Has Singapore Found the Secret to Satisfaction?

Despite lack of civil liberties, citizens of this clean, safe city are happy.

ByABC News
February 9, 2009, 8:56 AM

SINGAPORE, Jan. 9, 2008 — -- If you set out across the globe and talk to a few of the 6.5 billion people who live here, you will be amazed by the pockets of joy you'll find in the most unlikely places. You'll find happy mothers in the dusty villages of Africa, happy Tibetans toiling under Chinese oppression and happy families in the slums of Bombay.

To understand this sort of human contentment, Dan Buettner founded a global project called Blue Zones. He found that a liberal, tolerant, democratic society helps make Denmark the happiest country in the world.

But is there a similar level of contentment in a place with one political party, a censored press and nonjury trials? Welcome to Singapore, the happiest country in Asia.

"Ninety-five percent of the people around us say they're either somewhat happy or very happy," Buettner said of Singapore. "That's a very high proportion for Asia."

This high proportion of satisfied citizens wasn't the case 40 years ago, when a man named Lee Kwan Yew took power in Singapore, and laid down the law. He made the Chinese and Malaysian locals learn English, banned spitting, chewing gum and long hair, and even paid educated people to have children.

With his draconian laws he transformed Singapore from a smelly, chaotic seaport into one of the richest, cleanest, safest and most efficient big cities in the world. But woe unto those who break the rules and litter or forget to flush. "[Singapore] is based on the rules," one local said. "[With] rules and very systematic country."

There are fines for the smallest infractions, and more serious criminals are strapped to a rack and beaten with a bamboo cane.

We met one man in Singapore who has seen and felt Singaporean justice firsthand. After serving 15 years for gang-related crimes, Neville Tan is now a pastor with a prison ministry. He says he was caned many times and describes it as a "horrible, painful experience." But he doesn't mind it one bit. "We feel safe. If we don't break the law, we don't have to worry about the law."

Mark Zee is an actor who moved to Singapore from Apple Valley, Minn., and he says he had no problem giving up civil liberty in exchange for a clean, safe city. Singapore, he says, has some of the "highest paid civil servants in the world, and so you get some very smart people running the country, and that's something that, you can't say in all Western countries," said Zee. "Hint, hint."