In an opinion piece published by the Straits Times on Sat, American Prof Peter Coclanis wrote that Singaporeans should think again when they complain, given that Singapore is a “pretty good place to live”, all things considered (‘Singaporeans, you think you’ve got problems? Think again‘, 31 Jul).
Prof Coclanis is Albert R. Newsome Distinguished Professor of History and director of the Global Research Institute at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. He has lived and taught in Singapore, and often visits Singapore.
“It doesn’t take a visitor long to appreciate the fact that Singaporeans are perhaps most comfortable while complaining and, as a result, have developed the verbal remonstrance into something akin to an art form – or national sport,” Prof Coclanis pointed out.
The complaints “provide much of the soundtrack for one’s visit, no matter how short or long”, he joked.
Prof Coclanis, however, conceded that there may be some legitimate grounds for Singaporeans to complain. “After granting that there is generally a performative aspect to the complainants’ whines – especially for easy-to-fool ang mohs like myself – Singaporeans do have some legitimate grounds for complaints,” he said.
“The country is extremely competitive and the pace of change is relentless. Wages, especially for low earners, don’t always keep up with prices, the Government can be overbearing at times, and the humidity is often stifling.”
Prof Coclanis also conceded that some of the complaints do provide useful feedback to the government, leading in many cases to “meaningful policy changes without the need for organised protest, much less political violence”.
Putting Singaporeans’ complaints in perspectiveStill, Prof Coclanis asked Singaporeans to take stock, especially around the time of National Day. In his article, he attempts to put Singaporeans’ complaints in perspective.
He listed a few contextual points for Singaporeans to keep in mind whenever “they get the urge to let out a wail”:
- Singapore is a global leader in socioeconomic measures such as: GDP per capita, life expectancy (high), infant mortality (low), home ownership rates, proportion of income spent on food (low), school quality and educational performance, quality of healthcare, and composite measures such as the Human Development Index.
- Singapore has low taxes, ranks highly in global competitiveness, safety and honesty, and the World Happiness Report (32nd in 2020).
- Singapore has “very high ranking” on the 2020 Human Development Index (tied for 11th).
- Singapore’s income inequality is lower than in cities like New York, London and Hong Kong.
- Singapore ranked 6th among the 80 countries rated in the most recent rankings, for children born in 2013, in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) Where-to-be-born Index.
- Singapore’s passport is ranked the second strongest in the world, behind only Japan.
Singapore isn’t perfect but, as most Singaporeans “know deep down”, it’s a pretty good place to live, all things considered, Prof Coclanis claimed.
“Maybe all that complaining helps. Keep up the good work,” Prof Coclanis concluded his article in jest.
Singaporeans struggling to find jobs
Meanwhile, while Prof Coclanis was jetting between US and Singapore, it was reported last week (27 Jul) that many Singaporean workers in their 40s or 50s belonging to the “Sandwich Generation” are facing tremendous pressure when they were let go. Many resorted to seeking help from the government to get a job.
One such job seeker was 47-year-old Mohd Nasir Ja’apar who used to work as a senior quality engineer for an oil and gas company. He was let go last April.
“I vividly recall the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach as if it happened yesterday… Being ‘unwanted’ was how I felt, and my mind was desperately racing with thoughts on how I would face my family and friends,” he shared.
Mr Nasir spent the next four months applying to more than 60 jobs in pharmaceutical, chemicals, semiconductor and other sectors. But replies were slow to come; if any did, it was to inform him that his application had been unsuccessful.
He sought help from the government’s agency WSG’s Careers Connect, which eventually got him a job with an SME specializing in additive manufacturing. He was offered a position as senior quality engineer and had to undergo a six-month professional conversion programme, in which his salary was partly subsidized by the government.
Another middle-aged Singaporean, Ms June Bee Ling, 48, lost her job as a helpdesk officer in June last year. Fifty job applications and three interviews later, she was still drawing a blank. And like Mr Nasir, she had to seek help from the government.
Eventually in March this year, she got a job as an implementation specialist for a workforce management software company.
Singaporeans, you think you've got problems? Think againPeter A. Coclanis
In 2015, The Straits Times, marking Singapore's 50th year of independence, published a delectable collection entitled 50 Things To Love About Singapore, where ST writers contributed short essays bringing to light and celebrating odd and quirky, unexpected and even weird things about the country.
The entire book was fun, but one essay has stuck with me over the years. As everyone knows, public protest is frowned upon in Singapore, but as the writer points out, Singaporeans "do complain".
That's putting things mildly.
In a 1977 parliamentary speech, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew famously observed: "You know the Singaporean. He is a hard-working, industrious, rugged individual. Or we would not have made the grade. But let us also recognise that he is a champion grumbler."
Indeed, it doesn't take a visitor long to appreciate the fact that Singaporeans are perhaps most comfortable while complaining and, as a result, have developed the verbal remonstrance into something akin to an art form - or national sport.
A visitor's first experience with the form probably occurs during the taxi ride in from Changi or maybe at a hawker centre or coffee shop just after checking into a hotel.
Complaints about one thing or another - rising prices, hyper competition, the performance of the Government, the weather, reckless drivers, litterers, poor service, crowded trains, etc - provide much of the soundtrack for one's visit, no matter how short or long.
The fact that much of the yammering is done deadpan and, although sometimes loud, often in a more or less good-natured way renders most complaints alluring, even charming, to the beguiled recipients, who believe that they are experiencing the real Singapore and interacting with real Singaporeans in unguarded ways.
Some legitimate groundsAfter granting that there is generally a performative aspect to the complainants' whines - especially for easy-to-fool ang mohs like myself - Singaporeans do have some legitimate grounds for complaints.
The country is extremely competitive and the pace of change is relentless. Wages, especially for low earners, don't always keep up with prices, the Government can be overbearing at times, and the humidity is often stifling.
And so, one must always keep in mind that while Singaporeans do like to vent to visitors, their complaints also take other forms and are often directed at targeted audiences for specific policy ends.
For example, they are sometimes aimed at the Government, whether via interactions at CDCs (community development councils), at feedback dialogues, in communications with their MPs, or via letters to the editor in the leading newspapers, or via social media or online venues.
When they are, they often serve serious and constructive purposes, providing useful feedback leading in many cases to meaningful policy changes without the need for organised protest, much less political violence. Hear! Hear!
National Day perspectiveThis said, it is always important, particularly around the time of National Day, to put Singapore's problems and Singaporeans' complaints in perspective. So, in the spirit of "keeping it real", as we say in the increasingly dysfunctional country from which I hail - the United States - here are a few contextual points for locals to keep in mind whenever they get the urge to let out a wail.
The next time one has the urge to carp, remember that Singapore "ain't half bad", as the American idiom goes.
In fact, by most criteria, the country's performance is extremely impressive, with rankings at or near the top in an array of league tables regarding meaningful measures of standard of living, livability and civilised life.
For starters, Singapore is a global leader in socioeconomic measures such as gross domestic product per capita, life expectancy (high), infant mortality (low), home ownership rates, proportion of income spent on food (low), school quality and educational performance, access/quality/efficiency of healthcare, and composite measures such as the Human Development Index.
It has low taxes, ranks highly in tabulations relating to global competitiveness, safety and honesty, and very respectably, if not at the very top, in broader measures such as the World Happiness Report (32nd in 2020).
Note that its very high ranking on the 2020 Human Development Index (tied for 11th) falls a bit (tied for 26th) when adjusted for inequality, but part of the explanation for this is likely related to the fact that Singapore is essentially a city state, and large cities are generally more unequal than countries comprising urban and rural areas.
Indeed, as economist Phang Sock Yong pointed out a few years ago in ST, income inequality in Singapore is lower than in other "superstar" cities such as New York, London and Hong Kong.
And in the closest thing we have to a "social justice" measure - the Economist Intelligence Unit of the Economist Group's Where-to-be-born Index - Singapore ranked sixth among the 80 countries rated in the most recent rankings, for children born in 2013.
The strong showing is reflected in Singapore's position of influence and respect in regional and global fora of one type or another, and in less obvious ways as well, including the power of the Singapore passport, ranked this year as the second strongest in the world, behind only Japan.
So, on National Day next month, it's not a bad thing to take stock. Singapore certainly isn't perfect - especially for people living on low incomes - but, as most Singaporeans know deep down, it's a pretty good place to live, all things considered.
Maybe all that complaining helps. Keep up the good work.
Peter A. Coclanis is Albert R. Newsome Distinguished Professor of History and director of the Global Research Institute at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. He has lived and taught in Singapore, and (at least before Covid-19) visited often.
[If I get anything from the article, it is this: complaint by all means. If it is justified and there is a change that is needed. However, be also appreciative of what we do have. We can take pride in being champion grumblers. But no one likes an ungrateful, whiny, spoiled brat who does not appreciate how good he has it. (That said, don't become a jingoistic over-proud boastful show-off either. but I don't think Singaporeans are in danger of swinging to THAT extreme. Yet.)]