The Difference Ten Years Makes

by singaporearmchaircritic

What do you remember of your life and life in Singapore ten years ago?

Today, Singaporeans are the unhappiest people in the world. But according to the World Values Survey (sample size 1,500+), Singaporeans were a very happy lot in 2002. When asked about their feeling of happiness, 28.8% reported that they were “very happy” and 66.2% said they were “quite happy.” In total, 95% of the population were generally happy.


This may seem counter-intuitive if we recall the economic climate in 2001/2002. Singapore experienced a recession of -1.2% growth in 2001 – that fateful year when 9-11 shocked and shook the world.

Yet the recession did not dampen our mood, perhaps because Singapore then was also a less crowded, less expensive place to live, and a more equal society.

In 2001, Singapore was ranked 97th in the EIU Worldwide Cost of Living. Our population was a manageable 4.18 million in 2002, including 3.38 million residents.

In a decade, however, Singapore has been drastically transformed. Our population hit the 5 million mark by 2010. The income ratio of the top decile to the bottom decile almost doubled over the last 15 years. In 2011, Singapore leaped to the number 6 spot as one of the world’s most expensive cities – the price of one kilogram of white rice has inflated by nearly 5 times over the past decade.

In 2010, our economy grew by a spectacular 14.8%. But that did not bring us happiness.

Value Change: Less Materialistic, Less Patriotic

A local survey showed that Singaporeans have become less materialistic over the last ten years. That is not a surprising trend.

Way back in 2002, when asked if less emphasis on money and material possessions was a good thing or otherwise, 38% of Singaporeans said it was whereas 46% indicated that they did not mind such a change (see World Values Survey).


Back in 2002, we were also a very patriotic people brimming with national pride. As many as 85.2% of the Singaporeans surveyed said that should a war break out, they would be willing to fight for the country. About 94% declared that they were either “very proud” or “quite proud” to be Singaporeans (see World Values Survey).

Today, sadly, we hear many Singaporeans saying quite the opposite: that Singapore is not worth fighting for, not least because of the diluted Singaporean core.



The disgruntlement and anger at our liberal immigration policy are also foreseeable if policy makers have paid attention to or cared about what Singaporeans think. Even in 2002, before the government opened the floodgates, Singaporeans already preferred a more measured immigration policy.

Responding to the question “How about people from other countries coming here to work. Which one of the following do you think the government should do?”, as high as 70% said the government should impose “strict limits” while 24% welcomed immigrants as long as jobs were available  (World Values Survey).


Perceptions and Desired Society

A decade ago, when our society was more equal, more Singaporeans preferred having “larger income differences as incentives” to more equally distributed incomes (see chart below). Rated on a scale of one to ten, the average score was 6.9, indicating that Singaporeans tended to be of the opinion that income disparities were good and/or necessary (World Values Survey).


This squared with Singaporeans’ response to another question: their preference for (1) “an egalitarian society where the gap between the rich and poor is small, regardless of achievement”, or (2) a competitive society where wealth is distributed according to one’s achievement.”

More than 60% said they preferred a society that was closer to a competitive one, whereas only 27% desired to see a society that was closer to an egalitarian one.


This conviction in rewarding individuals based on their efforts or merits may have something to do with our perception of the society then. In 2002, 78% of Singaporeans believed that the country was run for the benefit of all people instead of it being run by a few big interests (see World Values Survey).

What a world of difference, then and now!


* To view the 2002 Singapore survey results at the World Values Survey website, follow these steps: (1) click on “Begin analysis”; (2) click on “Four wave aggregate of the value studies”; (3) scroll down the country list and check the box next to “Singapore”; (4) at the top of the same page, click on “confirm selection” and voila! Unfortunately, the website has yet to publish the results of a more recent survey of Singapore.