPF matters while Dr Ang's presentation entitled ""Stress, Success and Quality of Life" took up the second-third. The remaining one-third of the forum was devoted to a Question and Answer session which also featured a surprise appearance by Singapore Democratic Party's (SDP) Tan Jee Say.

Dr Ang, who is also a member of the SDP, listed down four factors that affect quality of life – the individual, the stress one faces, the situation one is in, and the level of support one receives. The government can directly create stress for the individual through its policies. But the way the government is handling our CPF money is far from giving us “comfort and feeling at peace”.

“If you don’t feel peace and calm, how do you have quality of life?” he added.

The government also advocates too narrow a definition of success. This has resulted in an unforgiving society, a culture of risk avoidance, under-developed talents, and a loss of zest.

“People are worried; there’s no creativity," Dr Ang said, citing the recent National Day Parade Funpack song as a prime example.

There is also a correlation between the level of democracy in a country and the level of happiness its people experience. Tellingly, in the Happiness Index of the Gallop World Poll, Singapore ranked 81 out of 155 countries surveyed. Dr Ang noted that all the top 5 happiest nations also ranked very high in the Democracy Index of the Economist Intelligence Unit. Singapore ranked 82 out of 167 in this Democracy Index. He also observed that most of the countries which scored high in happiness also had proportional representation in Parliament. He concluded that the happiest nations are also the freest nations. Their citizens must have felt in control, empowered and able to participate freely and have a big say in nation building.

Whilst some are quick to point out that Happiness Index is “touchy-feeling” lacking in objectivity and therefore irrelevant, we cannot deny that happiness is often about the perception of an experience. Although not quantifiable, it is definitely a real entity felt deeply at an emotional level. The fact that it is not measurable does not mean it does not exist or is not important.

“What counts may not be countable,” he contended.

Turning to Denmark, which scored the highest in the report, Dr Ang noted that Danish schools have small class sizes of not more than 25 students per class. Letting children play when young is the prevailing attitude. Most Danish pick careers that interest them - money and status generally don't matter. Success to the Danes means being happy - having somewhere to live, enough to eat, and being surrounded by friendly people. The country also has a strong Social Welfare System in place.

He contrasted that with Singapore where the government advocates self-reliance for fear of Singaporeans developing a clutch mentality. However, this has instead contributed to stress and a sense of helplessness; the Happiness Index poll showed 75% of Singaporeans ‘struggling’.

Dr Ang concluded his talk by emphasing that quality of life can be achieved if our success is attained without paying too high a price in combating stress. In this respect, now that the people have spoken in the GE 2011, the government must respond by looking at its policies,both old and new, to ensure that the negative psychological implications of such policies are kept at bay. It must create an atmosphere conducive for Singaporeans to grow and thrive. It must develop consistent and positive core beliefs and values (for instance, the philosophy of pragmatism alone is not enough) necessary for Singaporeans to feel empowered and be in control of their destinies to have a high quality of life.

“People must be in control,” he said. “When you’re not helpless then you can talk about quality of life.”

Read more about Dr Ang's presentation here.