“Contrary to Singapore’s ranking in the Global Competitiveness Report, Singaporeans do not see themselves to be very competitive or kiasu” (Being Competitive and Happy (Part Two), Mr. Jason Ng Li Sheng and Miss Ang Swee Hoon).
A team from the National University of Singapore Business School sought to examine how competitive Singaporeans were, concluding that they “do not see themselves to be very competitive or kiasu” (TODAY, Sept. 19). Yet a closer examination of the report suggests that few meaningful conclusions can actually be drawn.
Notwithstanding the small sample size and the probable lack of representativeness, there could have been more information about the 200 Singaporeans surveyed. What are the demographics? What were the segments – if any – considered? Since this is a study on competitiveness in Singapore, which is often tied to one’s education background and work experience, how do results correspondingly differ across institutions and industries?
In fact more fundamentally, how was competition understood and operationalised? The research team measured dimensions of happiness based on the “zest for life” and “sense of accomplishment”, though did not seem to do the same for competition. There might be little dispute over what competition per se is, but respondents are likely to have dissimilar conceptions of what it means for them to be competitive. The further trouble is that competitiveness and kiasu-ness are commonly viewed as pejoratives in Singapore, which might have biased responses when they rated themselves as 3.9 on a scale of seven.
It would perhaps have been more interesting if respondents were also asked to rate how competitive people in their environment were.
Is it fair to posit that “the more competitive a person is, the happier he is”? To a certain extent, yes, although the correlation should not be confused with causation. The research team argues that “a driven, competitive individual does not take things for granted”, that they tend to be more exuberant and have greater satisfaction with life, even though the last two characteristics could instead determine how competitive a person is. Again bias could be at work, because it is reasonable for a supposedly competitive person to reckon that they done better vis-à-vis their contemporaries, and therefore rate themselves more highly.
The final point on the satisfaction with life is unfortunately simplistic too. Besides raising additional questions on why Singaporeans might be dissatisfied with a range of national issues, the respondent’s satisfaction with life appears to have little bearing on how policies should be crafted. So unless more details about the research study are shared and follow-ups are planned – such as qualitative substantiations through interviews or focus group discussions – there will be little of value to present discourse.