Managing Diversities
Staying positive for the Next Lap

The topic of happiness, or an individual’s sense of well-being, has garnered increasing attention in recent years.

Previous studies on wealth and happiness have found that having more economic resources is generally associated with greater happiness. However, this is true only up to a point. Apparently, material wealth matters less, after a threshold is crossed. The Easterlin Paradox suggests that happiness levels tend to stagnate, even if material wealth continues to increase after a certain point.

There are many subjective indicators of happiness. One way to measure this elusive concept is to examine perceived future well-being, or an individual’s sense of optimism for the future. Confidence for the future is an indication of resilience, and personal resilience demonstrates the individual’s ability to bounce back from adversity. Collectively, national resilience can serve as a measurement of confidence in the face of challenges and crises.

A recent survey on how Singaporeans perceive the country’s history found that themes of national resilience were marginally associated with an individual’s level of optimism for the future. The survey, conducted by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) between August and October 2014, asked 1,516 Singapore citizens aged 21 years and above if they were aware of 50 historical events from the founding of modern Singapore in 1819 to the last general election in 2011.

Respondents were also asked how satisfied they were with their lives today and how satisfied they thought they would be in five years’ time, on a scale of 1 (not optimistic at all) to 5 (very optimistic). Findings showed that the level of optimism for the future varied across housing types. In Singapore, housing type is often used as a proxy of socioeconomic status, and hence an indicator of the amount of resources available to individuals and households.

In the IPS survey, as indicated in the graph below, there was an overall upward linear trend. Respondents living in larger housing types indicated higher levels of expected well-being in the next five years. Those living in private apartments and executive condominiums reported the highest levels of optimism, with a mean of 3.64 out of a maximum rating of 5. At the other end, respondents living in three-room public housing were the least optimistic, with a mean of 3.36 for perceived future life satisfaction.


Respondents situated at the extreme ends of the scale, that is, residents of one and two-room public housing units at the lower end, and residents of landed property at the higher end, bucked the general trend. The well-being indicator for respondents living in smaller one and two-room public housing was higher (3.44) than for respondents living in larger three and four-room units (3.40). Conversely, the level of optimism reported by residents of landed property was lower (3.51), when compared to residents of private apartments and executive condominiums.

This trend conforms to the Easterlin Paradox, where having more resources at the upper end of the housing market does not necessarily equate to a greater sense of happiness or optimism about future well-being. Hence, those staying in a one/two-room flat have similar levels of satisfaction with life as those living in landed property, despite the stark difference in their socioeconomic status.

What could explain this?

One reason why Singaporeans at the lowest end of the housing market feel more positive about the future than those in slightly larger flats, could be their implicit trust in the Singapore system. This social compact assures a fair and equitable society, through welfare policies aimed at supporting social mobility and building a social safety net for the least advantaged. It may be that the Singapore Government’s commitment to reinforcing the “Many Helping Hands” approach resonates with Singaporeans at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale.

Conversely, residents of landed property may not feel as though they are part of the same social compact. We often assume that dwellers of landed property are the most privileged and financially well-off and the numbers support such assumptions. The 2012/13 Household Expenditure Survey reported that the average monthly household income of families staying in landed property is S$26,058 as compared to the average monthly household income of S$1,906 for families staying in one to two-room flats.

However, not all Singaporeans who stay in landed property are financially well-off. There is a group of “asset-rich, cash-poor” residents who are elderly and live in private property that they purchased 20 or more years ago when housing prices were much lower than today. This group of residents may not have much in savings or income and yet, are unable to meet the qualifying criteria for social assistance schemes due to the high annual value of their property. Without access to social security and welfare benefits, they may feel less optimistic for the future, and less able to cope with potential challenges and crises.

Moreover, residents of landed property are already at the so-called pinnacle of success in terms of housing. Maintaining their existing standard of living may no longer be sustainable, as the global economic outlook becomes more unpredictable and the future less benign.

Why are three-room residents the least optimistic?

Just like the “asset-rich, cash-poor” residents of landed property, three-room flat dwellers may have marginally missed the boat for the qualifying criteria for social assistance. Yet, compared to the former, their property is not valuated as much in the market. The “squeeze” that is experienced by this particular housing group may lead to a less rosy outlook for the future.

It is worthwhile to consider the societal implications of these differences in outlook. Having a less rosy view of the future may lead to a lack of identification with the Singapore Story, with people feeling disgruntled and disillusioned that they are unable to fulfil their aspirations and hopes. Yet, Singapore cannot afford to be a divided nation.

Government policy has focused on narrowing the social divide between those who have less and those who have enough and more. This has been done in a variety of ways — direct transfers, support for those caring for older folk and young children, and wage support for lower-wage workers.

What else can be done to forge a common agenda and ensure that aspirations are not a function of economic resources? This is worth considering, as we embark on the next stage of our collective journey.

Elaine Ho is a Research Analyst at IPS Social Lab. Findings from the IPS Study on Perceptions of Singapore’s History can be found here.

Top photo from Flickr

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