Life-Work, not Work-Life Harmony

Dear Citizen’s Panel for Work-Life Harmony

Thank you for informing me that I’ve not been picked to join your panel discussions.

Having seen it, as well as news of the kickoff session last Saturday, I do feel a tinge of disappointment that I wasn’t selected. This despite the fact that participating would have meant giving up full and precious Saturdays over four weeks, although I’m more than happy to, as I believe this issue is long overdue for a citizen’s review!

Let me first address what I hope to see emerge from the four scheduled sessions. 

Then I will end off by painting a picture of the future of work and life I desire to see in Singapore.

What I hope the Panel will discuss

Firstly, I hope this citizen’s panel will earnestly discuss the dangerous implications of our times now, and how is it that Singapore has evolved to embrace this highly-driven workaholic culture we now have?

Really. Let’s crack this issue wide open once and for all, warts and all!

How did we get to this point where we’re now ranked even higher than Japan and South Korea (known for their exacting long work hours) for our long work hours (45.1 hours weekly)?! 

Is this truly what we want to be renown for?

I would like to posit here that it is the ruling government’s call all these years since independence that has brought us to this state of affairs. 

You see, the narrative posed to us for over 50 years (since independence in 1965) by the government has always been along these lines: a small nation like Singapore, with little resources and no hinterland, must stay productive and hardworking for our very survival in this competitive global economy. (It’s still the narrative today by the way)

But is that really true? Will we really crash and burn if we decide to dictate our own pace of ‘progress’? If we choose to ignore the ‘economic’ numbers pundits have stacked against us (because despite what these number-crunching doomsayers harp constantly upon, the truth is digits don’t paint the full picture)?

If by ‘survival’, the government means that every Singaporean must relentlessly punch above his/her weight in every job undertaken, then surely it won’t be long before we are headed for a massive burnout! If every worker is driven by the bottom-line, the day won’t be far away when we will sink to the bottom! We will burn out, flat out or cash out of this rat race. Do we really want to see suicide statistics continue to climb up, like it did last year?

While many would argue there’s no defensible correlation between the increase in work hours and suicide, it’s really not rocket science to at least make the connection that more work hours (“visible” ones spent doing work, and “invisible” ones spent thinking/texting/emailing/calling/agonising about work), mean fewer hours caring for self and family. 

And we know how that can take its toll on one’s health, marriage and the home, don’t we?

Let’s not kid ourselves about it and say that “No, can’t you see the great turnout we have for so many family-friendly events and activities in Singapore every weekend?! See? We value family in Singapore.”

To that I say “No, can’t you see that there are many working hard over the weekends too? Even those attending these events are often there in body, but their minds, fingers and eyeballs are always on their mobile devices clearing work! And let’s not even discuss about the people hard at work behind the scenes driving these endless events!”

Is this “work-life” balance harmony?

Let’s really discuss if this is what we want in Singapore.

Secondly, many employers in Singapore, in particular entrepreneurs and SME founders/bosses, are typically the ones most guilty of plying their workers with endless tasks and hours, making each employee work the job of at least two or more, so as to keep the team lean and the profits rolling in. Ever noticed that most of these employees that are chocking up such long work hours are either foreigners away from home, school interns, fresh grads, singles or DINKS (double income no kids)? Again, not rocket science to see why this is so. 

Which makes me amaze why the government keeps wondering how best to arrest the annual decline in our TFR (total fertility rate)? 

Still want to know how? 

Go talk to these employers! I mean seriously. Go talk to them.

I suppose in a highly globalized and competitive corporate environment like today’s, it’s hard to blame these bosses for being exacting task masters. After all, if they don’t make it, their company will fold and they have everything to lose.

So such employers obsess 24/7 over their businesses, and that translates inevitably to pushing workers to be more productive, which in turn translates to longer and longer work hours. It’s not uncommon to see people bringing their work home and continuing to message or email wherever they are, and at all hours of the day and night. Why just last Sunday afternoon I saw in the span of one hour, at least two adults (one male, one female) banging away at their laptops on separate tables in a public food court, and another in a public library (while his 6-year old kid rummages through the books on the shelves alone and unsupervised!).

Again, let’s not kid ourselves and think that simply showing on paper that a company has adopted flexi-work arrangements immediately means they are work-life harmony friendly. 

The truth is, there’s more to it than meets the eye! 

Any employee who actually takes these ‘arrangements’ at face value by leaving work on the dot, taking more remote/telecommuting work options to spend time with family, not responding to bosses’ or colleagues’ messages outside official work hours nor on weekends, not agreeing to take on more work, etc, better be prepared to be labelled a “non team player”, and be bypassed annually when it comes to promotions, bonuses, and salary increments! 

Or worse. Get the “cold shoulder treatment” by the workaholics in the company, and be “cold-storaged” by the boss, until the atmosphere becomes so tense and unbearable that they are ‘forced’ to resign.

That unfortunately is the reality in Singapore’s toxic work environment.

And it needs to change. Yesterday.

What I hope for the future of work in Singapore

Now allow me to share what I hope to see for the future of “life-work” balance harmony in Singapore.

Firstly I hope that we as a collective society (government, employer, employee, dependents) will decide and agree on what set of values should define us as a nation. If the insatiable quest for excellence in every sphere of life is our value set, then there will never be a work-life balance to speak of.

We just can’t have our cake and eat it too!

The pursuit of material success and creature comforts will always be at odds with good quality of living, which I equate with good physical, spiritual, emotional and mental health, strong marriages and united families, and graciousness to others.

Secondly, we need to be prepared to let go of pursuits that are only measured economically, be prepared to live more simply and joyfully, and be available to fellow citizens in need.  I look forward to seeing a more gracious society that cares for those who for one reason or other aren’t able to care for themselves: the children, the elderly, the disabled, the infirmed. This won’t happen if our media and the powers-that-be care only to keep publicising our global rankings in this area of achievement or another. Are we so insecure as to keep blowing our trumpet over one material achievement after another, when we know full well that these successes are temporal and don’t have lasting meaning?

Thirdly, and one that’s close to my heart, please stop looking down and disparaging men like me who choose family (staying home full-time to care for their loved ones) over career and jobs. When I first went public that I had chosen to be a full-time stay-home dad, there was such an outpouring of “oh what a sacrifice” from friends and family. Why can’t it be seen as just another decision a father chooses to make for his family, and that it’s no big deal? The fact that it garnered so much attention only serves to show how far we still have to go to accept that this is normal, this letting go of career for the sake of family. 

Why is it such a big deal for fathers, as compared to mothers who decide to stay home full time?

Give us fathers the confidence and assurance to know that we aren’t perceived as good-for-nothings, softies, incompetents or leeches, preying on the mercy and kindness of family and society for material necessities. But instead, let’s be supportive in kindness and kind, and show these men that they are just as worthy and valuable to society as the movers and shakers in the corporate world. Maybe even more so, since what they gave up shows more personal selflessness than corporate self-centredness.  Unless of course the latter is Singapore’s true value!

Thank you so much for reading up to this point, and I do hope that my feedback will be considered and incorporated into the collective feedback of the citizen’s panel.

May the feedback collected at the end of the four sessions accurately capture the sentiments of Singaporeans about work-life balance harmony in Singapore! And provide a life-work harmony solution or two that really can turn the tide around.

Yours sincerely


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