Photo: Mark Cheong / ST
In a Facebook post that has gone viral, she cited examples of shoddy work she had experienced in the past year, commenting that people here have a “heck-care attitude” and “generally don’t care about what they do”.
It must have hit a raw nerve, judging by the flood of responses from people weighing in on the issue. A lack of job pride in Singapore is not a newly observed phenomenon. And, to be fair, it is not an affliction that plagues the city-state alone.
But her fundamental question still stands: Why? Why are Singaporeans not propelled to go the extra mile in their work? And is that what is stopping our country from achieving more?
As with all complex matters, it is always a combination of intrinsic and structural factors.
To Ms Chong, bless her idealistic soul, it is “not really about the money”. She wrote: “Monetary rewards are great and all, but I know I get fulfilment when audiences love what we create for them.”
Let’s get real. Money is not everything, but it certainly has a lot to do with it, whether we like it or not. We are a society that puts a price tag on everything. Adding value is not free – it requires our time, our labour. It always involves an opportunity cost borne by the worker.
Not all employers recognise and reward staff for going above and beyond the call of duty, so what is in it for them to do more?
There is also that “pay peanuts, get monkey” mindset in Singapore, which does not help things. We are constantly trying to cut costs by giving the business to the lowest bidder. The message this sends is that skills and quality are not prized enough – well, not as much as price point anyway.
This is especially galling and disrespectful to freelancers or small firms when people ask for ridiculous discounts simply because they are in a position of power. Your “exposure” cannot pay their bills.
Any professional worth his or her salt will tell you that a solution that is fast, cheap and good does not exist. What is fast and cheap may not be of good quality. What is cheap and good will take time. You want fast and good? That will cost you.
Ms Chong mentioned a “pass up homework” culture – people just do the bare minimum, hitting the necessary quota, instead of going all out.
Frankly, I don’t think anyone sets out to underachieve or do a half-baked job. I am not advocating slacking off in any way, but sometimes, we need to pick our battles at work.
It is a far shot, but I think our narrow definition of success also has a part to play in our work ethic. We have been brought up to believe that to be successful, you have to excel academically.
There is a perception – fairly or unfairly – that these cream of the crop will get the lion’s share of the “good jobs”, and the rest are slim pickings. That is the reason why people here don’t value tradesmen or blue-collar jobs, because we view them as being at the bottom of the job heap.
Without respect, there is no reason for them to strive to be proud of their work as they don’t think that what they do is worth much anyway. This is a sad and vicious circle. And beyond money, recognition of a job well done matters.
Perhaps Ms Chong is genuinely puzzled why for people in Singapore, feeling pride in doing a job well done is not a reward in itself.
As an artist, her work is extremely visible. There is a pride that comes when you actually produce something of value that people appreciate.
It is the same thing for journalists. Our byline is on the article, and our work is out there for the world to read and scrutinise.
But the vast number of workers are in positions where they see themselves as just a cog in a giant machine, a pen pusher whose work is just an ink drop in the ocean.
The presentation they create probably goes through many layers before it finally gets presented by someone up there. And by then, it has changed beyond recognition. There is no personal stake to it.
What Ms Chong has done is to shine a light on a real problem here in Singapore, so that we can all take a good hard look at the forces behind it and also ourselves. We must be aware that not everyone has the same opportunities or privilege. She is working in a job she is passionate about. Again, not everyone has the same luck.
It is not idealistic to take pride in one’s work regardless of what we do, but we must also be cognisant of real problems that hinder people from doing so. Meeting people where they are is a good starting point if we ever want to make headway out of this conundrum.
This story was originaly published in The Business Times Weekend.