Do Singaporeans Take Pride in Their Work?
Lately, we’ve been hearing a lot about the need to innovate. It’s been repeated to death as though constant advocacy will make possible what’s been difficult to achieve.
Missing from this conversation is the question of work ethic: Do we take pride in our work?
Most of us remain shackled to either regurgitating tried and tested approaches or creating things that are simply improvements on what’s out there, and we mistake this for an inability to innovate. In truth, the real issue is that we rarely give our best effort.
A few weeks ago, I was eavesdropping on a discussion about how technology companies like Uber and GRAB have essentially killed Singapore’s local taxi industry.
I couldn’t help thinking at the time how ridiculous this perspective was. Had local taxi companies invested early in both improving their ride-booking technology and customer service, the industry wouldn’t have been so ripe for disruption. If taxi drivers hadn’t gained such a reputation for refusing rides, they wouldn’t have become so easily replaceable.
If anything, the conclusion should be that Singapore’s taxi companies dug their own graves. After all, they wouldn’t be struggling to stay relevant today if they had taken more pride in their jobs, cared about doing their best, and constantly improved—regardless of the lack of competition.
This sort of complacency is nothing new and by no means exclusive to the taxi industry.
School cut-off points, for instance, are about meeting targets, not doing your personal best.
When I was growing up, school was all about applying the right formula to get the right answer. It was never about asking the right questions or discovering joy in learning. Today, I recognise that this has turned many Singaporeans into calculative individuals. We embody a very apathetic pragmatism.
Back in February, one Bobby Jayaraman discussed in The Straits Times how the drill approach in Singapore’s schools are hurting the ability of students to do well in life. Students learn how to game the system via rigourous repetition, he said, not through actual understanding of problems. When students then do well in exams, it’s only because they’ve practised enough of the same questions to excel at applying specific methods to specific problems.
So, instead of being taught to care about our work, we’ve actually been taught to do just well enough to get to the next stage. School cut-off points for instance, are about meeting targets, not doing your personal best.
And when we should be learning to do our best, the system shapes our belief that we just need to do better than our classmates. This is what the bell curve teaches us: just be above average and you’ll come out ahead. It becomes an handicap we carry around forever; if we find ourselves in a mediocre environment, many of us are content to just live and let live. At most, we’ll try to do just slightly better.
Rarely is one ever driven to overhaul the system or improve how things work. We tell ourselves: the risks are too high, and we shouldn’t care so much anyway since we’re not being paid what we think we deserve to be paid.
Our early formal education makes us obsessed with whether things are “worth doing.”
If we aim to constantly give our best effort, we will always find ways to be critical of our own work and want to do better.
This, essentially, is the Singaporean work ethic. Instead of competing against our own individual standards of quality, we want only to be seen doing better than the guy next to us. It’s not part of our nature to constantly question if we can do better for the sake of being better. And when we’re replaced by people willing to do our jobs with more dedication and for less money, we complain.
But I get it. Taking pride in your job can be difficult when you’re not passionate about what you do. Many of us are happy to see our jobs as jobs, not careers. In Singapore, you can get by just by not fucking up.
The irony is that it’s been said countless times how Singapore’s people are its greatest resource. If this is to be the reason for our competitive advantage, then we can’t afford to be just good enough. Unlike countries like Japan and Germany who are known for their commitment to craft and precision, Singapore has yet to build a work ethic it can be truly proud of.
So instead of talking about innovation or creativity, why not go back to basics? Ask instead if we’re doing our best. If we aim to always take pride in what we do, we will always find ways to be critical of our own work. We will want to do better, even if it doesn’t always mean we’ll be paid more to do so.
Naturally, innovation will follow.