All images by Zachary Tang. Except for the screenshot.
A nasty habit I indulge in is online stalking. About once a week when the itch flares up, I open my browser, type in the URL , and feel gratification flood me as my eyes take in what my brain so craves.
Sometimes I stalk the company that got away; upon finding out how much its current employees hate the place, I gladly allow schadenfreude to replace regret. Other times it’s more about sheer voyeurism and escapism: I linger on reviews that describe a workday different from mine, and imagine the other paths my life could have taken.
Hard at Work: Life in Singapore , a new publication from Ridge Books (an imprint of NUS Press), puts into print my fantasies. The book, edited by George Sasges and Ng Shi Wen, is a compilation of 60 interviews with people from various professions, conducted as part of an ethnography project at the National University of Singapore. Interviewees belong to a range of occupations, from everyday ones like doctor and police officer to the more esoteric and rarer pet crematorium worker and drag queen.
The accounts of the latter alone are worth the entry fee of the book. Different jobs, as we know, can differ so vastly in culture and vocabularies used that they seem almost alien to one another. Have a copywriter tell a banker to ‘ideate’ or, in this case, a drag queen ask a pet crematorium worker to ‘tuck’, and only blank stares will ensue. Hard at Work bridges this gap and lets anyone as kaypoh as I am satisfy their curiosity about other jobs. (For the inquisitive, when a drag queen ‘tucks’, she is pushing her genitals up her … you get the idea.)
It’s not all frivolous gawking of the gossip rag variety. Despite being completely devoid of commentary or argument (the interview transcripts are presented verbatim and there is no authorial voice to be heard), Hard at Work attempts to highlight the unequal circumstances each person in Singapore has to toil in every day. (That the book’s foreword is written by Teo You Yenn and the word ‘inequality’ is repeated in its blurbs lend some credence to my interpretation.)
For one, the bulk of the interviews are derived from people in industries like “selling”, “making and repairing”, and “recycling and cleaning”; in other words, industries that typically comprise low-wage and low-skill workers. We read about the elderly karang guni man who earns “at most $200” in an entire month; the electronics worker who “work close to 10 years already, pay … only $1000 plus”; the student care teacher whose “salary is only $1.5K” despite being in a more ‘respectable’ profession. This is juxtaposed against the accounts of the doctor, still in his 20s, who earns $5000 to $6000 a month, or the $6000 in commission the real estate agent made when he closed his very first sale at 22.
Admittedly, there’s that mildly sensational poverty-porn aspect to their accounts. But Hard at Work is not trying to make the straightforward point, perhaps already repeated to staleness, that Singapore’s society is deeply unequal. Yes, it is. Yes, our Gini coefficient —a measure of how unequal a society is— 0.458 , making us the 35th most unequal society in the world.
The book is not pitting profession against profession, or salary against salary. It is not suggesting that it is inequitable for a real estate agent or doctor to earn so much while a karang guni man earns only $200 a month. To put a hard, numerical value on the utility of a profession is something best left to economists, and even then, it’s a vague practice that is hardly a science at all. After all, how can you conclude that saving a life is worth $5000 a month, while “collect[ing] rubbish one lor” only $200?
Instead, Hard at Work is, I think, forcing us to confront how much each of us is implicated in the systemic inequalities and inequities our economy is founded on. That we are fortunate enough to have a median salary of $4563 today (ridiculous, isn’t it?) is because—to give credit where credit is due—of our government’s far-sighted education and economic policies. But it’s also because the people who serve as the engines of economic growth—the factory workers, the ship repair personnel, the postal workers—are resigned to their circumstances, believing they don’t deserve a higher pay or better workplace conditions:
Here [in the electronics factory] work close to 10 years already, pay not good lah, work so long already only $1,000 plus eh, no good lah! But this job I like lah, want to 60 years old already still can work … Also not so stress, still got tea break 15 minutes, if don’t go for tea break can take longer lunch, 1 hour not 45 minutes. … Got job okay already, people like us low education, as long as willing to work, got job, straightaway grab already, just work lor.
That is to say, what we have today is built on what they don’t.
If I am starting to sound like the narrator in the advertisements for the Merdeka Generation Package (“In the 1970s, many Singaporean youths joined the workforce to support their families and the economy … [these are the] hands that shaped the nation”), that’s because I’m now a convert.
I used to be a cynic who dismissed the Merdeka Generation Package as another shameless scheme instituted by the government to buy votes. But having read the 60-year-old electronic factory worker’s tale of leaving school to join the workforce at age 13, I am reminded of this particular advertisement, in which—stop me if you’ve heard this—a girl has to forego further education so that she can work in a factory to support her family.
In the words of the electronics factory worker:
Primary 6 study finish, come out and work already loh! … Last time I want to study night class one, my mother don’t let lor, boh bian [no choice].
Inadvertent as it may have been, Hard at Work has convinced me that the Merdeka Generation Package actually serves an important corrective function in making up for the unequal circumstances workers from that particular period faced.
If our famously welfare-averse government has deigned to implement such a measure, surely there are other policies, nowhere as far-reaching or painful on the purse, that it can implement?
There are already “Progressive Wage Models” (read: a euphemism for minimum wage systems) in place for the cleaning, security, and landscape sectors. That’s a good start. But, as Hard at Work demonstrates, there’s still a long way ahead for us to go.
Hard at Work: Life in Singapore is available in Kinokuniya and from NUS Press.
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