Saturday, January 26, 2013
Yesterday was spent with two friends, driving to the Malaysian border city of Johor Baru and visiting the Farmers’ (and small entrepreneurs) Market that is held each Saturday morning in a vacant lot adjacent to the Johor Bahru Stadium. My friends are a long-married Singaporean couple, whom I will call Chao (the man) and Lihua (the woman). They know of my interest in Singapore and have kindly offered to help teach me. The question “what can be learned about issues of city/regional level resilience and sustainability from a rigorous examination of Singapore’s post independence history?” is the focus of my current research. However all three of us are also drawn to a more fundamental question that is the focus of “National Conversations” in Singapore. The government initiated National Conversations are country-wide discussions about the long-term goals of the society and government’s appropriate role in achieving those goals.
Our discussion began with Chao’s reflections on reasons for his bi-weekly visits to Johor Bahru and to the Farmers Market. Apart from the opportunity to buy a wide selection of economically priced fresh vegetables, he told us, he enjoys the less stressful pace of life that the vegetable farmer/merchants seem to enjoy. He introduced me to several with whom he holds regular, sometimes lengthy, conversations on his bi-weekly visits. Occasionally he has visited their homes. Chao’s appreciation of Johor Bahru’s slower-paced way of life is nuanced, however. When I asked him if he might like to retire there, he said “no.” He also values Singapore’s cleanliness, efficiency, safe streets and absence of corruption. But over coffee after leaving the market, we all wondered whether the drive to excel, long working hours and especially the monetization of all aspects of daily life were necessary accompaniments of the qualities that make Singapore a good place to live.
Lihua contributed examples to the discussion from her own experience. She reflected on spiritually-based support groups in which members care for one another without any thought of monetary gain. She mentioned a caring counselor who, before his untimely death, would provide his services to needy patients at low cost or for free. She spoke of peacefulness gained from a hectic, demanding daily-routine that walks in Singapore’s beautiful Botanic Gardens provided. She mentioned the satisfaction she gains from empowering her staff members to work collegially together, maintain a positive attitude and think constructively about their futures. As in other conversations, she also posed gentle but challenging questions about my research agenda, encouraging me to be more clear and specific about the questions I wished to investigate.
Our conversation lead me to reflect and share thoughts on happiness as a social goal that had crystallized as I rode a rapid transit (MRT) train in the early morning to meet-up with my friends. As one walks through MRT stations and rides the trains, one encounters many posters with commercial messages. Most have two qualities in common. First, the attractive role-models featured are almost all smiling (usually broadly smiling). The intended message is that they are happy. Second, the reason for their happiness is some service or product they have purchased – a great dinner served by a smiling chef: an educational course of study; retirement insurance; a profitable stock portfolio; a can of “Pokka” green tea or a “luxurious” travel vacation. If one walks along Singapore’s commercial strip, Orchard Road, one is further encouraged by joyfully beaming role-models (or sometimes haughty, disdainful ones) to believe that expensive watches and jewellery along with high fashion garments are sources of human happiness.
My professional craft is dynamic systems computer modeling. Discovering “metrics” – quantitative measures of social life - is important to me. Thus, as conversation with my friends progressed, a metric popped into mind. If I were to count the total number of smiling (i.e. happy) role-models appearing on advertising posters that I see on my daily rounds and divide that number by the total number of all role models the resultant per-centage would be near 100%. (One rarely sees grumpy role-models promoting products.) Purchasing the products being promoted is clearly being communicated as the path to happiness that the joyful, smiling role-models are experiencing.
Our conversation progressed and I was lead to reflect on a second metric, the number of smile-wreathed ordinary people (not professional role models) - students, maids, executives, construction workers, taxi drives hawker stand proprietors ad cleanup persons, etc. – that I see on my daily rounds, divided by the total number of all individuals, both smiling and unsmiling, I encounter.
I do see some smiles each day. The security guards in my gated community often smile when we exchange greetings as do the staff members who greet me when I arrive at the office. Mothers playing with their children in the Botanic Gardens and, sometimes, dog-owners walking their pets, look happy. Since I say “good morning,” “good afternoon” or “good evening” to most people I encounter, I often receive a smile in return. In these circumstances and exchanges, no jewellery, upscale dinners, expensive jewellery, or luxury vacation is being purveyed. But if I were to take the total number of smiling individuals I encounter each day and divide it by the total number of all individuals I encounter, the per-centage would far smaller than that depicted by my advertising-poster metric.
Two messages I draw from these unsystematic observations, which are not intended to single-out Singapore, are clear. (These are not intended to Single-out Singapore or Malaysia of course). First, there is, indeed, a significant happiness deficit in the world, as contrasted with the idyllic world depicted by the joyously smiling advertising-poster role-models. Second, the remedy for this deficit is to work harder and to earn more money in order to be able to purchase more of the stuff that is producing the role-models “happiness.”
Literally billions of dollars are being spent, each year, to convince us these two messages are true.
But is that really the case?