Suicide rate climbs despite good times

Posted by SEAH CHIANG NEE under Policy Watch on 20 August 2007

Not only are there higher rates of divorces, bankruptcies and crime against senior citizens, but in a land awash with jobs and better pay, the number of people killing themselves has surged.

A SURGING economy and promise of a brighter future have done little to prevent a decline of the city's social ills, including a worsening suicide rate.

Not only are there higher rates of divorces, bankruptcies and crime against senior citizens, but in a land awash with jobs and better pay, the number of people killing themselves has surged.

The government reported 419 cases last year, or at least one suicide every day, compared to 346 in 2003.

This was a jump of 21 per cent and is one of the highest in its post-independence history. It is the fourth straight rise in as many years. More people die from suicide than in accidents.

Surprisingly, too, is the profile of the suicidal.

The Singaporeans who strived to end it all ranged from teenagers to grandfathers.

But the largest group was men who were in the 40s, mostly made up of the 1965 independence generation. This rising trend is worrying the authorities.

The other large group was women aged 50 and older. For every death there were seven attempted suicides.

The gloomy statistics came shortly after Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew had said that Singapore was in a "golden period", referring to its prosperity during the past two years.

For rich countries to register higher suicide rates than poorer ones is not a surprise by itself.

Singapore isn't doing too badly when compared to Japan and several advanced Western nations whose rates, despite better welfare help, are faring worse.

Singapore's leaders, however, have placed a higher emphasis on economic expansion over almost everything else on the basis that once you have achieved wealth, other problems can be resolved.

For many years, it had worked well in a simpler world, but less so in today's harsher competitive environment that frowns on welfarism.

More jobs are eradicated; more businesses get restructured and life becomes more uncertain.

Between 2000 and 2004, 1,723 people committed suicide or about 345 cases a year.

The Samaritans, which operates a 24-hour distress hotline, handles some 135 calls a day from desperate people unable to resolve their problems.

The number of calls has risen from 43,255 in 2005 to 49,025 in the past year with one in seven considered to be suicide risks.

In perspective, Singapore hasn't done badly against the developed world.

In 2003, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said Singapore had a suicide rate of 18 per 100,000 people (12 male and 6 female) and ranked 52nd of 100 countries surveyed.

It was, however, ahead of more advanced nations like Japan (51 per 100,000), Belgium (40), Switzerland (37), France (35), Denmark (29) and Australia (26).

Sadly, it is not just about statistics. Each abandoned life has its own tortured tale of sufferings that are not always about money - although financial stress remains a top cause.

Overwhelming debts, neglect, family break-ups and poor health are some of the factors that push people to end their lives.

For the younger set, it is mainly over broken love or inability to cope with their studies or broken homes.

Singapore's rapid success is achieved with a price. Life is a rat race for people who are at the bottom of the ladder.

For a family man in his 40s who has been retrenched as a result of restructuring, it could be a fearful experience. Unlike other advanced countries, there is no unemployment help.

"In Malaysia or Indonesia, when a person loses his job, he could go to the countryside and live off the land," said a social worker. "Here there is no countryside to live off."

One of the saddest cases happened last year when an odd jobs labourer in his 40s killed himself by jumping in front of a speeding MRT train at Jurong.

He had been unemployed for four months, relying on his wife's S$500 monthly income to feed his family of four (with two teenage sons).

As bills mounted to $1,000, the hapless man promised his wife he would look for the money.

One night he gave $9 to his younger son and told him before leaving for his appointment with death, "Daddy is leaving for work, you have to look after mummy, you all have to take care."

At a time when Singapore was basking in prosperity, his tale stirred the very soul of the nation and public donations amounting to S$500,000 - poured in for the bereaved family.

"This speedy response shows that it is the people who are compassionate to its needs of their fellow beings rather than the government," one letter writer said.

Over the past year, the mass transit has become an avenue for committing suicide.

Four took place within a period of six weeks last year-end with two of them video taped by witnesses and posted on YouTube.

Why is the suicide rate higher in Singapore than a country like, say, Thailand when life is reported to be so much more comfortable?

One explanation lies in the psyche of Singaporeans, who tend to be harder striving, less tolerant of failures and overly materialistic.

As a result of high-pressured living, the economic growth hasn't spread happiness to all hard-pressed Singaporeans.

Many citizens do not have enough retirement savings and have been advised to work beyond 65 years to survive in this expensive city.

Sources and Relevant Links:

Littlespeck Suicide rate climbs despite good times 18 August 2007

WHO: Suicide rates (per 100,000), by gender, Singapore, 1960-2003

Think Centre and WHO Singapore: When children commit suicide14 September 2005

Think Centre Great Nation or Stressed-out Nation? 12 March 2005

SingaporeMedia Student Stress & Suicides 17 September 2003

The Star Aged: Penniless in a land of plenty23 July 2007

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