As a symbolic gesture, Prince
Williams decision to take two
weeks of paternity leave is brilliant
he has issued the boldest possible
statement of support for true workplace
equality between men and women.
judith warner 12
today • Monday 29 july 2013
Singaporeans pessimistic?
Nothing to feel down about
here is a case to be made as to
how pessimism is perceived in
Singapore, and how it is not
necessarily a “bad” thing, in the way
it has been stereotyped in a recent
Gallup study.
The poll shows that 24 per cent of
a small sample of Singaporeans
which it takes as representative rat-
ed their future lives as expected to be
worse than their current lives. This has
raised concern that Singaporeans are
a pessimistic people. It also appears to
reinforce an earlier survey by Gallup
in 2011 which concluded that Singapo-
reans were the “least likely worldwide
to report feeling positive emotions”.
We need to understand the socio-
cultural factors surrounding our take
on pessimism; it is protective, and po-
tentially empowering. Our memes —
ideas and behaviours passed through
our cultural evolution — play a major
role in shaping our current perspec-
tives. Culturally, it can be said that in
GalluP Poll on PeSSiMiSM
Singapore, we are socialised from birth
to be more cautious; to be humble; and
to fear losing out, or being kiasu.
Harking back to our migrant an-
cestors early years in Singapore,
there was much uncertainty over the
future and whether they would be able
to eke out a decent living to support
their families. They took huge risks in
leaving their countries of birth to seek
a better life, and to be cautious was a
highly self-protective measure then.
These memes have been passed
down through the generations. From
young, we were taught by our parents
to err on the side of caution. We were
told not to play too far from them and
to never talk to strangers. We were
warned when our dreams grew too
big, and told that we ought to be hap-
py with what we already had. Under-
standable advice given the context,
but then it leads us to the admittance
that we are a cautious people.
Caution and pessimism, it has been
pointed out, go hand in hand. A point in
defence of caution and pessimism: In a
German article published this year in
the Psychology and Aging journal, it
was noted that older people who were
cautious and had low expectations for
a satisfying future, were more likely
to live longer and healthier lives than
those who were less cautious.
Secondly, we are raised to never brag
about our accolades.
Ask any Singaporean what their
strengths are, and chances are they
would take a while before responding.
It does not speak to our low self-es-
teem, but instead to our self-censor-
ship of what may be misinterpreted as
bragging (being hao lian).
Several Japanese researchers of
the cultural notions of happiness have
identified that there is connectedness
through self-criticism. When one tells
others how well he is doing at work, it
may breed envy. However, when one
condes in others the diculties he
faces at work, he may receive sym-
pathy and others may engage more
with him.
We are not as likely to respond with
an “awesome” or “great” when asked
how we are. Instead, we are probably
more likely to say, “Not so good, I’ve
been stressed with work lately.Even
if we have just received a promotion,
culturally, we are not shaped to go
around telling everyone about it.
Thirdly, we have been socialised to
compete in all that we do with the fear
of losing out (kiasu-ism) — the down-
side being to win at all costs.
We need to recognise the utility of
defensive pessimism”, a term coined
by psychologists Julie Norem and
Nancy Cantor. This is essentially neg-
ative thinking that channels anxiety
about potential failure into successful
achievement. Singaporeans, being the
practical people that we are, may be
seen as pessimistic. However, a dark-
er outlook on the future is often more
realistic and can aid in making more
accurate predictions.
The concept of “defensive pessi-
mismdraws all three points together.
This can be seen in Singapore through
us setting low expectations (being
cautious), which softens the blow of
failure. We all know of a former class-
mate who would walk out of the exam
hall complaining about how they were
going to fail, only to subsequently re-
ceive the highest grade in class.
By focusing more on areas of po-
tential pitfalls and not revealing our
strengths (being humble), one can feel
more in control of the situation. And
finally, by reflecting on worst-case
scenarios, we can prepare in advance
to prevent failure from occurring
(being kiasu).
Can we build a sustainable nation
for the future that is based on pessi-
mism, some ask? The question is not
a fair one. It would be more astute to
challenge this stereotyped notion of
pessimism. “Pessimism” as it is con-
ventionally understood does not mean
we Singaporeans are unhappy. Per-
haps instead the Western notion of
“pessimismdoes not quite fit into our
cultural definition of “happiness”.
The Gallup survey earlier this month
ranked Singapore among the 10 countries
with the most pessimistic people in the world.
Dr Joel Yang is
Head of the Master
of Counselling
Programme at the
School of Human
Development and
Social Services,
SIM University