TV revs it up..
...As life in crowded Singapore gets tougher and suicide rates jump by 30 percent, the biggest proportion being youths aged 20-29. By Seah Chiang Nee
Jul 20, 2013

ARE fast-paced, rich Singaporeans really the least emotional and most unhappy people on earth? No way, declares a state-controlled cable TV station.

For months, a cable station 34.5% owned by the government, Starhub, has been bombarding viewers with “Happy Everywhere” propaganda films to depict that despite rising stress, people are still smiling and dancing everywhere.

In its celluloid portrayal of life here, young and old Singaporeans of all races, particularly children, are prancing in the street from central Orchard Road to private estates, singing and hugging each other.

The merry-making propaganda obviously reflects the government’s concern about correcting an image of unhappy Singaporeans demoralised by over-crowding and stress in recent years.

Is it working?

Well, the result is not clear but the latest statistics are not encouraging.

Singapore’s suicide rates for 2012 jumped by a significant 30%.

The number of people ending their lives reached a 20-year high of 467, a rise of 30%, the highest proportion being youths aged 20-29 years old.

These grim figures raise two possibilities. The first is the high figures are a passing phenomenon and will fall back.

Secondly, it may lead Singapore – the world’s second most densely-populated country – to join the ranks of South Korea and Japan for having a high number of suicides.

When Starhub launched its merry-making campaign, such statistics were not yet known.

The short films are accompanied by flashing messages that read: “They say we are emotionless, the least happy people in the world.”

It also refers to pessimistic headlines often depicting Singaporeans as “soulless, complainers, people who don’t laugh and concerned only about gross domestic product”.

The cable station disagrees. Look at people happy everywhere, depicts the cable TV station with 150 channels, some of them beamed across the region.

It began four months ago to mark World Happiness Day, but is still frequently aired on some of its channels, including serious ones like CNBC.

It was mainly to dispel a Gallup poll in 2013 listing Singaporeans as among the least happy people on earth. A month earlier, the city was ranked as the least emotional.

Things have not been going too well in recent times.

A steady decline in the economy and job opportunities and a continuous surge in inflation, aggravated by mass arrival of foreigners, have raised the level of stress and unhappiness of many Singaporeans.

In a recent poll by JobStreet.com. 56 per cent of Singaporean workers said that stress is the main cause of poor mental health.

Singapore’s brief history since the 1960s has seen a rapid transformation of a poor squatter population to an affluent middle-class society with high living standards.

But the achievements in the past 10 years were not matched, resulting in a decline in the general standard of living and morals.

Worker contentment declined, indicated by the following:

** Singapore is seeing the highest levels of employee burn-out in the region;

** Last year, workers felt more stressed and overworked compared to the previous poll; eight in 10 said their workload had increased, said a JobsCentral online poll;

** Some 76% of workers said they were dissatisfied with their jobs, the second lowest globally in terms of career satisfaction, said global research agency Accenture; and

** Singaporeans work the longest hours among top cities, clocking 46 per week, said a recent survey by Savills.

It is doubtful whether Starhub’s portrayed prancing lifestyle – which differs greatly from what most people do in real life – can help to restore the optimism of the young generation about the future.

It is important if the government were to succeed in persuading more youths to get married and have children.

The road ahead may have become more complex in the wake of the suicide statistics just revealed.

The total of 467 suicides means that more than one person is committing suicide every day, and four or five others attempting to do so.

The biggest proportion of increase (80%) was for youths aged 20-29. However, it is people above 50-59 years old who formed the largest number of victims.

The Samaritans of Singapore (SOS) attributed the increase to extremes in stressful living conditions as well as interpersonal relationship issues.

Many Singaporeans were appalled by the revelation.

Some cynics, however, said with life pressures long on the rise, such adverse social effects should not be surprising.

“The impact of drastic changes in Singapore is coming earlier than expected,” said one commentator.

“Things are going to get worse if more foreigners are squeezed into the island for the proposed 6.9 million population.”

Opposition politicians have proposed that Singapore measure progress not only by economic prosperity, but a National Happiness Index.

Last year Workers Party chairman Sylvia Lim made the suggestion in Parliament, saying it was time for modern Singapore to “focus on happiness as a national goal”.

It is unlikely to be heeded at least for a long time to come.

Former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who is still alive, has long advocated that building GDP must take precedence above all else.

With prosperity you can do many things; without it, trouble, he often said.

As time and unhappiness grow, Lee’s successors may eventually have to start moving away from a relentless materialistic pursuit to give higher priority to people’s welfare – especially if suicide rates remain high.

(This article was first published in That Star, Malaysia)