by Augustine Low

Ministers are up in the clouds, their elitist and exalted status making them far removed from ordinary Singaporeans.

This, in a perverse way, was driven home by a video posted on Facebook by Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan two weeks ago. The video shows Vivian delivering an articulate speech at his daughter’s wedding three years ago, in which he extolled his good fortune of marrying well and raising his children well. He also dispensed advice on marriage and finding a life partner. On Facebook, he shared: “Four children, two grandchildren later – this is what real happiness means.”

His is the Singapore success story. At age 56, to have the luxury of basking in happiness with such glee and abandon is indeed laudable. Could it be that  having a loving, wonderful family is one thing, but that wealth surely opens the door to unbridled joy and happiness in middle age?

Now, contrast this with a person of more modest means, who takes many years to make what a Minister makes in a month. On his daughter’s wedding, he would no doubt be happy – but his happiness would be tempered somewhat by concerns. On the back of his mind is the concern about outstanding debts and mortgages, whether savings will be enough to tide over retirement years, into old age, whether the children can afford their own homes. And so on.

So for ordinary men and women in their 50s, there is little room for self-gratification and full-blown happiness because life offers so much uncertainty and is fraught with challenges.

The gap between have and have nots, between Minister and ordinary Singaporean, is ironically best illustrated with remarks made by Vivian Balakrishnan himself some years ago. In an exchange in Parliament with MP Lily Neo, who was asking the government to allocate more money to the poor so they could afford three meals a day, the Minister retorted: “How much do you want? Do you want three meals in a hawker centre, food court or restaurant?”

For many Singaporeans who still find true happiness elusive despite reaching middle age and having a loving, wonderful family, there is perhaps hope. In the book “The Antidote Happiness For People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking” the author Oliver Burkeman relates experiences by people who discover the “negative path” to happiness.

He concludes: “This involves learning to enjoy uncertainty, embracing insecurity and becoming familiar with failure. In order to be truly happy, it turns out, we might actually need to be willing to experience more negative emotions – or, at the very least, to stop running quite so hard from them.”

So happiness can be borne out of struggles, hard times and harsh experiences – and that’s a comforting thought for many of us who cannot wait to experience real happiness.