SINGAPOREAN SOCIETY

SINGAPOREAN SOCIETY

Singaporeans have traditionally valued conformity and stability. One government official told the New York Times, “In your country, individual rights always take precedent over community rights. In our country it’s the other way around.” Because Chinese are the dominant ethnic group traditional Confucian culture also is strongly represented in Singapore. There are few obvious class or racial animosity but under the surface tensions exist (See Ethnic Groups and Minorities in Singapore). Most of Singapore's people live in high-rise flats, sharing corridors and facilities.

The content of the distinctive "Singaporean identity" and the proper balance between cosmopolitan and traditional values were issues that have both preoccupied the leadership and shaped the society in Singapore. There was much public discussion of social identity, ethnicity, and the proper relation of Singaporeans to worldwide popular culture. Such discussion, often initiated by political leaders, tended to dichotomize habits and behavior into mutually exclusive "Asian" or "Western" categories. The initial premise was that Singapore should be a modernized but not a Westernized society, and that it would be a mistake for Singaporeans to become so thoroughly Westernized and cosmopolitan as to lose touch with their Asian roots and values. Such concepts as tradition and modernity, local and cosmopolitan, had a distinctively Singaporean meaning as was indicated by the widespread use of such terms as "Asian traditions" and "cultural ballast." The meaning of these concepts, however, remained to be defined more precisely by the discussions and day-to-day decisions of Singapore's citizens. *

Society and the Singaporean Government

By the late 1980s, Singapore's leaders generally agreed that the extensive economic and social transformation achieved after independence required a changed pattern of relations between the government and society. Government policies and practices devised to deal with the much simpler economy and less educated and prosperous citizenry of the 1960s were becoming increasingly ineffective in the 1980s. The major issues were economic, involving debate over the optimal form of government involvement in the economy, and political, centering around highly contentious questions of the limits of government efforts to regulate the lives of citizens and to suppress dissent and criticism.

Mirror glass bank towers overshadowing Victorian-era government buildings symbolized Singapore's transformation from a colonial port to an independent city-state with the highest standard of living in Southeast Asia in 1989. Singapore's status as a newly industrializing economy ( NIE) was signaled by its landscaped complexes of owner-occupied apartments and streets blocked by the private cars of affluent citizens. The citizens increasingly considered themselves Singaporeans rather than Chinese or Indians or Malays, and the multiethnic population increasingly used English as the common speech in schools, offices, and the armed forces. Singapore in the 1980s had become a byword for orderliness and effective administration, a place where stiff fines discouraged littering and citizens of all ethnic groups were subject to common, impartial standards of merit and achievement. Government efforts at social engineering extended beyond slum clearance and the creation of housing estates to such matters as men's hair length, the language families spoke at breakfast, and the number of children born to women with university degrees. *

Singapore's leaders reacted to the unanticipated 1965 separation from Malaysia, which left a city without a hinterland, by deciding to "go cosmopolitan." This meant seeking a place in the world rather than in the regional economy; it also meant maintaining a certain social and cultural distance from neighboring countries while deliberately fostering a new and distinctively Singaporean culture and social identity. By late 1989 Singapore was cosmopolitan, prosperous, modernized, and orderly. Its population was educated in English, worked for multinational corporations, and consumed a worldwide popular culture of film, music, and leisure activities. English was, however, a second language for most, and many distinctively Chinese, Indian, and Malay customs, practices, and attitudes continued. In contrast to many countries of the region, Singapore's avowed social values were secular, democratic (within certain limits), and nondiscriminatory. *

Rules in Singapore

AFP reported: “Don't spit in public. Throw your litter in the bin. Pee into the urinal, not on the floor. Speak proper English. Singapore has become famous for government-funded campaigns designed to rid society of nasty habits from its impoverished past, but parents in the city-state have taken self-improvement a notch higher. If there is a social problem in Singapore, expect the government to mount a campaign to fix it. Education campaigns -- anything from exhorting citizens to speak proper English, flush toilets, smile more, produce more babies and report suspicious persons or parcels -- are an inescapable fact of life. Rewards await courteous motorists and a Romancing Singapore drive is held annually to encourage romance among couples. [Source: Agence France Presse, November 14, 2004]

Seah Chiang Nee wrote in The Star, “The initials ‘SEX’ (or ‘SIN’) have been ruled out of order for use for car licence plates in Singapore. Illegal, too, are striptease shows, pornography, oral sex, homosexuality and Playboy magazine (which is facing online threat), and the list can go on. It is also a crime here to use chat-lines to solicit prostitution or to place advertisements that target teenagers. If there is one clear legacy that founding figure Lee Kuan Yew will leave behind when he finally leaves, it is Singapore’s conservative attitude towards sex, and anything that smacks of promiscuity. [Source: Seah Chiang Nee, The Star, May 30, 2004]

See Separate Article SINGAPORE’S CRAZY RULES AND JUSTIFICATION FOR THEM

Self-Improvement Campaigns in Singapore

Squeaky clean Singapore is renowned for its self-improvement campaigns. Sara Webb and Richard Borsuk wrote in the Asian Wall Street Journal: “There's the Courtesy Campaign, run every year since 1979, which encourages such acts as offering subway seats to the elderly. There was the effort to modify the behavior of greedy buffet grazers who pile their plates too high with food and then don't eat it up. There has been lobbying, too, to keep the streets litter-free; to encourage well-educated women to improve the gene pool by having more babies; and to discourage people from discarding broken appliances by throwing them out of skyscraper windows.[Source: Sara Webb And Richard Borsuk, Asian Wall Street Journal,May 1, 2000]

There have been even been campaigns against anti-rule campaigns in Singapore. Seah Chiang Nee wrote in The Star, In 2001, “authorities put an end to a S$2mil media campaign--17 TV and 24 print ads--commissioned by a loose network of more than 120 churches called the Love Singapore Movement. The objective is to evangelise Singapore. The series ran for a week before the plug was pulled because of religious sensitivities. "I hate rules. That's why I only made 10 of them," one said. "Bring your umbrella. I might water the plants today," said another. Other messages, plastered on buses and subway waiting areas, proclaimed in big bold letters: "I'm here." They also went out as T-shirts and postcards. [Source: Seah Chiang Nee, The Star, May 20, 2001]

Jason Szep of Reuters wrote: “Behaviour-improvement campaigns are frequent in this autocratic city-state. Between 1958 and 1995, more than 200 such campaigns urged better ways of living -- from being punctual, to eating more wheat, planting trees and speaking better English. They don't always reach their mark. A survey in 1985 reported in the Straits Times newspaper found that four in 10 respondents could not name a single campaign without prompting. Singapore's quest for cleanliness dates back to 1967, two years after independence from Malaysia, when the government drew up a plan to transform the island into a "clean" city, making tidiness a national priority second only to defence and economic progress. [Source: Jason Szep, Reuters, July 3, 2003 >>>]

Social Stratification in Singapore

During the 1970s and 1980s, economic development and industrial growth reduced poverty and income inequity and accelerated upward social mobility. Those with educational qualifications, command of English, and high-level technical or professional skills profited the most from the process. [Source: Library of Congress *]

In the late 1980s, the major indices of social stratification were education level, citizenship status, sector of the economy where employed, and number of employed persons in the household. Residents were sharply differentiated by the amount of education they had completed. In 1980 about 44 percent of the population aged 25 and above had no educational qualifications, 38 percent had completed primary school, 15 percent secondary school, and only 3.4 percent higher education. Those people born after 1970 were on average much better educated than previous generations, but throughout the 1990s the work force will contain many individuals with limited education. *

Wages correlated fairly closely with educational attainment, although education in English brought higher salaries than Chinese education. Many benefits, such as access to a Housing and Development Board apartment, were available only to Singapore citizens, and only citizens and permanent residents were enrolled in the Central Provident Fund. In 1985, a recession year when many foreign factory workers lost their jobs and residence permits, citizens made up 91 percent of the work force. Noncitizens were concentrated in the lower and in the highest wage levels, either as factory or service workers on short- term work permits, or as well-paid expatriate managers and professionals. Wages were relatively higher in government service and government-owned corporations and in the capital intensive and largely foreign-owned export-oriented manufacturing sector. They were lower in the service, retail, and less highly capitalized light industrial, craft, and commercial sector, which was dominated by small Chinese firms. Wages for unskilled and semiskilled factory work and for unskilled service jobs were relatively low. Those who held such jobs, often young women in their teens and early twenties, were not entirely self- supporting but parts of households in which several members worked at low-paying jobs. Families of the poorly educated and unskilled improved their standard of living between 1970 and 1990 in part because full employment made it possible to pool the wages of several family members. *

Economic growth and the associated increase in the demand for labor from 1960 to 1989 raised living standards and sharply reduced the incidence of poverty. A survey of living costs and household incomes in 1953-54 found 19 percent of all households to be in absolute poverty, meaning that their members did not have enough to eat. Application of the same standard in 1982-83 found 0.3 percent of households in absolute poverty. A measure of moderate poverty, defined as adequate nutrition and shelter but little discretionary income and no savings, was devised by the Amalgamated Union of Public Employees in 1973. By that measure, 31 percent of households in 1972-73 were in moderate poverty, 15 percent in 1977-78, and 7 percent in 1982-83. Compared with other countries in the region, household incomes in Singapore were equitably distributed, with most households falling in the middle or lower middle ranges of the distribution. *

Social Mobility in Singapore

The education system provides many opportunities for social advances. There are many stories of children of cab drivers and hawkers who rose to become doctors, engineers and other kinds of professionals.

Increased family incomes made possible by full employment and by such government programs as the construction and sale of apartments and the enrollment of nearly everyone in the Central Provident Fund are to be distinguished from upward mobility, in which individuals moved into more highly skilled and highly paid jobs and hence into higher social classes. The expansion of industry, banking, and of the ranks of civil servants created many high and mid-level positions that Singaporeans could aspire to and compete for. Residents from every ethnic community regarded social mobility as a common and accepted goal. Education was regarded as the best channel for upward mobility, and most families tried to encourage their children to do well in school and to acquire educational qualifications and certification. This put severe pressure on the school system and the children in it, although, as elsewhere, middle- and upper-income families had an advantage in maneuvering their offspring through the education system. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Individuals approached jobs with a keen appreciation for their potential for further mobility. Most large organizations, whether government or private, provided some training. Some foreign-owned enterprises, such as those in the oil industry, employed large numbers of skilled workers and ran extensive in-house training programs. The electronics assembly factories, in contrast, offered no prospects for advancement to their large numbers of unskilled or semiskilled assembly line workers. Small scale enterprises, which in the late 1980s often recruited along ethnic and subethnic lines, were associated with long working hours and low wages, but sometimes offered the workers opportunity to learn a skill, such as automotive repair. Workers in such establishments commonly advanced by quitting and opening their own small firms, often after years of saving. *

In a system that reflected both the great differences in educational attainment in the work force and the great significance attached to educational qualifications, most large organizations, public and private, made a sharp distinction between mental and manual labor, and movement from the lower to the higher was very difficult and rare. Lower level white-collar workers and skilled blue-collar workers often took advantage of opportunities to upgrade their occupational skills, either through training offered by the organization or through night school and short-term courses offered by educational or other government bodies. Unskilled workers in industry and service trades and employees in small Chinese firms saw few prospects for advancement and considered self-employment as their only hope for upward mobility. Vending food and consumer goods on the streets or operating a cooked-food stall, traditional entry points for entrepreneurs, had been practically eliminated by government action to tidy up the environment and to limit the numbers of mobile hawkers who obstructed traffic. Many Singapore economists felt that the successful modernization of the economy and the increases both in government regulation and in rents for shops and small premises had made it more difficult for the ambitious poor to get a start. By the late 1980s, Singapore's academics and political leaders were discussing the perceived shortage of entrepreneurs and suggesting solutions to the problem, although most discussion focused on industrial innovation and growth rather than the commercial fields in which most Singapore entrepreneurs had succeeded. *

Neighbourliness on the Decline in Singapore?

In 2000, AFP reported: “Disputes among neighbors are rising in Singapore, sparking concerns the tiny southeast Asian nation's attempts at fostering neighbourliness may be failing, a newspaper said today. The Community Mediation Centre (Regional East) said cases brought to its attention rose 42 percent to 115 disputes in 1999 from 81 in 1998, according to the Sunday Times. Misundertandings often stemmed from loud music, dripping laundry and corridor problems, centre manager Rosalinda Heng told the newspaper. [Source: Agence France Presse, August 13, 2000]

"Neighbourliness is on the wane," the Times said. It quoted a recent survey by the government Housing Board which showed that only 64.5 percent of flat owners knew five or more of their neighbors, down from 76.7 in 1987. Psychologists said the pressures of work and high-rise living as well as culture have contributed to an increase in misunderstandings. Tan Chue Tin, a psychiatrist at Mount Elizabeth Hospital, said cultural differences may also account for the rise in disputes. "Due to our Chinese culture, we tend to be more reserved. We are also more family-oriented, which is why you don't see neighbours going out together," Tan told the Times.

Authorities have embarked on a campaign to persuade residents to settle disputes amicably before they reach the courts, the police or the housing board. "We would advise them to settle it without a trial as it is not really worth the money and time to go to trial," lawyer Kertar Singh told the Times.

Singapore, the Richest Country in the World in 2010

In August 2012, Deborah Choo wrote in Yahoo News, “Singapore topped the charts for highest GDP per capita in 2010 at close to S$70,000 (US$56,532), according to a study. In the Wealth Report 2012 published by Knight Frank and Citi Private Bank, Singapore is also expected to continue to be the global leader in 2050. GDP per capita refers to the total output of a country divided by the population. Trailing closely behind Singapore is Norway at about S$63,000 (US$51,226), then the US at about S$56,200 (US$45,511), followed by Hong Kong at almost S$56,000 (US $45,301). [Source: Deborah Choo, Yahoo News, August 14, 2012] <>

“The report also forecasts that Singapore’s GDP per capita will more than double to about S$170,000 (US$137,710). Hong Kong is expected to take over Norway’s position as number two in 2050, followed by Taiwan and South Korea – two countries that failed to make the list in 2010. The US is expected to drop from third place in 2010 to the fifth in 2050. <>

Gráinne Gilmore, head of UK residential research at Knight Frank LLP who is also the author of the economic and wealth trends article said, "Other countries may have bigger GDP growth 2010 – 2050, but in most cases, they are starting from a much lower base on economic terms. Singapore is a developed economy, and is expected to achieve a rate of growth which enables it to remain one of the wealthiest countries in the world." <>

"Some of the factors contributing to Singapore’s forecast performance are its ‘human capital’ – a skilled and educated labour force (which is likely to lead to better long-term prospects for a country’s economic growth), the dynamic business environment (with legislation to match), openness to trade, capital mobility and foreign direct investment. Also, it is worth noting that there is a global eastwardsshift in economic activity – Singapore is perfectly positioned to take advantage of this," Gilmore added. <>

Seah Chiang Nee wrote in The Star, “Singaporeans are practical enough to realise that wealth in the form of paper notes is too transient. Since it is measured in US dollars, part of the fast growth is due to the strong surging Singapore dollar. Are we in fact richer than countries like Indonesia or Australia, which may not have our cash or GDP but have plenty of natural resources in the ground like oil, iron or even water that are more abiding? This was an early reason that former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew gave for Singapore accumulating huge amounts of reserves. “It’s for a rainy day” a crisis to make up for lack of ground wealth. As the wealth report was released, the pro-government the Straits Times reported that the number of households on short and medium-term public assistance shot up by 81 percent – from 5,471 to 9,911 over the past year. [Source: Seah Chiang Nee, The Star, Malaysia, August 25, 2012]

Lee Kuan Yew said years ago. He said he feared affluence was making Singaporeans complacent. He said the young generation compared badly with the poorer, hard-striving migrants from China and needed “spurs on its side” to drive it on.

Living in the World’s Richest Country

On Singapore being named the world’s richest country, Seah Chiang Nee wrote in The Star, “The news has evidently impressed the world more than it did Singaporeans. The reason is that the majority of citizens here are too concerned with the structured high cost of living that collective wealth has bestowed. It has made the city one of the most expensive in the world. On perspective, however, most Singaporeans have benefitted from the progress over the generation. A minority has prospered greatly. According to the Wall Street Journal, Singapore’s per capita GDP has reached US$56,532 (RM175,250) in 2010 – measured by purchasing power parity. This has beaten Norway, the United States and Hong Kong. By most standards, this would have been reason to bring out the champagne bottle, but because of the extraordinary circumstances, the majority of Singaporeans are not cheering. Since the report, the number of centa-millionaires – people with more than US$100 mil (RM310 mil) – has grown 13 percent, higher than the global average at 6 percent. The problem is that it is predicted to grow by another 44 percent by 2016, which probably means higher inflation for all. [Source: Seah Chiang Nee, The Star, Malaysia, August 25, 2012 ><]

“The fact is that Singaporeans – already hit by one of the world’s highest inflation rates – are too burdened by expensive housing, cars and general living expenses to be cheerful. Yet, there is no denying that the majority of Singaporeans are living better than they ever had. Singapore has been transformed into a middle class society and now has the dubious title of being the wealthiest in the world. But in the past five years, living standards have taken a turn for the worse for many people despite the collective affluence. An influx of cheap-cost foreigners has resulted in acute shortage and income stagnation in many cases. ><

“So why are Singaporeans so unimpressed with living in the richest land in the world? The reasons are as follows: 1) Some 37 percent of residents are foreigners, quite a few of them ultra-wealthy. The import of billionaires provides little or no benefits to the average citizens except pushing up prices. Take the foreigner portion away and the city could be that much poorer; and 2) A large part of the wealth is in corporate hands rather than with individuals. Not all of it ends up in big-paying jobs for locals. ><

“As a result of the large amount of money sloshing around, prices of things like houses, cars and healthcare are rising with no sign of abating. Many loans and mortgages are increasing. Forbes recently reported: “The latest list of wealthy Singaporeans showed lots of money sloshing around Singapore – but it may just be the tip of the iceberg.” Good news? I don’t think so. No Singaporeans are crazy enough to pray for poverty, but extreme wealth in the hands of a few is just as bad. Without that the economic gap here is already the world’s widest. ><

“This rising wealth is greeted with pride by a few elderly citizens who remember their poorer past. But, by and large, Singaporeans have reacted cynically to it. Prominent blogger dawning bread wrote: “There might have been a time when people here would have taken pride in such an accolade.” Now, he said, the publication of the news on page one of the major newspaper, the Straits Times, “must have annoyed a lot of people”. “I don’t feel rich,” another Singaporean said. How could Singapore be richer than Switzerland or the US? “Statistics can be toyed around to fit any agenda. Look around you – does this look like the richest country on the planet?” asked Invictus.” ><

Singapore is the 10th most expensive city in the world. The two factors – wealth and high cost – are related; if cost of living is taken into account Singapore’s wealth ranking drops third to 11th in the world. Inflation clouds everyone’s lives, unless he is among the 188,000 millionaire households, to which it probably matters much less. A school-teacher commented: “Being told that I am living in one of the world’s richest cities doesn’t profit my life and the resultant high cost is a blow.” [Source: Seah Chiang Nee, The Star, June 9, 2012]

Disparity of Income in Singapore

The gap between rich and poor in Singapore has traditionally been relatively small. The Asian countries in with the greatest income disparity between rich and poor (determined by how many times more income the richest 20 percent of the population has than the poorest 20 percent) in the early 2000s were: 1) Thailand (15.5); 2) Malaysia (11.7); 3) Singapore (9.6); 4) Hong Kong (8.7 percent)...compared to 9.0 in the U.S. and 32 in Brazil.

The between rich and poor has been widening. Incomes for people at the top have been rising while the income for people at the bottom as remained about the same and in some cases declined. According to the Manpower Ministry, the earnings of the poorest 20 percent had stagnated in the past 10 years, with real income rising only S$200 or 0.3 percent. The General Household Survey revealed that in 2005 the top 20 percent of Singapore’s households earned 31 times that of the bottom 20 percent. Household income or consumption by percentage share: lowest 10 percent: 4.4 percent; highest 10 percent: 23.2 percent (2008).

Distribution of family income - Gini index: 47.8 (2012), country comparison to the world: 26 48.1 (2008). The Gini coefficient, which measures income inequality, increased to 0.485 in 2007 from 0.472 in 2006, and widened to 0.488 in 2012 from 0.482 in 2011, according to Singapore's Department of Statistics. The scale ranges from zero to one, with zero regarded as perfect income equality and 1 implying one person holds all of a nation’s wealth.. The Boston Consulting Group said that 15.5 percent of Singapore households have at least $1 million in liquid assets, the highest percentage in the world. But the earnings of the city’s 20 percent lowest paid had declined during the past 10 years.

Seah Chiang Nee wrote in The Star, “Singapore’s richest people have a collective net worth of US$59.4bil (RM184bil), up from $54.4bil (RM168.8bil) last year. It now has 16 billionaires compared to 13 the previous year, Forbes reported. Ten of every 100,000 households in Singapore are now classified as “ultra-high-net-worth” households, with each having more than US$100mil (RM310mil) in private financial wealth. All these impressive fortunes are good for boasting, but believe me, I would rather wish for a more even distribution. The foreign billionaires can be here today, gone tomorrow. [Source: Seah Chiang Nee, The Star, Malaysia, August 25, 2012]

“The widening gap between rich and poor is becoming one of the most pressing problems here today. It threatens Singapore’s social fabric despite its strong GDP growth...The unequal growth was not due to globalisation or technological change, but the mass influx of foreign workers in the past 10 years, said prominent diplomat Prof Tommy Koh. He said Singapore had a per capita income similar to Denmark, Finland, and Sweden, yet cleaners in these countries were paid some seven times more than those in Singapore.... Former state economic adviser Professor Lim Chong Yah’s think-out-of-the-box way of narrowing the economic gap called for the salaries of low-level workers to be raised by 50 percent over three years, and those at the top-end b frozen for a similar period. [Source: Seah Chiang Nee, The Star, June 2, 2012]

The 2007 budget tackled disparities through government handouts to poorer workers after a report released this week showed that 19.3 percent of Singaporean households earn less than S$24,000 (US$15,600) a year.

Mixing Welfare and Elitism in Singapore

Alex Au wrote in the Asia Times, “Strict adherence to neo-liberal economic prescriptions and policy promotion of an export-oriented economy contributed to Singapore's emergence as one of Asia's richest countries in the 1980s and 1990s. Now, it appears those same policies are disproportionately lifting the top tier of society while leaving a growing number of lower-wage earners in the economic lurch. That trend arguably began with the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis when, government statistics show, the wages of lower-skilled workers fell by about one-third. Despite economic recovery, the income gap has continued to widen as Singapore's past advantage in manufacturing industries has been eroded by China and other lower-cost countries in the region. Over the past five years, about 20 percent of Singapore's households have suffered from declining incomes. And that's arguably starting to take a toll on the PAP's popularity. [Source: Alex Au, Asia Times, November 23, 2006]

Details of the various proposed new welfare schemes - known provisionally as "offset packages" have been announced. Indications are that existing modest schemes to subsidize elderly health care, housing and education will be topped up and many new welfare schemes introduced. Lee has said that the so-called "workfare bonus" - an unprecedented cash payout to low-wage earners introduced as a one-off measure just weeks before last May's general election - would be employed to redistribute government budget surpluses back to taxpayers.

Sin Boon Ann, a PAP MP, said: "The perception exists that Singapore is a society bifurcated between the elites and the commoners, the scholars and the normal streams, the gifted and the ordinary, the [public housing] dwellers and the private property owner, the rich and the poor," the parliamentarian said. It is necessary to "break down the institution of snobbery within our society", he said. Commenting on Singapore-style meritocracy, an 18-year-old girl in her own blog said: "If you're not good enough, life will kick you in the balls ... There's no point in lambasting the government for making our society one that is, I quote, 'far too survival-of- fittest'. "If uncertainty of success offends you so much, you will certainly be poor and miserable.”

Singapore's Five Cs: Cash, Car, Condominium, Credit Card and Club Membership

Sara Webb of Reuters wrote: “For years, Singaporeans measured success by "the five Cs" -- cash, car, condominium, credit card and club membership. But such trophies, especially condos, remain firmly out of reach for many Singaporeans. While Singapore is the wealthiest country in Asia after Japan in terms of gross national income per capita, it is grappling with a widening income gap that puts it alongside countries such as Burundi and Kenya in terms of income inequality. [Source: Sara Webb, Reuters, February 15, 2007]

"The five Cs used to be an aspirational goal," said Colin Goh, whose award-winning feature film Singapore Dreaming showed how such aspirations can shatter family relations. "Now, Singaporeans regard them as essentials, and if you're of a certain class, practically an entitlement. Having the five Cs is no longer a sign of attaining entry into the elite. Rather, the absence of the five Cs indicates one's inadequacy," he said.

True, some of the Cs have become more attainable. Banks, increasingly eager to earn fat fees from consumers, are falling over themselves to offer cash advances and credit cards, although in the case of DBS, the country's biggest bank, customers need to have an annual income exceeding S$30,000. Prices for club memberships and cars have also declined. But the entrance fee for the 160-year-old Tanglin Club, a relic of the colonial era, still costs S$20,000. Moreover, exclusivity matters. A few years ago, some people who had signed up to join Raffles Town Club sued when they discovered that the club had let in many more people than they had been led to believe, making it far less exclusive. Even the two magazines which cater to the city-state's affluent -- Prestige and Singapore Tatler -- got into a legal spat over which was the market leader when it came to reaching the rich and famous.

Perhaps the most desirable of the five Cs is the condo. Demand for these is so hot that long queues form outside the sales offices at new apartment launches. Potential buyers are willing to pay as much as S$4000 just to have someone line up on their behalf; others sleep on the pavement overnight to ensure a place near the front of the queue. Entire blocks of luxury flats sell out in a matter of hours at the top locations, including a refurbished complex consisting of twin towers -- one in gold, the other in silver. Last year, prices for uncompleted apartments in prime districts surged 25 percent amid frenzied buying from wealthy Singaporeans and foreigners. "Home to 46 of the most luminous families" is how developer Sime Darby describes its luxury condos -- which cost up to S$5 million (US$3.25 million) each -- on a streetside billboard. For that, residents can use an infinity pool, sky gym, and spa-in-the-sky, and are close to "prestigious residential neighbours, elite schools, notable five-star hotel, (and) exclusive private clubs," according to its website.

Yet the majority of Singaporeans live in government-built Housing Development Board, or HDB, apartments where there is less scope for making such big investments gains. These homes are built to a high standard and, in terms of amenities, are vastly superior to some of the public housing available in the United States and Britain.

Social Problems and Suicides in Singapore

Social problems such as drug abuse, teen-age pregnancy, school dropouts exist in Singapore but they are much less common than in the West. That is not to say Singapore is without social problems. Seah Chiang Nee wrote in The Star, “A surging economy and promise of a brighter future have done little to prevent a decline of the city’s social ills, including a worsening suicide rate. Not only are there higher rates of divorces, bankruptcies and crime against senior citizens, but in a land awash with jobs and better pay, the number of people killing themselves has surged. The government reported 419 cases last year, or at least one suicide every day, compared to 346 in 2003. This was a jump of 21 percent and is one of the highest in its post-independence history. It is the fourth straight rise in as many years. More people die from suicide than in accidents. [Source: Seah Chiang Nee, The Star, August 18, 2007 <=>]

“Surprisingly, too, is the profile of the suicidal. The Singaporeans who strived to end it all ranged from teenagers to grandfathers. But the largest group was men who were in the 40s, mostly made up of the 1965 independence generation. This rising trend is worrying the authorities. The other large group was women aged 50 and older. For every death there were seven attempted suicides. Singapore isn’t doing too badly when compared to Japan and several advanced Western nations whose rates, despite better welfare help, are faring worse. Singapore’s leaders, however, have placed a higher emphasis on economic expansion over almost everything else on the basis that once you have achieved wealth, other problems can be resolved. For many years, it had worked well in a simpler world, but less so in today’s harsher competitive environment that frowns on welfarism. More jobs are eradicated; more businesses get restructured and life becomes more uncertain. <=>

“Between 2000 and 2004, 1723 people committed suicide or about 345 cases a year. The Samaritans, which operates a 24-hour distress hotline, handles some 135 calls a day from desperate people unable to resolve their problems. The number of calls has risen from 43,255 in 2005 to 49,025 in the past year with one in seven considered to be suicide risks. In 2003, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said Singapore had a suicide rate of 18 per 100,000 people (12 male and 6 female) and ranked 52nd of 100 countries surveyed. It was, however, ahead of more advanced nations like Japan (51 per 100,000), Belgium (40), Switzerland (37), France (35), Denmark (29) and Australia (26). <=>

Suicide rates among Singaporeans and permanent residents rose to 361 in 2011 from 353 in 2010, said Samaritans of Singapore. In March 2006, Channel News Asia reported: “More Singaporeans die committing suicide than from traffic accidents. This is according to statistics revealed at the 2nd Asia Pacific Suicide Prevention Conference which bring together experts from around the region. An average of one Singaporean dies from committing suicide every day. Even then, Singapore's suicide rates are one of the lowest in Asia. But what is getting authorities worried is a rising trend of youths committing suicide. Suicide rates among the elderly, on the other hand, have dropped significantly. [Source: Channel News Asia, March 10, 2006]

Suicide Cases in Singapore

Seah Chiang Nee wrote in The Star, “Sadly, it is not just about statistics. Each abandoned life has its own tortured tale of sufferings that are not always about money - although financial stress remains a top cause. Overwhelming debts, neglect, family break-ups and poor health are some of the factors that push people to end their lives. For the younger set, it is mainly over broken love or inability to cope with their studies or broken homes. [Source: Seah Chiang Nee, The Star, August 18, 2007 <=>]

“For a family man in his 40s who has been retrenched as a result of restructuring, it could be a fearful experience. Unlike other advanced countries, there is no unemployment help. “In Malaysia or Indonesia, when a person loses his job, he could go to the countryside and live off the land,” said a social worker. “Here there is no countryside to live off.” <=>

“One of the saddest cases happened last year when an odd jobs labourer in his 40s killed himself by jumping in front of a speeding MRT train at Jurong. He had been unemployed for four months, relying on his wife’s S$500 monthly income to feed his family of four (with two teenage sons). As bills mounted to $1000, the hapless man promised his wife he would look for the money. One night he gave $9 to his younger son and told him before leaving for his appointment with death, “Daddy is leaving for work, you have to look after mummy, you all have to take care.” <=>

“At a time when Singapore was basking in prosperity, his tale stirred the very soul of the nation and public donations – amounting to S$500,000 - poured in for the bereaved family. “This speedy response shows that it is the people who are compassionate to its needs of their fellow beings rather than the government,” one letter writer said. <=>

“Over the past year, the mass transit has become an avenue for committing suicide. Four took place within a period of six weeks last year-end with two of them video taped by witnesses and posted on YouTube. <=>

Causes of Suicides in Singapore

Seah Chiang Nee wrote in The Star, ““Why is the suicide rate higher in Singapore than a country like, say, Thailand when life is reported to be so much more comfortable? One explanation lies in the psyche of Singaporeans, who tend to be harder striving, less tolerant of failures and overly materialistic. As a result of high-pressured living, the economic growth hasn’t spread happiness to all hard-pressed Singaporeans. Many citizens do not have enough retirement savings and have been advised to work beyond 65 years to survive in this expensive city.” [Source: Seah Chiang Nee, The Star, August 18, 2007]

Channel News Asia reported: “Dr Chia Boon Hock, Psychologist and Suicide Researcher, said: "The older people now are much better off. They have their HDB flats, CPF, they are married, not single, previously you had a old cohort where the elderly are single immigrants. For young suicide.. the level is steady, it is high." Suicide is the second main cause of death among girls under 20 and the third among boys of that age. Studies show that women are more likely to attempt suicide then men and in Singapore, most of the female teenagers who kill themselves do so because of relationship problems as well as study stress. [Source: Channel News Asia, March 10, 2006 \=\]

At the same time, psychologists also say that those who are single and unemployed are more likely to attempt suicide. Between the year 2000 and 2004, the number of unemployed males killing themselves were 17 times higher than their employed counterparts. \=\

Help for Suicidal People in Singapore

Channel News Asia reported: “Dr Chia Boon Hock, Psychologist and Suicide Researcher, said: "The older people now are much better off. They have their HDB flats, CPF, they are married, not single, previously you had a old cohort where the elderly are single immigrants. For young suicide.. the level is steady, it is high." Suicide is the second main cause of death among girls under 20 and the third among boys of that age. Studies show that women are more likely to attempt suicide then men and in Singapore, most of the female teenagers who kill themselves do so because of relationship problems as well as study stress. [Source: Channel News Asia, March 10, 2006 \=\]

“The Health Ministry says what is important is that front-line staff like family doctors know how to identify signs that someone has suicidal tendencies. Dr Alex Su, Head of Emergency Services at the Institute of Mental Health, said: "In Singapore, more than 50 percent of the people, if they were to end their lives, they would have left some form of message before that but unfortunately these messages were being ignored or not taken seriously. "They may have made some arrangements to give away things that they had, or made some arrangements, as in after their death who will get what things, sometimes they may even release their pets. "More importantly, they will leave some kind of suicide notes and these are very important things to note and should be taken seriously." \=\

“The Institute of Mental Health is currently running courses for family doctors to help them manage mental and suicidal conditions. But psychologists say what is needed is a national suicide prevention strategy. Dr Su said: "Depression is very treatable, you do not have to wait until depression evolves into a severe state, and all things around you have fallen apart, leading up to suicide. Singapore has also launched a new offering information and support from qualified professions for people who are depressed. DepNet is a way for people to discreetly seek help and advice for their problems. \=\

Image Sources:

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.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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