Gerard Sasges and Ng Shi Wen’s “Hard at Work: Life in Singapore” (Book Club, February 2021)

Young man in business wear against a beige background

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These are the discussion prompts and notes from the February 2021 book club, when we discussed Gerard Sasges and Ng Shi Wen’s “Hard at Work: Life in Singapore” (https://nlb.overdrive.com/media/5428460). The feature photo is by Ng Shi Wen.

Also check out our interview with the book’s author, Prof. Sasges.

1. Which of the 60 stories resonated most strongly with you? In addition, did any of the stories resonate at a more personal level (e.g. you or a family member having worked in those occupations?

  • Tuition school owner, who was doing a lot of different jobs at the same time. Hustles, is not picky about jobs, and goes beyond educational qualifications.
  • Farmer, who had a complaint about the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore. This story was linked to others who alluded to government intervention or oversight.
  • Police officer, who identifies as bisexual.
  • Academic ghost writer.
  • Stories also highlighted different dying trades and types of jobs individuals took on with limited formal education. The “subaltern” speaking back was seen as an act of resistance too.
  • Personal identities: The conflation of “who you are” and “what you do”. In addition, the job could, over time, also change the individual.

2. For me, common themes include: (a) Work as tiring and exhausting; (b) Routines as boring, monotonous, and repetitive; (c) The lack of joy; and (d) Poor remuneration for labour. To what extent do you agree, and were there other themes you identified?

  • Not having time to socialise was a common consequences of jobs (or of hard work). Work made it difficult for interviewees to socialise. For instance, a stay-home father experienced social isolation.
  • Few had opportunities to develop a craft, especially those in the food and beverage industries. Economic and cost structures seem to take precedence.
  • Interviewees had few choices and limited agency. Responses to the question “Why are you doing this job” were along the lines of “Because I have to (for the wages)”.
  • Wage stagnation. Those in the middle of changing career pathways experienced uncertainty and had limited options.
  • Some jobs could only be accessed through social connections.
  • Role of the government or the strong hand of the state: Complaints about government policies and regulations. Avenues for discourse with the government are available, but who gets a seat at the table and who shapes agenda are important considerations.
  • Some interviewees felt that their concerns were trivialised by their superiors, and it felt like the management may not be trying.

3. How do you think the authors framed dignity or pride in the book, perhaps connected to (2)?

  • Most common in customer-facing jobs, in terms of how interviewees were treated by good and bad customers (how people related to one another and how they were seen). The barista, for instance, was disrespected at work.
  • Occupational prestige can be shaped by everyday interactions.
  • There is an expectation of people doing mundane work well (even though many do jobs we may not want to do), but are we respecting their labour, through fair wages for instance? Some of these jobs may be unseen, forgotten, and underappreciated.

4. What did you make of the many instances of stereotyping and racism at the workplace?

  • Overarching cognitive dissonance, with common discrimination against Malays and other racial/ethnic minorities in Singapore. Expressions of racism were both implicit and explicit.
  • There were also instances of discrimination across nationality (the plight of the two cleaners; a law student managing Thai disco girls, perhaps objectifying them; the stay-home dad, talking about how foreign domestic workers are treated), class, and religion.

5. How will the future of work in Singapore mirror these past and present experiences? Or not?

  • The pandemic has changed jobs and income sources. A silver lining of the adaptation is the increased availability of short-term courses, though credentialism persists.
  • Increased emphasis on skills upgrading and “upskilling” and how they shape job mobility, including their viability for middle-age Singaporeans. Choices also have to be made between education and work (and income)

6. Overall, does “Hard at Work” paint an adequately diverse or representative picture of “work and life in contemporary Singapore”, as the authors had intended? What stood out? And what was missing?

  • We may not hear enough from blue-collared workers and those in the manufacturing industry, which for a long time formed the backbone of Singapore’s economy.
  • Interested to explore motivations for work and the meanings of work, including the significance of retirement and how different individuals are planning for their retirements.
  • Gig work in the gig economy, with increased part-time or casual labour, and the speed and relevance of government regulation.
  • Decisions made when changing careers.
  • The role of the job in relation to one’s other responsibilities in life.

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