Why are Singaporeans so damned unhappy?

Why are Singaporeans so damned unhappy?

Image credit: gabrieldecastelaze.com

20 minute read

This is written from the perspective of a born and bred Singaporean, who speaks from observation. All opinions expressed are his own.

I've been seeing more articles pop up in all forms of media about how happy Singapore and Singaporeans are this year than I ever have, and to me that speaks volumes more to our true emotional state that what's actually presented.

I have a friend named Ryan, who followed the mile wide, beaten academic path laid out before him decades before he was born. Good schools, junior college, military officership, university then lawyer/doctor/high-paying job. Parents couldn't be prouder, envy of his peers, but he came to me and said, "I feel like I have no soul, that I literally sold it off for the money in my bank account. I drag myself out of bed in the morning and crawl back in at night, and in between it's all I can do to raise my eyes and watch the hours of my life tick by for naught. I have everything I could want yet I want none of it. Why?"

Mental and social ills are higher in our society than ever before. Loneliness, anger, depression, scorn, and apathy abound, permeating all levels like the plague but are all the more dangerous because there are no immediately visible symptoms, yet can have greater effects than physical disease.

How did we come to be like this?

In How I Broke My Addiction to Food I detail how draconian and brutal school hours are: reporting time was 7 am from ages 6-16. More than 20 years later the system has barely twitched. Students arrive in full zombie mode, are flooded with dry academia, and are expected to fill the remaining hours of the day brushing up on said academia to maintain our high global standing. That leaves precious little, if any, time for learning the foundation of the essential social skills needed for effective communication in society. How many Singaporeans are able to hold a proper conversation, let alone confident, intelligent discourse on ideas, society and the future? How much of that conversation is original, thoroughly thought out and individual opinion, and not simply parroted from a secondary source? How many Singaporeans can say they were taught care and empathy growing up and now have those values deeply rooted in them? Where did Courtesy Lion and Sharity Elephant go and why did anyone think Phua Chu Kang would be a good anti-SARS spokesperson?

Numbers were king through our formative years - 'O' and 'A' Levels, GPA, now it's sales targets and KPIs. Take heed here: We're starting to see people working themselves to DEATH in Singapore. No Singaporean, yet, but this career path only leads to one end. Despite the implementation of the 5-day work week, Singapore has one of the highest work hour counts in the world, approaching closer to Japan and Korea where they have coined words for suicide by work - for make no mistake, working yourself to death is nothing less than very slow, very painful suicide. Can we help it though? If we leave work early - or worse, on time - we're seen as lazy or not being given enough work. It's like having a target on your back that only fades past 8 pm.

I fully understand that this industriousness was born out of necessity and the need for survival. Singapore gained independence in 1965 and was like a toddler being thrown out to fend for herself. Work or perish - she rose to the occasion, head of class of Asia '80s, 90s. Unfortunately she didn't dial it back, perhaps didn't even know how, now she's the Tiger Mom, CEO of Singapore Inc but her cubs are suffering. The Asian concept of 'saving face' is one of the most powerful motivators I've ever seen. It can be all consuming to the point where the parent is blind to all other needs of the child; where the only thing that matters are results and reputation, and keeping up with the Joneses or the Tans as the case might be. The child, having been so ferociously raised, almost has no choice but to get achievements or die trying, and having thus achieved then expects her children to do the same. Vicious, vicious cycle, and the circle of misery compounds and continues.

How then, do we break out of the cycle?

On the level that would make the most impact: we have to ease up on the overemphasis on academia and teach real social skills and empathy, how to genuinely establish connections with other human beings regardless of origin or status. 

Credit: http://reciprocitytheory.com/2015/06/19/the-purpose-economy-part-2-foundational-human-behavior/

This is Maslow's Expanded Hierarchy of Needs, which is a theory about all the needs a human being has to fulfill before he is truly complete. The four at the bottom are Deficiency Needs, which are essential and have to be fulfilled before one can move on to the higher 4 Growth Needs. Singapore is excellent at providing for all but the social need, because the social skills aren't taught in schools, and that leaves people confused and fumbling once out in society. When the social level is deficient, people walk around with frowny faces, never smiling, keeping to themselves and never striking up conversation with strangers. It's every man for himself, the extreme example of which is China.

People keep to themselves because they feel innately and instinctively that they can't trust their fellow man. How can they, when the moment they venture an idea or take initiative, they're told to shut up and follow instructions? Our "leaders" shirk responsibility and shift blame downwards when half their job is to be the shield and the cover of safety from which innovation can arise. The incomparable Simon Sinek will tell you all you need to know here, which is the best 45 minutes you will ever spend if you plan on having human interaction.


Growing up, I was never taught introspection, and mindfulness might have been another word for telekinesis. Singaporeans might suffer from myopia, but also tunnel vision.. We're only focused on the almighty dollar, but that's missing the forest for a leaf. We've no idea how to live.

Hygge, Ikigai, raison d'être

Hygge: pronounced hoo-ga, Danish concept of cosy contentment. Was touted as secret to happiness for a while but found to simply mean the joy of being warm and cosy.

Ikigai: Japanese word meaning life...as a result of certain action.

Credit: http://theviewinside.me/what-is-your-ikigai/

Lembas is my ikigai. (to read about how Lembas gave me purpose click here). 

I love helping people; I'm good at getting things done for causes I believe in; I'm paid for the product that Lembas produces; Lembas manufactures functional food that saves people time and money and gives good nutrition. As a result I'm happier than I have ever been all my life, and I've only just gotten started. There have been times where the future seemed bleak and all my work seemed to be destined to come to nothing and darkness and despair filled my being. I have been living on a 3-digit disposable income every month for about 3 years, yet since the launch of Lembas I have been receiving near daily messages and emails about how Lembas is making immediate, daily benefits to the lives of so many people who thank  and encourage me, and in those moments the shadows flee and only glowing fulfillment remains.  There's no excuse for you to find your own ikigai, and I'm only too happy to help if you like. Email alvin@lembas.sg

Raison d'être is a French expression and translates as reason to live. Out of all the people I have met the French seem to have the most passion for life, but that might be because they are well travelled and I am not (that is, they seem to travel a lot). I hear South Americans are equal if not more, and I would appreciate it if anyone would tell me more.

So how do we stop being so unhappy?

I used to think Singapore was a small country with small minds; now I realise it is our hearts that are small. The key to happiness is not constant joy, but finding your purpose and fulfilling that purpose, and the key to finding a good purpose is helping other people. I measure success by how many people you've helped and to what extent. The happiest people are down on the ground and not found in the penthouse. At the risk of being told I'm grossly oversimplifying:

  1. Find out what makes you happy, in relation to helping other people
  2. Find a way to monetise that activity or concept
  3. ???
  4. Profit

Jokes aside, we need to put aside our ego and stop competing for no discernible goal or prize other than bragging rights . Determine how much money is enough for yourself and loved ones, then once you reach that number dedicate the extra time and resources to helping others in your preferred field. Cast aside our greed and kiasuism. We've built a great city but also a Great Wall around our own hearts, which might have been out of the necessity of survival, but is no longer practical and in fact detrimental to a world that's globalised and attuned to our motivations and soul.

If you're Gen X and are miserable, change will be the hardest yet the most imperative thing you have to do. It's literally life or death, choosing to live or simply exist. I'm not going to sugarcoat it, you have to summon all the willpower and courage you have when you possibly never had to before in order to make this change, but the choice is yours and there will always be people who will support you. Please know that the worst possible advice you can give your children are to do well in school, get a degree and a good job. You're dooming them to a life in chains. Raise them to be open minded with a broad perspective and to treat everyone kindly regardless of race or status. The third Industrial Revolution is already here, technology and AI are going to take our menial jobs, Universal Basic Income will make sure we don't have to work for a living. Don't make your kids hate you for taking their childhood from them. We're well headed towards the Golden Age of Humanity, then the Singularity will hit and we'll all be part of Unity, but in a good way. So don't worry!

If you're a millenial, (warning: explicit language) stop wasting your fucking life doing shit that doesn't fucking matter. Your bank account, once past a minimum, doesn't matter. Mobile fucking Legends doesn't matter. Get off your ass and CREATE something, CONTRIBUTE to society, HELP people because you'll find it's in helping others that you help yourself the most. Experience life and embrace fear because coming close to death is when you feel most alive  I'm not saying everyone has to be a fucking superstar, but believe me, when everything's in balance and all the boxes are checked, you'll always feel like you are.

I feel the strongest here because I wasted my life up till now and I'm hoping to my core that this inspires you or somebody to not waste theirs. You might ask if I regret having wasted my life thus far - my answer is yes, for a touch, but I don't waste any more time on that regret simply because I couldn't have known. Nobody ever told me and really made me feel my mortality and the agony of a life that wasn't well lived. Now you have no excuse.

Four Pillars of Life

Having found ikigai (which only applies to career), one can then focus on putting the rest of one's life in order. The open secret to leading a happy life is to keep the Four Pillars in balance. I'll leave you to read up on the Four Pillars but it's easy to see how our society is way out of whack. I mentioned our schools because our educational institutes form the foundation of society, and it is from them that we need to learn how to be human beings or 学会做人. Our parents are the second line of education, and if they too lack this knowledge then it's up to ourselves as individuals to learn, however way we can.

When Opportunity Knocks

This is our chance to show Asia and the world that we're willing to take the lead in inclusion, kindness and love when others are closing their doors to immigrants, and their own future by extension. It might sound like naive optimism but it's the only way we can thrive instead of simply survive. Despite being an actual island, no man is one, and we must rise to the higher echelons of living life with purpose or drown in misery. The choice is clear, so let's live.

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