If you were running a country for the benefit of its citizens, you would want to see them growing happier and more prosperous year by year. If you were looking for models to follow, you would look at other countries around the world to see which, if any, performed better than your own on these yardsticks. You would benchmark their performance and seek to learn from their policy choices. Then you would paint an attractive vision, based on the facts you had uncovered, and lead your country forwards to a successful future.

To help you do that, the World Happiness Report each year surveys most countries of the world and asks a sample of their population about their own level of happiness. The results are pretty consistent year-on-year. And Gallup has researched the median individual income in most countries. In combination, the more successful end of the picture looks something like this. (Nepal is shown for comparison).


On the horizontal axis is the World Happiness ranking score – a the higher the score, the happier the country. On the vertical axis is the median individual income – the income earned by a typical wage earner in the middle of the income spectrum. The higher the income, the richer the typical wage earner, of course. The obvious benchmark for most successful countries would be the happiest countries with the richest populations: the Scandinavian countries.

Rather less obvious would be Singapore, which is both less happy and less prosperous (for the typical person) than both the US and the UK. And yet, many members of the new Cabinet seem keen on turning the UK into “Singapore-on-Thames.” Sajid Javid, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson have all hinted at the notion. And they are not alone.

What is the attraction? Well, according to the CIA fact-book,

Singapore has a highly developed and successful free-market economy. It enjoys an open and corruption-free environment, stable prices, and a per capita GDP higher than that of most developed countries. Unemployment is very low.

Singapore is a rich country with a free-market economy, very low tax rates and a limited social safety net. As the chart above indicates, this is not a recipe for tackling mass impoverishment. But, on the plus side, Singapore does have more billionaires per head than the US or the UK.

The anti-poverty group, the Borgen Project, highlights the following points about poverty in Singapore:

  1. Singapore has one of the largest income gaps in the world. Wealth is disproportionately spread among wealthy foreigners while native Singaporeans [often] live in poverty and often have lower-paying jobs.
  2. Singapore does not have a national minimum wage, leaving many laborers without enough money to reach an acceptable standard of living. However, Singapore does have laws regulating minimum monthly income for security guards and cleaning employees.
  3. In 2012, Singapore was the 6th most expensive city to live in. This, coupled with wealth inequalities, lack of minimum wage laws and other factors, contributes to the continuation of the poverty cycle in the city.
  4. Poverty in Singapore disproportionately affects the elderly. While Singapore as a whole has increased 43.45 percent in the number of families relying on government assistance between 2012 and 2015, residents over the age of 60 saw a 74.32 percent increase in poverty.

In Singapore itself, many are calling for a change away from the current model. Chua Beng Huat, National University of Singapore Professor of Sociology told The Straits Times that poverty in Singapore is not a financial issue, but an ideological one. “Singapore’s capitalist economy causes an unavoidable income inequality. Yet, poverty cannot be thought of as synonymous with inequality, given Singapore’s status as one of the wealthiest capitalist nations in the world.” Singapore has the financial means to eliminate poverty; it is political will that is so far lacking.

So Singapore is not a model for the UK or the US to aspire to.

Instead of Singapore-on-Thames, we should be planning to become Scandinavia-on-Thames – significantly richer and happier than we are today, with a stronger sense of national solidarity, and of course enjoying hygge.

We can choose our destination: we should choose wisely.

If this matters to you, please do sign up and join the 99% Organisation.