Emotionless Singapore: Not True, Not Relevant
According to Gallup, Singapore is the least emotional country in the world. This is probably worth celebrating if you were Durkheim (Mestrovic, 1993), who believed individual desires are infinite and required social control, for the good of both society and individual. Yet the survey findings are deeply problematic. I will critique the methodology before discussing the contexts of work, commute behaviour and civic participation, to provide a preliminary qualitative assessment of Singapore’s “level” of emotionality and demonstrate that emotionality is not inherently good or bad, unless they signify larger social problems.
As with all quantitative research, the survey artificially operationalized emotions with a list of arbitrary indicators, such as feeling well-rested and being treated with respect (Gallup, 2012). As Sartre (1948) reminded, human reality cannot be reduced to “facts”, but must be studied in its synthetic totality. The meanings of emotions cannot be captured with yes/no questions. Yet Gallup erred further by relying on a context-free univariate analysis. Rather than attempting to make sense of findings, they presented a crude summation of absolute responses. Whatever the intent, the results are bound to be interpreted in a negative light, thoroughly misrepresenting Singapore as monotonous or even heartless.
It is thus necessary to test Gallup’s assertions qualitatively. As private lives are hidden from public view, too individualized and too dynamic to make useful general inferences on the topic of emotions, I have chosen to examine behaviours in public social contexts.
The first context is work. I witnessed extensive bureaucracy during my time as a clerk in the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF). Apart from military regulars, most full-time personnel deal with strictly administrative processes, such as holding meetings, generating spreadsheets and updating electronic databases. This constitutes alienation beyond Marx’s (1970) formulation, because there is no production, but a menial organization of resources. Such work demands accuracy, making detached focus a valued trait. Indeed, many Gallup respondents may have based their responses on work experiences, given its centrality in modern social organization. I believe such detachment is unhealthy for individuals, as it stifles the passion which Weber (2004) regarded as vital to a meaningful existence. Yet this merely represents one end of a spectrum of diverse work options and environments.
The second context is commute behaviour. Here, commuters absorbed in their devices spring to mind. The need for signs exhorting courtesy – including the infamous Dim Sum Dollies train jingles – also implies a lack of empathy. However, many Singaporeans do give their seats up willingly. The avoidance of social interaction is likely a presentation of self (Goffman, 1959) in line with prevailing cultural norms. A lack of expressivity should not be confused as a lack of emotion. Singapore has also ranked 10th globally on mobile social media usage (Kemp, 2016), meaning commuters are indeed emotionally inclined to interact, albeit on virtual platforms. Even as symptoms of escape from unfulfilling work lives, our commute behaviour shows that we do perceive work with feelings, rather than apathy.
The final context is civic participation. Prior to 2011, many observers have lamented the apathy of the Singaporean electorate. Yet subsequent elections have seen much greater political excitement. Lee Kuan Yew’s passing in 2015 not only marked an unprecedented outpouring of grief, but also represented a nuanced form of civic participation, where citizens sought to celebrate one man’s political legacy. The near-universal respect accorded – epitomized by the public shaming of dissenter Amos Yee – would seem impossible in the deeply polarized politics of the United States, whose emotionality Gallup (2012) put at 54%, compared to 36% for Singapore. These examples show that emotion can be both socially constructive and destructive. In this respect, Singapore seems to have negotiated a more constructive emotionality than most countries.
Studying the “level” of emotionality is not only irrelevant, but grossly misleading. As my brief discussion has shown, cultural contexts shape public expressions. Singaporeans may be rather detached at work or on commute, but they may merely be performing to social expectations. Social media participation and political developments suggest that we do have emotions – certainly – but tend not to display them in public. A better question to pose is what our patterns of emotional expression mean. Contrary to Durkheim, emotions are not inherently good or bad. Studies should look more deeply into what people feel, why they feel certain ways, and how these emotions may be harnessed to address larger social issues.
The above is a Sociology response paper I wrote in Feb 2016. Following the 2012 Gallup survey, I recall another one rating Singapore as #UnderHappy. That became a trending term, for amusement or political criticism – survey disproved. The more we flatten emotions, the less we learn about them.
This essay is but a starting point. To appreciate Singapore’s culture of emotions more deeply, one has to define specific contexts for study first. Surveys won’t cut it, for sure. The most interesting part – on the macro level – is to examine how emotions can actually be constructive, for the people.
It’s not all about anger, however righteous it feels.
Clifton, J. (2012, November 21). Singapore Ranks as Least Emotional Country in the World. Gallup. Retrieved from http://www.gallup.com/poll/158882/singapore-ranks-least-emotional-country-world.aspx.
Goffman, E. (1959). Introduction. In The presentation of self in everyday life (pp. 13-27). New York et al.: Anchor Books.
Kemp, S. (2016, January 27). Digital in 2016. We Are Social. Retrieved from http://wearesocial.sg/blog/2016/01/digital-2016/.
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