Singapore city skyline dusk panorama (Image - Chensiyuan, 2011, Wikimedia Commons)

Economist’s liveability report meaningless for non-expats

Every year, consultancies like Mercer and the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) release global reports ranking cities around the world. In March, the EIU ranked Singapore the most expensive city in the world. The Straits Times and TODAY made sure to include the words “for expats” in their headlines. “Singapore ranked world’s most expensive city for expats” went the headlines for both newspapers.

Now that the EIU has ranked Singapore Asia’s third most liveable city, the headline for TODAY reads: “Singapore surpasses Hong Kong as Asia’s third most liveable city: Economist report”. And the headline for The Straits Times reads: “Singapore beats Hong Kong in liveability rankings for first time”. Neither TODAY nor The Straits Times explains that these rankings only reflect the quality of life of expatriates. Neither of them explains how these liveability rankings are calculated. And neither of them consider the possibility that both their headlines and their reports may be misleading for those reasons. Whether this is the result of patriotism, propaganda or lax editorial standards, it is bad journalism.

Contrast this with the press in Australia. Melbourne has topped the survey for the seventh year running. The Sydney Morning Herald questions the meaningfulness of the EIU’s survey and offers its own assessment. Although it agrees with much of the EIU’s assessment, it points out that “while family homes are unaffordable, apartments are cheap by international standards. And besides, affordability isn’t part of the equation for The Economist’s rankings.”

In a separate article, the SMH heavily criticises the survey. Melbourne University urban geographer, Kate Shaw, raised the very pertinent question: “Liveable for who?” The EIU survey ignored the growing rich-poor divide, she said. “It doesn’t take into account what life is like for people who aren’t completely cashed up.”

“Did The Economist survey anybody who’s living under a bridge or skipping meals to pay their power bills?” asked Emma King of the Victorian Council of Social Services. RMIT planning academic Elizabeth Taylor also said, “The Economist also ranks Melbourne as one of the top 20 most expensive cities in the world but I don’t see us bragging about that one.”

As Taylor and many others frequently point out, the EIU global liveability report is meant for affluent executives, not the average individual. This much is evident from the business structure of the EIU. The full 5,800 word report is not publicly available. The EIU charges US$275 (S$375) for it. Country-specific liveability profiles are sold separately—US$275 each as well. Clearly, the target market for this survey is businesses, not the average individual. The only free portion of the report is a brief summary which excludes vital information about how data is obtained and different criteria weighted. As a research and analysis division, the EIU’s primary market is businesses, financial firms and governments. It says as much on page 2 of the free overview.

On page 7, the EIU describes the purpose of the survey: “Assessing liveability has a broad range of uses, from benchmarking perceptions of development levels to assigning a hardship allowance as part of expatriate relocation packages.” In other words, the liveability survey is meant to help businesses determine where to move their offices and how much they should compensate expatriates if they did so. It is meant to reflect a life not shared by the majority of Singaporeans.

As it is often said, there are lies, damned lies and statistics. Our national dailies have presented the statistics here differently when their results are unfavourable than when they are favourable. They have interpreted the statistics in a way that is contrary to its intended purpose. And they have failed to scrutinise the way the statistics are derived even though they are uniquely equipped to do so (there is no way TOC can afford EIU’s costly reports).

In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman writes: “A reliable way to make people believe in falsehoods is frequent repetition, because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth. Authoritarian institutions and marketers have always known this fact.”

The challenge is to always critically examine rankings like this global liveability survey.