STRESSED AND UNHAPPY SINGAPOREANS
Long-time visitor Brian Nelsen wrote in May 2012. “Where are the friendly Singaporeans I used to know?” He expressed shock and dismay at the abrupt change in the attitude of Singaporeans towards tourists in the last few years. They appear unfriendly and rude nowadays. “Nobody smiles or returns a greeting any more. Many are now a surly lot,” he said. [Source: Seah Chiang Nee, The Star, June 9, 2012]
In 2008, AFP reported: “Despite its affluence, a poll by advertising firm Grey Group found that nine in ten people living in the city-state said they were stressed. Philip Merry, chief executive of consulting firm Global Leadership Academy, said: "Being based in Singapore and having trained thousands of people across the globe, one distinct trend I have noticed is that despite material wealth and economic success, Singaporeans consider themselves less happy than many other people." [Source: Agence France Presse, March 20, 2008 <>]
Seah Chiang Nee wrote in The Star, “Business Times reported last year that Singaporeans were a gloomy people. They are worried about property prices, taxi fares and inconsistent public transport. Much of the angst stemmed largely from the middle class, it said. Happiness is, of course, a subjective emotion and world rankings depend on the criteria used. Frequently quoted is the Happy Planet Index (HPI), which ranks Singapore a lowly 90th out of 151 countries – based on happiness, life expectancy and environmental sustainabilit.” [Source: Seah Chiang Nee, The Star, October 27, 2012 |*|]
In 2008, a search has been launched for the happiest person in Singapore. Merry of Global Leadership Academy was tasked with locating the cheery resident. According to AFP: “Under the contest, citizens aged 18 years and above can be nominated for the title of Singapore's Happiest Person 2008. Nominators should explain in between 300 and 1000 words why their nominee is a "model of happiness", Merry said. The winner will stay for free at a beach club in the Thai resort island of Phuket. The search is being held in conjunction with a conference on "The New Science of Happiness and Well-Being" to be held here next month. [Source: Agence France Presse, March 20, 2008]
Wealth Versus Happiness in Singapore
Seah Chiang Nee wrote in The Star, “The Credit Suisse Global Wealth Databook 2011 says that although Singaporeans may be the world’s wealthiest people, “they are not necessarily a happy lot”.| Workers Party Chairman Sylvia Lim had suggested that it was time for Singapore to “focus on happiness as a national goal”. This contrasts with the viewpoint of former premier Lee Kuan Yew say that building GDP must take precedence above all else. With prosperity you can do many things; without it, trouble, he often said. [Source: Seah Chiang Nee, The Star, October 27, 2012 |*|]
“To many Singaporeans, happiness means wealth, despite the rat race. So, how much happier are Singaporeans by comparison, informed people are beginning to ask. The GDP always comes first. The political leadership would hear what the Wall Street Journal declared in August: “Singapore – the world’s richest country.” Tiny Singapore had become the wealthiest nation in the world by GDP per capita, beating out Norway, the United States, Hong Kong and Switzerland, it reported. |*|
“However, I found that many young Singaporeans, despite their materialistic outlook, do not see their type of modernity and relentless pursuit of wealth as a better model for anyone. A common topic in recent discussions was the unhappiness of young Singaporeans over the rising social tension caused by stressful living and overcrowding. They have told ministers they want greater government efforts to build a more gracious society. Others want more attention to people’s welfare. |*|
Shortly after the “richest country” label appeared, Lawrence Wong, the Minister of Culture, Community and Youth, attributed this to stress and tension caused by a globalised world and competition. “Perhaps it is also a reflection of our present circumstances – we live in a globalised world of rapid change, forcing us to compete like never before,” he added. “And these kinds of changes and challenges cause stress and tension. So they make people worry about the future, and sometimes people get riled.” |*|
“Singapore’s brief history has seen a rapid transformation of a poor squatter population to an affluent middle-class society with high living standards. But the best achievements were recorded in the first 30 years of independence under the first generation leadership, termed the Golden Years. This has, however, not been matched in the past decade which also noted the following: 1) Singapore is seeing the highest levels of employee burn-out in the region, reported the Straits Times. 2) Singaporeans feel more stressed and overworked compared to six months ago; eight in 10 said their workload had increased, said a JobsCentral online poll. 3) Some 76 percent of workers said they were dissatisfied with their jobs, the second lowest globally in terms of career satisfaction, said global research agency Accenture. 4) Singaporeans work the longest hours among top cities, clocking 46 per week, said a recent survey by Savills. |*|
“These discoveries do not necessarily make people unhappy. A twitter survey published in May said one out of four Singaporeans was unhappy. In another dismal gauge, suicide rates among Singaporeans and permanent residents rose to 361 in 2011 from 353 the previous year, said Samaritans of Singapore. Recently a Caucasian tourist asked in a letter to information website Temasektimes: “Where are the friendly Singaporeans?” “Nobody smiles or returns a greeting anymore,” said long-time observer Brian Wilson, a regular visitor for 25 years. |*|
Uncaring, Selfish Singaporeans?
In 2008 after the Sichuan earthquake in China, Seah Chiang Nee wrote in The Star, “Have affluent, educated Singaporeans become too self-centred and insensitive to other people’s plights? Can Singapore be considered a First World city with such boorishness? A mature, developed country isn’t defined only by wealth and education; it is also about humanity and concern for others. [Source: Seah Chiang Nee, The Star, May 17, 2008 <><>]
“Justifiably or not, the disastrous Sichuan earthquake has sparked off a re-look here at a Singaporean characteristic that overshadows his economic achievement. In a TV interview, a tourist who just returned unhurt complained angrily about his encounter with airport delay and telephone breakdown at a time when the Chinese were frantically rescuing people. One viewer commented: “He kept complaining bitterly as if the whole world owed him an explanation about the airport delay.” Another added: “the man was practically shouting at the camera. His behaviour was really shocking.” In the face of the terrible suffering, the middle-aged Singaporean’s insensitive complaint about his personal inconvenience spread consternation and a sense of shame among viewers. <>
“It highlighted a trait often attributed to affluent, educated Singaporeans that they have become too self-centred and insensitive to other people’s plights. After years of social campaigns, tales still abound of people rushing for train seats or refusing to give one up to the elderly, ill treatment of maids, littering or inconsiderate driving. Many of the offenders are middle-class, young and educated who seem to have little interest in other people’s feelings. The Singaporean tourist, instead of lending a helping hand, was fuming about his own safety – even after he was safely back home. “Typical ugly Singaporean the sort that makes other people dislike us – totally self-centred,” said a blogger. Others disagree, with one defending it as a normal reaction for a foreigner desperate to escape quickly. “He may have put it badly, but he was scared and obviously wanted to return to his family,” he said. “Realistically speaking, not every one can be highly principled about helping in a disaster in a foreign country,” he added. <>
“Most, however, condemned his insensitivity. “It reflects the overall selfishness and self-centredness of middle-class Singaporeans,” said ‘investor’. “My general impression is that they are the second most selfish and self-centred people in Asia, next only to Hong Kongers.” The debate raised the question whether Singapore could be considered a First World city with such boorishness. A mature, developed country isn’t defined only by wealth and education; it is also about humanity and concern for others. Several days earlier, a girl who refused to give up a seat (meant for the elderly and the handicapped) to a pregnant woman, called her a “bitch” because she had stared at her and shook her head. <>
Reasons for the Uncaring, Selfish Behavior of Singaporeans
Seah Chiang Nee wrote in The Star, “Some blame it on the environment, especially an elitist, each-man-for- himself mentality. “There’s no such thing as a free lunch” is a theme that has been drilled into every child and adult. A whole generation has grown up believing that if Singaporeans get into trouble, they can expect no help from anyone. It may be a good teaching for a small city without resources, but it has also spawned an antithesis: If you can expect no help from others, you also do not need to care for others. “Living in a society where only money talks makes all of us less human and less caring,” says ‘Anonymous’. [Source: Seah Chiang Nee, The Star, May 17, 2008]
“Another writer said he was a typically an apathetic, uncaring Singaporean until he went to live in the United States. “Two years into my stay there and having been offered help by plenty of strangers on the street, I found myself doing the same,” he said. “The typical Singaporean reaction when they are offered unsolicited help is a suspicious glare. Certainly not encouraging to would-be helpers,” he added. <>
“The person who has the single biggest influence on how Singaporeans think and behave is Lee Kuan Yew. Many of the current leaders and civil servants as well as older Singaporeans, emulate him. The Minister Mentor has never been too concerned about his own – or Singapore’s – popularity as much as its interests. Giving charity to countries in need, for example, has rarely been its forte. The political elite, followed by and large by the citizenry, takes after Lee’s generally no-welfare, harshly competitive and unsentimental leadership. <>
In 2007, “the “survival of the fittest” type view, believed to prevail among the top elites, burst into a public furore following remarks made by the scholar-daughter of a government MP.
Condemning a young professional, Derek Wee, who wrote about the pressures faced by the common people, the student, Wee Shu Min lambasted the critic as wretched, an idiot and “leech”. She appeared to be defending the class divide in Singapore or “a tyranny of the capable and the clever” saying that “the only other class is the complement.” She ended by telling Derek: “Please, get out of my elite uncaring face.” Her MP father criticised her intemperate language, but supported some of her sentiments expressed. <>
“A nationwide condemnation ensued. The issue would have ended there if it were just regarded as a teenager’s rants. It was more than that. Because Shu Min was a scholar designed for a possible leadership role and daughter of a People’s Action Party MP (from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s constituency) , it instantly became a political hot potato. The critics said it reflected a government perception that a class divide was inevitable and may even be necessary to encourage people to strive harder in life. The target of her invective, Derek Wee, was actually echoing a popular public sentiment when he said Singaporeans were suffering partly because the government failed to understand their plight. Shu Min’s message was that failures were caused by laziness or lack of capabilities, which the persons themselves were responsible – with no words of support or care for those in need. <>
Stress in Emotionless Singaporeans?
"Singaporeans are the least likely in the world to report experiencing emotions of any kind on a daily basis," US-based pollster Gallup said in a report on a three-year study conducted in more than 150 countries. The Philippines came out as the most emotional society in the world, with Latin American countries dominating the top of the list. [Source: Agence France Presse, November 24, 2012 ><]
Jon Clifton, a Gallup partner in Washington, said: “Singaporeans are unlikely to report feelings of anger, physical pain, or other negative emotions. They’re not laughing a lot either. If you measure Singapore by the traditional indicators, they look like one of the best-run countries in the world. But if you look at everything that makes life worth living, they’re not doing so well.”
Singaporeans reacted to the with many saying the city state's competitive culture leaves them no room for feelings. AFP reported: “ Media in Singapore, one of the world's wealthiest and most stable societies, gave prominent coverage to the report, setting off some strong reactions. "Where got time to laugh? Wake up, must fight for place on trains, lunch time, must fight for place to sit down and eat, go home must fight for place on trains," Edward Alexzandra Peters wrote on Facebook.
Kok Leong commented on Yahoo! Singapore: "It's so stressful to be living in Singapore. Our mind is all about $$$ - how to survive, how to raise family, tax, etc. Nothing is free here." Another commentator wrote on Yahoo: "We have everything, and yet we have nothing. No one in this country actually lives life to the fullest; we merely exist. To our government, we are nothing more than a statistic." "How can Singaporeans be the most emotionless in the world when they complain the most every day? I'm baffled," said a post by Melody on Twitter. ><
“Gallup said it surveyed about 1000 respondents 15 years old and above in each country annually between 2009 and 2011. They were asked if they felt five positive and five negative emotions the previous day. The negative feelings were anger, stress, sadness, physical pain, and worry, while the positive emotions were feeling well-rested, being treated with respect, enjoyment, smiling and laughing a lot, and learning or doing something interesting. Only 36 percent of Singaporeans said they felt any of the emotions, Gallup said. ><
“The implications of being an emotionless society are significant,” according to Clifton of Gallup. “To continue to be competitive in today’s world, Singapore must begin focusing on behavioural-based indicators that move beyond GDP. The bottom line is that Singaporeans are productive, highly disciplined citizens who are not enjoying their lives much,” he said. This culture has won historically, but it will not move to the next level until its leadership takes well-being seriously.” “Singaporeans take themselves a bit too seriously,” said William Wan, who heads the Singapore Kindness Movement. “I wish they would loosen up a bit.”
Survey Finds Singapore the ‘Least Positive’ Country in the World
A month after being ranked the most emotionless country in the world, Singapore was named the least positive country in the world. Daniel Teo wrote in Yahoo! Newsroom, “According to a Gallup poll— the same poll that ranked countries with the most and least emotions — residents of Singapore are the least likely to feel positive alongside war torn countries such as Iraq and Armenia. The well respected polling company measured positive emotions by asking 1,000 people in each of 148 countries five questions such as whether they experienced a lot of enjoyment the day before the survey and whether they felt respected, well-rested, laughed and smiled a lot, and did or learned something interesting. [Source: Daniel Teo, Yahoo! Newsroom, December 20, 2012 |::|]
“Singapore, which ranks fifth in the world in terms of GDP per capita, is known to be an orderly city-state and is among the most developed in the world. Some Singaporeans believe success has came at a price as work pressure, competition, rising cost of living and the recent influx of foreigners have caused a sense of unhappiness among its people. Jonathan Lee, 31, a Singaporean banker, said, “I am not surprised by the ranking. Singapore is likened to a powerful machine with its people working hard to make it work – at the expense of their own happiness. “The competitive culture, work pressure and rising cost of living in Singapore gives us little reason to be positive,” he added. |::|
“Ulynn Lee, 26, a senior public relations executive, said, “I wouldn't agree entirely with the poll but I wasn’t surprised by the results. It shows that a strong economy and even good income might not guarantee positivity or even happiness. “While Singapore’s economy is doing well, it also means the rise in cost of living and working hours are increasing,” she added. Joshua Tan, 26, a digital strategist, said, “The reason why we are not positive is because we Singaporeans have much more to lose than the rest of the countries. “We find ourselves worrying and fearing for our future instead of looking ahead in hope. There’s always this mentality of ‘What will happen if I fail?’” he added. |::|
“Jon Clifton, a partner at Gallup, has urged developed societies such as Singapore not to neglect the people’s well-being for economic success. He said, “Leaders who are looking for ways to further improve the human condition in their countries -- especially those societies such as Singapore that are doing well on traditional economic indicators, but not necessarily behavioral metrics -- need to do more to incorporate wellbeing into their leadership strategies.”
Singaporeans were less upbeat than the people in Yemen, Afghanistan and Haiti.“On the opposite end, Latin Americans are the most positive people in the world, with their region being home to eight of the top 10 countries for positive emotions worldwide. Panama is the most positive country with Paraguay coming in second while Thailand and Philippines came in sixth and eighth, respectively.” |::|
Tempers Rising in Singapore?
Seah Chiang Nee wrote in The Star, “As the pressures of life in Singapore go up, people’s tempers seem to get shorter. Law-and-order Singapore is experiencing a rise in social friction with more people involved in quarrels and fights on its overcrowded streets. Society is by no means tearing at the seams, but the pressure-cooker life is beginning to leave a mark on people used to the good living and in a way the Government may not have foreseen. Many citizens prefer the Old Singapore that the first-generation leaders had shaped during the first 30 years of independence although it was poorer and smaller. For them, the transformation has brought more dollars to their pockets, but also too many hardships. More Singaporeans seem to be losing their cool, blowing up in public at the slightest disagreement. [Source: Seah Chiang Nee, The Star, June 30, 2012 ***]
“In perspective, the majority of Singaporeans remains friendly and law-abiding. However, the rising costs of living, the over-crowdedness and constant worry about losing jobs to “cheaper-paid” foreigners are taking their toll on people’s mental health. Not all who flare into violence, of course, or who pick a fight with others are victims of the tougher environment. Some people are just bad apples. But the rat race is the level of stress. Part of the cause is the mass intake of foreigners who came with their own cultures and habits that conflict with that of the locals. ***
“In the first three weeks of June, some 10 cases of public quarrels or fights were reported – sometimes over minor reasons. Many were filmed and put on the Net. In one, a 20-year-old man beat up an elderly person whose backpack had bumped into him, inflicting multiple facial injuries on the senior. Earlier, two men fought in a bus over a seat. While this was going on, a war of words broke out between Filipinos and Singaporeans on Facebook, with both sides trading insults. Another online quarrel also broke out between mainland Chinese students in Singapore and the locals. ***
“More recently a student from India was taken to hospital after someone from a block of flat poured hot curry on him. Residents were apparently annoyed by late-night noises made by the hostel tenants. Two really bad cases particularly stirred the nation: 1) A young man threatened to slap a 76-year-old old woman, then pushed her down a public bus because she had pressed the bell at the last minute. He later apologised saying he suffered from depression. 2) A man beat up a pregnant woman, who hailed from Henan, China, and stepped on her belly after she accidentally splashed spicy soup on his face. An elderly woman scolded a young woman who had given up her seat to the former on the MRT. This started a quarrel which went viral online, getting 70,000 views. Days later, a Singaporean firm director punched a Briton when he accused him of cutting a queue and hurling racial remarks at him. A Netizen commented: “It is rather difficult to be gracious with so many people packed into one place. My friend remarked to me: ‘It is suffocating to live in Singapore’.” ***
“Singaporeans may be richer, smarter but often short of being a truly developed people,” said a schoolteacher. Over the years, the level of graciousness has generally improved, but lags far behind the pace of economic progress. Over-crowdedness and tight living is believed to be a major cause of public frictions. People here fight fiercely when they think somebody has intruded into their space – whether on the road or their home. Often, a quarrel over a parking lot can turn an educated adult into a raging, screaming boor. Women are frequently involved. “In fact, many a refined Singaporean in the eyes of his family can transform into a raging monster when he gets behind a car and feels victimised,” said a driving instructor. The level of anger – and graciousness – generally differs between small over-crowded cities and rural areas with vast space and greenery, observed a sociologist. Singapore is a very stressful place, more people are stressed over money, studies and work, so the frustrated take it out on others, said a young lady. “With the dense population, a gracious society seems more far-fetched now.” ***
Singaporeans Admit to Being Whiners
In December 2000, the Sydney Morning Herald reported: “Singaporeans are groaners and moaners and quite prepared to admit it, according to a survey released today. Eighty percent of people polled in a Straits Times survey said they had a habit of complaining about everything - from weather to traffic to the cost of living. "Singaporeans complain all the time. It's almost like a national past-time," said 21-year-old undergraduate Wong Kay Wei. The poll was conducted after Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said last week that he headed a nation of moaners, who complained in the hope that they could get more out of the government. [Source: Sydney Morning Herald, December 7, 2000]
Tan Teck Sing, a 40-year-old taxi driver, said modern Singaporeans were more educated and "they know their rights and entitlements, and tend to complain more in the hope that the government will pick up on their comments and improve things". Although Singaporeans accept they are moaners, the nature of the complaints differs from one generation to another. While the young grumbled about too much homework, the middle-aged fretted about limited family time, taxes, and the high cost of housing and cars. Another major gripe was the standard of service, an issue which Goh has also publicly complained about saying it threatened the tourist industry.
"With Singapore pushing ahead for a more efficient society, Singaporeans are becoming more demanding," said Albert Ching, 27. "They want things fast and instantaneously. When they don't get what they want they may become dissatisfied."
Materialism in Singapore
Singaporean materialism has been described by some as a desire by Singaporeans to distance themselves from their peasant roots. Many Singaporean are only a generation or two removed from poor rural farmers who arrived on sampans. One sociology professor told the New York Times, “Singaporeans are all too aware of being from peasant stock.”
In 2000, AFP reported: “Singaporeans are becoming increasingly materialistic, a survey commissioned by the Straits Times suggested today. Nine in 10 respondents said they thought Singaporeans were materialistic, with seven believing the desire for material goods had increased from five years ago. Six out of 10 said their material possessions reflected their status, according to the survey which covered 605 citizens and permanent residents. [Source: Agence France Presse, August 17, 2000 +^+]
Noel Hon, the chairman of the party-government-funded Singapore Kindness Movement (SKM), told AFP the race to accumulate material possessions in the wealthy island-state has sidelined social and moral values. "As we become more materialistic... people are judged by what they own, what car they have, what house they have, how much money they have in the bank," he said. "Values like courtesy, courage and nobility are pushed down, so sometimes we need to be reminded that our behaviour is not up to scratch." [Source: Agence France Presse, November 14, 2004]
The Straits Times quoted Ooi Giok Ling, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), as saying the results confirmed earlier findings by the institute. "Materialism is just a negative form of Singaporeans' self-expression, and it does seem to be the trend," Ooi said. "This is in line with a recent IPS survey in which most of our respondents said Singaporeans were class conscious and getting more so," she added.+^+
However, the Straits Times said while the respondents thought their countrymen were materialistic, they did not view themselves as such. Bank officer Christopher de Souza told the newspaper: "People here don't seem to want to keep anything that's old, like old mobile phones. But I don't see myself as one of them -- I have restaurant dinners only on special occasions." More than 90 percent of the respondents also said they put morality before money. +^+
Government to Blame for Singaporeans Being Materially Rich but Spiritually Poor
Luqman Suratman of Agence France Presse wrote: “Singapore is materially rich but spiritually poor -- and the government is partly to blame, one of the city-state's most prominent authors says. Catherine Lim, also a political commentator, is one of a very few to publicly criticise the government in Southeast Asia's most economically advanced society. Lim said that while Singapore is consistently ranked high in various surveys on material measures, such as business friendliness and economic achievement, the standings are reversed when other factors are considered. "Press freedom, happiness and even love life and romance and so on, Singapore is ranked very low," Lim said in an interview with AFP. "Maybe it leads to some questions. Are we achieving all this material prosperity at the cost of something? Soul, spirit, heart, senses, whatever you want to call it?" [Source: Luqman Suratman, Agence France Presse, April 18, 2008]
She said the government's tight political control is partly to blame for a lack of happiness among the city-state's 4.6 million people. "If there were less of a climate of fear... we would be a happier society," she said. Singapore is one of the most politically stable countries in the region and has become the base for thousands of foreign firms. The country's leaders say its tough laws against dissent and other political activity are necessary to ensure such stability which has helped it achieve economic success. It is illegal, for example, to hold a public gathering of five or more people in Singapore without a permit, meaning demonstrations seldom occur. Singapore's leaders maintain that Western-style liberal democracy is not suitable for the tiny, multi-racial nation which has been ruled by the People's Action Party since 1959.
Lim said the government is doing much better than others in helping to deal with "material issues", including rising global food prices. "This is a very pro-active government... a very pragmatic, problem-solving leadership," the Malaysian-born Lim, 66, who has lived in the city-state since 1967, said. "The problem is in the other areas, political and social liberties that we don't hear much of here in Singapore."
Paris based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders ranked the city-state at 146 out of 168 nations, lower than Zimbabwe at 140, on a global index of press freedom in 2007. Singapore has also placed at the lower end in global surveys of sex frequency and satisfaction. A recent poll by advertising firm Grey Group found that nine in 10 people living in Singapore said they were stressed.
Singaporeans are not "unhappy in the real sense of the word as in poverty-stricken countries", Lim said, but they seem to feel something is missing to complete their happiness. "We need more time to relax. Singaporeans are always talking about pressure. We make money, but hey, we don't have the leisure to spend our money." Lim has written more than nine collections of short stories, five novels and a book on poems. Her works have been published internationally.
In 2007, she also turned to the Internet, after the pro-government Straits Times refused to publish one of her commentaries, her website says. The newspaper had, for 13 years, published her commentaries even though they were critical of the government, she wrote on the website. But in September it rejected one on "the need for a political opening up", the website says. The Today daily also refused to publish it, forcing her to go online, she says on the website.Direct criticism of the government is rare in Singapore's mainstream media, forcing dissatisfied Singaporeans to resort to the web to express their views.
Smile Singapore You’re a “Regional Hub of Depression”
In 1999, Reuters, “Singaporeans are more likely to have suffered from depression, stress and fatigue than most of their Asian counterparts during the past year, a consumer health survey showed. But while Singaporeans were more depressed and anxious than average -- despite living in one of the most affluent of Asian societies -- Filipinos suffered the most ailments and Taiwan nationals the least, the survey by market researchers Taylor Nelson Sofres (TNS) said. [Source: Reuters. April 27, 1999]
TNS asked 5300 people in Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand about their incidences of illness and treatment over the last 12 months for their survey titled "Asian Health Pulse." Michelle Spratt, regional director for TNS's healthcare research division, said the company did not analyse the data qualitatively and thus could not offer reasons for the results. TNS Singapore director Elaine Hamilton added the results were perceptions of illness and therefore not necessarily actual incidences in all cases.
During the Asian Financial crisis in 1998, Singapore launched a “Smile Singapore” campaign. Singaporeans were urged in a poster campaign to "simply smile and be gracious," "doing a good job will make you feel proud," and to "greet, smile and htank." Many people said the "Smile Singapore" crusade only made them more depressed. In an attempt to "Make courtesy a way of life"—during another campaign----posters were put all over town with a creature that gushed "Have a nice day."
Koro is a mental disorder found in Malaysia and Singapore (similar to other disorders found elsewhere in East Asia) characterized by intense anxiety that one’s sexual organs will recede into the body. Some afflicted with it become so obsessed with the delusion they mutilate themselves, in some cases causing death. There are occasional epidemics of the disorder. One in Singapore in the 1960s was quite famous. [Source: Cultural Mental Illness: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders by American Psychology Association.]
Professor Kua Ee Heok of the Department of Psychological Medicine, National University of Singapore, wrote in Transcultural Psychiatry: “Koro refers to a syndrome, which has for its central theme a fear of death due to the person’s conviction that his penis is shrinking into the abdomen. The panic-stricken man often clutches on to his penis with bewildered spouse and relatives assisting. The term koro is thought to derive from the Malay word kura which means “tortoise” – the symbolic meaning is that the penile retraction is compared with the retraction of the head of the tortoise into its shell. The syndrome in traditional Chinese medicine is known as suo-yang, which literally means shrinkage of the male sexual organ. In women it may take the form of retraction of the vulval labia or nipple.
“Koro is often viewed as a form of panic disorder with the symptom-complex of fear of penile retraction and impending death, palpitations, sweating, breathlessness and paraesthesia. The factors, which contribute to the occurrence of koro, include beliefs and attitudes pertaining to sexuality. A common Chinese belief is that the loss of semen weakens the body, and loss of yang occurs with masturbation and nocturnal emission. The loss of semen through sexual excesses is thought in traditional Chinese belief to lead to fatal ill-health. Personality traits associated with koro have been described as nervous temperament, suggestibility, sensitivity and immaturity.” [Ibid]
In the Singapore Medical Journal (1963, 4, 119-121), Dr. Gwee AL, describes a Koro case involving a male Chinese aged 34, seen on 24 March 1956: “He was at a cinema show when he felt the need to micturate. He went out to the latrine in the foyer and, as he was easing himself, he felt a sudden loss of feeling in the genital region, and straightaway, the thought occurred to him that he was going to get penile retraction. Sure enough, he soon noticed that he penis was getting shorter. Intensely alarmed, he held on to his penis with his right hand and shouted for help, which however was not forthcoming as the latrine was deserted during the show. He felt cold in the limbs, and was weak all over, and his legs gave way under him. So he sat down on the floor, all this time holding on to his penis. About half an hour later, the attack abated.”
Koro is very rare these days. But a new mental disease has appeared among the Chinese. Known to the Chinese as wi han zheng, it is a “fear of being cold.” Those afflicted with the disorder put gloves, wool hats and coats even when the weather is sweltering.
Koro and Chinese Ideas About Health
Nearly all the who suffered from koro have been Chinese men. Some sources cite a role in Chinese metaphysical beliefs, where abnormal sexual acts (visiting prostitutes, masturbation or nocturnal emissions) disturb the yin-yang balance, leading to a loss of the yang (or male) force with accompanying consequences on key organs.
Ng Beng Yeong, an expert in culture-bound syndromes at the Woodbridge Hospital and Institute of Mental Health in Singapore and author of a seminal 1991 paper on koro, told the New York Times: "What struck me with koro is that here was a mental disease that was directly caused by the traditional Chinese conception of health. It came from inside the culture. Nearly all the men who suffered from koro were ethnic Chinese." In a conceptual system, he explains, which emphasizes opposing male and female "energies" -- think yin and yang -- men tend to be obsessed with their masculinity, which they fear can be sapped from them. A koro-like affliction, Ng explains, appears in ancient Chinese medical texts, where it is known as suo-yang. [Source: Lawrence Osborne, New York Times magazine, May 6, 2001 ++]
"In ancient China, castration was the most feared punishment," Yeong said, "So when you felt anxious or unwell, you would often become obsessed with your penis." But in 1967, he goes on, there was an added factor contributing to the koro epidemic on the Malaysian peninsula. Racial tensions between Muslim Malays and non-Muslim Chinese were running high, and among the Chinese there was a virulent rumor that the Malays had poisoned their pork. The atmosphere was primed for hysteria. "Koro was like a collective anxiety attack," Ng concludes. "It was the manifestation of social unease." ++
Lawrence Osborne wrote in the New York Times magazine, “ In recent years, koro has almost disappeared from the Chinese diaspora in the Malacca Straits and Singapore. "It's almost as if changing social conditions produce changing syndromes," the Yeong said. But it has been replaced by equally strange phenomena: a condition that the Chinese call wei han zheng, or "fear of being cold." Ng calls it frigophobia. Patients bundle up in the steamy Singapore heat, wearing wool hats and gloves. Like koro, he explains, frigophobia seems to stem from Chinese cultural beliefs about the spiritual qualities of heat and cold. "I don't really know," he laughs. "Maybe it's just a reaction to mass air-conditioning. Frigophobia is so new, it doesn't even exist in the psychiatric literature. So far, it's unique to Singapore. I'm as perplexed by it as anyone else. I wonder if it will be in D.S.M.-V." ++
"One thing I've noticed," Yeong said, "is that modern psychiatry is essentially a Western import." In the East, Ng continues, patients tend not to distinguish between mind and body. "Our patients rarely talk about their moods per se, the way people in the West do," he explains. So even with mental afflictions that appear to have a clear biological basis -- like schizophrenia -- people's ways of expressing them are shaped by culture. ++
Great Koro Epidemic of 1967
In 1967 there was an outbreak of koro following press reports of Koro cases due to the consumption of pork from a pig that had been inoculated against swine fever. The epidemic struck in October 1967 for about ten days. Newspapers initially reported that some people developed koro after eating the meat of pigs inoculated with anti-swine-flu vaccine. A headline from the Straits Times on November 5, 1967 read: “A Strange Malady Hits Singapore Men.” Rumours relating eating pork and koro spread after a further report of an inoculated pig dying from penile retraction. The cases reported amounted to 97 in a single hospital unit within one day, at five days after the original news report. Government and medical officials alleviated the outbreak only by public announcements over television and in the newspapers. [Source: The annotated budak, , May 14, 2006, Wikipedia]
Dr. Gwee authored a study (in the Singapore Medical Journal 1969, 10, 234-242) about the 1967 epidemic, which affected over 500 persons. He wrote: “ …before the outbreak of the epidemic, there was concern about chickens being injected with oestrogen to increase their growth. Some men were afraid that the oestrogen in the chicken would cause gynaecomastia and avoided chicken meat. At about the same time, there was a rumour that contaminated pork was being sold on the market and that diseased pigs were being inoculated against swine fever. This triggered off the epidemic and a possible explanation of the outbreak is that the inoculation of the pigs was seen to be similar to the injection of chickens with oestrogen." His report also noted that the epidemic “subsided rapidly after ressurance and explanation from the doctors through television, radio and newspaper.”
Chris Buckle of the University of Ottawa wrote in his study “A Conceptual History of Koro”: “In July 1967, all swine in the country were inoculated with an anti-swine fever vaccine. It was an event that brought much public concern and considerable media attention. On October 29, 1967, rumors began to circulate that the consumption of this inoculated pork was causing men’s genitalia to retract. It is unknown how, why or where in Singapore the rumors began. However, there is some evidence that the kosher Malays were blamed for the event, an accusation in line with the background of racial tension that plagued Singapore in the nineteen sixties. While this idea was not described in the government controlled Chinese or English language media, personal accounts do give it credence.
“On October 30th a small Chinese language paper reported that “people developed koro after eating the meat of pigs inoculated with anti-swine fever vaccine”. A few days later, the same paper reported that an inoculated pig had died from penile retraction.” Within the week, public hospitals were seeing hundreds of koro patients, and Buckle notes that no statistics exist for the presumably high number of individuals who were treated by family or traditional Chinese physicians. It was reported that "men resorted to clamps, pegs, and even weights to ensure that their tackle remained in its rightful place."
“An alarmed Ministry of National Development issued an immediate statement claiming that ‘no one in Singapore need worry over the safety of pork from pigs slaughtered at the government abattoir where every carcass is carefully examined and stamped as fit for human consumption before they are released to the market’”. The outbreak subsided after press statements by the Singapore Medical Association that “koro is a culturally determined form of emotional ill-health affecting primarily the Chinese…the present incidence of koro is essentially due to fear and rumors which have no foundation”. Meanwhile, advertisements for Australian pork began to appear in the papers. The Chinese-language Nanyang also reported that a man in the ministry of production had apologised for comments about the link between the swine vaccine and koro. The final nail on koro’s coffin came with the televised statement of the Deputy Director of Medical Services, Dr. Lim Guan Ho, who stressed that koro “is only a disease of the mind and the victim requires no medical treatment at all.”
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Singapore Tourism Board, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated June 2015