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Greatest Happiness


The Greatest Happiness for the Greatest Number

by Kenneth Lyen

"Singaporeans Getting Happier" is the headline in the tabloid, Streats, on 13 July 2004. A survey carried about by a global media agency revealed that compared to 2 years ago, Singaporeans are happier. They are less burdened by life’s pressures, they find the pace of life becoming more manageable, and family time is returning in a positive way. But not everything in this survey is rosy. 65 per cent of respondents thought that Singapore was a great place to live, down from 76 percent two years ago. 73 percent said that we were a progressive country, down from 84 per cent two years ago.

It seems that Singapore is following the utilitarian creed of the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Is utilitarianism still relevant today? The answer is a qualified no. There are many reasons why.

First of all, there is no general agreement of what constitutes happiness. What is happiness for you may be anathema to me. Let’s take an example. Our (Singapore) government wants to control traffic so as to avoid the jams that plague many cities in the world, like Bangkok and Jakarta. They place monetary deterrents to car ownership, they restrict the number of new cars released into the market, they only allow a relatively small number of over-21-year-olds to get driving licenses, they place hefty taxes on gasoline, and they tax car entry into potentially crowded places like the city centre. Ostensibly this sounds wonderful, and indeed the traffic in Singapore is tolerable. However there are many other problems engendered by this policy. It affects retail business in the city centre because fewer people enter this district, it raises the cost of doing business because transport costs is increased several fold. We are no longer competitive in the world market, our business suffers and there is much unhappiness among businessmen.

Secondly, if we strive to please the majority of the population, then we may leave out or discriminate against minorities. This tendency to favour the maximum number may lead to tyranny of the majority. For example, the Singapore government did a survey to determine whether or not they favoured movies and plays that allowed nudity, gay themes, necrophilia, excessive violence, religious themes, and the use of swear words. They found that the majority of the population objected to these subjects being shown publicly. This has resulted in either outright banning or heavy-handed cutting of many films and plays. Films like Schindler’s List, The Last Emperor, Four Weddings and a Funeral, The Godfather, Pulp Fiction, Titanic, and Zoolander, cannot be shown on public television, cannot be sold as DVDs, and if shown on television, there will be substantial cuts. This is an example of the tyranny of the majority.

This does not mean that government should not strive to bring happiness to the greatest number. But it does mean that government must be sensitive to the needs and aspiration of the individual, to allow for diversity in thought and self-expression. We must never use the excuse that we are giving the greatest happiness to the greatest number as justification for policies that will cause unhappiness to a few. Hopefully Singapore does not descend into this nightmare brave new world.