The Strategic Retreat

Is Singapore miserable? A rebuttal to the BBC

colorfull shutters in singapore

Today I woke up to read a story about Singapore on The BBC. Charlotte Ashton asks, ‘Does Singapore deserve its ‘miserable’ tag?‘. I didn’t particularly care for it as it mainly consists of a complaint without ever attempting to get at the answer to the author’s question. I disliked it so much that I felt compelled to write the following critique.

Charlotte starts off by describing the lack of misery around her. She, a well off expat who associates with like minded and walleted individuals, doesn’t see any misery. She, of course, chose to come to Singapore and is oblivious to the difference between making that decision versus it being thrust upon her, as it is for native Singaporeans. She then describes such non miserable scenes as “the free public BBQ pits of Singapore’s beautifully-kept parks, for example – always full of jolly families and groups of friends enjoying an evening in the tropical heat over a cool-box of beer. And in the broad, toothless grin of the septuagenarian vendor at our local food court, who served me my daily dose of delicious, fresh pineapple juice.

She sees those scenes as examples of happiness, because she is looking at Singapore through the rose tinted glasses of a privileged Ang mo. Let’s break down what is actually going on.

steaks on a grill

Free public BBQ pits

First off, I’m not aware of any free BBQ pits, the accompanying image shown in her article depicts East Coast Park, those pits aren’t free. Because Singapore is such a crowded place you have to rent these pits well in advance. It will cost between $S12 and $S20 a day. The reservations are non transferable. So, to have this idyllic time you have to pay and throw out any concept of spontaneity. That reality seems a bit more miserable than how it was presented by a naive foreigner.

chinese garden in Singapore

Of Singapore’s beautifully-kept parks

How does Charlotte think these parks keep their beauty: Magic? Robots? Volunteers? No, they are kept beautiful by low wages and hard work. Singapore has over one million foreign workers. 1 in 5 people in Singapore are low paid foreign workers. There is no minimum wage in Singapore and many people do back breaking work for $2 or $3 an hour. Do you think the people keeping that park beautiful can afford to pay $20 for a BBQ pit or count on their months-in-advance reservation falling on their day off? No. That’s not reality. That’s a little piece of misery.

family at east coast park in singapore

for example – always full of jolly families and groups of friends enjoying an evening in the tropical heat

She says “tropical heat” as if it’s a good thing. The weather in Singapore is terrible. Singaporeans don’t enjoy the heat and humidity of their country. Maybe it’s nice if you’re dropping down from England on a holiday but to people who don’t have the luxury of air conditioning or a car or a fancy expat package it’s terrible. Everybody is together enjoying the park because they finally got their reservation and have a rare opportunity to enjoy it. They can BBQ their overpriced meats(because beef is nearly unaffordable in Singapore) on a rented BBQ pit and look out to a sea of oil tankers and polluted water.

They can’t spend a peaceful Saturday inside because everybody lives in cramped apartments and air conditioning is too expensive for the average Singaporean to utilize. This is like romanticizing people playing in front of fire plugs in Brooklyn. Yes, they are having fun but they’d rather it just not be so damn hot. The “tropical heat” is another slice of misery.

beer moto in ho chi minh

over a cool-box of beer

Has Charlotte ever bought a beer in Singapore? It’s one of the most expensive places to drink alcohol in the entire world. A beer at a club will set you back $S15-$S20 and a 6 pack from the NTUC can easily run $S15 or more. And that’s for the cheapest beers available. On top of that the tax on beer is being raised by 25%. So people who already can’t afford a little bottled relief from the heat and long work days now have to pay 25% more. When Charlotte talks about beer, all I see is the struggle.

water uncle

And in the broad, toothless grin of the septuagenarian vendor at our local food court, who served me my daily dose of delicious, fresh pineapple juice

She sees her hawker center server as an old happy Uncle. Here’s what I see, an elderly man who is forced to work well into his 70s at a low paying job due to lack of financial security. The poor man doesn’t even have proper dental care yet he forces a smile to make a few cents toiling for a rich foreigner whose very presence is driving up the cost of living on the island he’s lived on since before it was a country of its own. Charlotte sees happiness and pineapple juice. I see low wages, high cost of living, a lack of social services, and elderly unable to leave the work force. I see signs of misery, because I can see past the delicious drink in my hand.


Charlotte goes on, not to address any actual causes of misery or itemize what particulars the survey was scored on, nor did she cite a different poll that shows Singapore as being the happiest nation in Asia. Nope, she made it about her. She had a nice privileged life in Singapore, so she projected that on everything she saw.

Her proof of misery? Of course, it was a personal experience that has little to do with the trials and troubles faced by the people of Singapore. She was pregnant and not feeling well and nobody helped her.

pregnant woman in singapore

One morning the nausea finally got the better of me just as I had stepped onto a packed train. Worried I was going to faint, I crouched to the floor, holding my head in my hands.

“And so I remained, completely ignored, for the full 15 minutes it took to reach my station. Nobody offered me a seat or asked me if I was okay.”

First of all, the photo shows a well pregnant woman, the story tells of a woman 2 and a half months pregnant. At that time the fetus is about the size of a prune. So, this clearly not-visibly-pregnant woman gets on the MRT and nobody gives her their seat. The horror. Her Ang mo privilege didn’t have people hoping up to give up what they choped first. Does she think people are supposed to magically know she’s pregnant if she doesn’t tell anyone? She then crouched down, as people often do in Singapore, and waited 15 whole minutes to get to her stop. At no point did she ask for a seat, tell anyone she was pregnant or ask anyone for help.

Strutting around like he owns the place

“Singaporeans, I felt, had let me down.”

She felt “let down” because people didn’t magically know she wasn’t feeling well and didn’t rush to her aid? I thought Brits were supposed to keep a stiff upper lip. I guess that’s counteracted by them strutting around foreign countries like they own the place.

See, there’s something called cultural norms. If I’m in San Francisco and I notice somebody with a Mary’s Club t-shirt I’ll probably say something about being from Portland too and strike up a conversation. Which is actually how I met the lead singer of one of my favorite bands. If I’m in Europe, I’m less likely to initiate dialogue with a stranger, even if I notice some common bond, because cultural norms vary. If somebody wants help in Singapore, they should ask for help. Most Singaporeans will help out. Singaporeans are more reserved and less likely to intrude on others than in many western cultures so they aren’t going to pry into a stranger’s business as often. Having different cultural norms isn’t the same as “letting you down”. It was a lack of understanding the culture of the country she was visiting that let her down. It was her assumptions of entitlement and privilege that let her down, not Singapore. Charlotte let herself down.

She then goes on to quote an anonymous Singaporean as saying, “The problem here is that we measure everything in dollar bills – personal identity, self-respect, happiness, your sense of worth – it is all linked to how much money you have. But only the top few percent earn serious cash – so everyone else feels worthless and apathetic.”

That’s it right there, that’s great stuff. That’s real and actually involves the problems of Singaporeans. That’s what her article should have been about. Not the time she didn’t feel well and strangers didn’t bust out palm fronds to fan her. There is real misery in Singapore and it’s a shame that The BBC published an article that ignored that.

Tune in next time where I will begin to give my account of the misery situation in Singapore.

About Jeff Penman

Jeff was born in the back of a War Game Store on the day the first Star Trek movie came out, to a computer programmer mother and a father who wrote the story for Dragon's Lair. Jeff has an MBA and a penchant for sticking his nose here it doesn't belong.