My good friend in Singapore was angry.

He told us he was discriminated for not working extended hours. His official office hours was the standard 0800hrs to 1800hrs in Singapore. Like many organisations, his own believed in staff working beyond their hours to prove they were team players. For many years, my good buddy worked like a horse for his company, with complains but never compromising on work standards. He was a reliable, hardworking, honest worker any company could ask for.

A couple of years down the road, my friend would have devoted a decade to this company. According to him, his salary had been stagnant for years. Any adjustments had been meagre, way lagging behind inflation. In his 20s, he could overlook that but at his prime at near mid 30s, he saw a dire future far from his expected goals if he continued to run things at present rate. He decided to take on a second job as a private tuition teacher.

With good credentials as an ex-teacher, he was able to command a knightly rate of S$60/hr for his trouble. That was a good wage by any standard, a rate that even an experienced tradesman in Australia could not always obtain. Any extra hours put in on top of the day job would impair social and personal time for the definite but what had to be done had to be done. As a married man and a new HDB flat owner, there were more bills to pay, more responsibilities to carry. His sacrifice almost doubled his gross salary. I applaud him for making a breakthrough after so many years and wished him good luck for establishing a foothold so that he could ditch his day job if required to.

All seemed well until his company groused. Addicted to his unpaid overcommitment over the years, the company expected the same but received none. The management was angry. My buddy was angry because his management was angry. 

"If they want my time, they've gotta pay for it and they wouldn't be able to afford me if I bill them," he declared.

He was not wrong. A fair wage for a fair day's job. My friend did nothing wrong and should not be penalised in whatsoever form. What did the management really meant when they told staff that, that was their official hours but they were expected to work extra hours should they be required to? It meant, "We are cheapos and we are going to exploit you and we expect you to be exploited else we will find someone else to exploit." Productivity is one thing but being cheap is another. Modern slavery uses fear and emotional blackmail. Why don't they just physically whip us? Too cheap to buy a good whip? I sincerely hope none of you work in an organisation like my buddy here.

We were told we were lazy if we knocked off at our contracted time everyday. What was the point of having an official working hours if it was never the intended expectation of us? Imagine the school starting to fail students for scoring 50 points in exams because they were expected to score higher. Warped logic. Should we comply with nonsense? We did anyway, collectively, for whatever reasons best known to ourselves. My wife for example worked herself tired till 0300hrs in the office, 4 months pregnant with our first born. Is work so enchanting in Singapore that a woman would choose it over her motherly duties? I fail to understand that the Singapore society view alcoholics with disdain but approve of workaholics. Both suggest compulsive mental impairment.

Why do we worship workaholism in Singapore? Because unfinished work claims souls if we leave them be? Because health abuse and family neglect should be celebrated? Let's not go into the time management crap. No one can conjure the 25th hour with any time management framework known to man. Whatever time you lost to overcommitment of work, stays lost.

We talked about productivity all the time. Do Singaporeans really know what that means? Productivity is the ratio of the output vs input. It means how fast you drive, not how far you drive. It is about producing more within the same stipulated time. What does extending office hours got to do with improving productivity? How else can we improve our productivity if we don't start setting a time limit to our task? Instead of forcing ourselves to be inventive, we choose to produce more by grinding a few extra hours away each day. The last time we checked, Singaporeans has the longest working hours in the world. [link] How far more do we want to go?

The manufacturing era of Singapore, aka the golden age behind our miracle story, is history. A decade has came and gone but we are still holding to our old methods and work beliefs. We lost a decade of opportunity to reinvent ourselves. While productivity wanes, we choose to be cheaper by injecting foreign antibodies and praying for recovery. The workaholism we worship will not respond to our prayers this time round.


  1. So true of the sick work culture in Singapore. My last IT employment in Singapore made me decided not to take up any employment in Singapore that is not shift work -- i.e. shift work has stipulated hours and someone coming in to take-over the following shift, thereby reducing the chance of OT.

    This is less of a scenario in Canada. Employees can potentially sue the companies for demanding OT and/or working from home, resulting in "Unpaid overtime a growing legal liability".

    Accidents can easily happen when we are chronically fatigued. Do not underestimate the health impact of our choices. My younger brother's friend was found drowned. "Mr Ang worked from the night of 2 July into early hours of the next morning. It is uncertain how he fell into the River..."

    Back in my mid-30's, I finally could not bullshit myself any longer of the potential that the sick Singapore work culture will turnaround. Even Singapore-citizen bosses who are so driven by fear, uses the figurative whip upon their fellow Singapore-citizen staff. IMHO, this sick work culture is unlikely to turnaround as long as PAP still holds the reins and retains its "if you're not elite, you deserve your lot in life" attitude. Thus, I started plotting my departure from Singapore. I only finally left in my 40's, but I am glad I have made that move.

  2. By and large, Singaporean management needs to have a mental overhaul of this ridiculous mentality of hours = productivity. If anything, this silly thinking encourages the opposite of productivity. I've known colleagues who stay to surf facebook after office hours just to clock face-time. I've also seen some who faff about during office hours, and then work late/come to the office on sundays to work. (For me and a couple of "young" ones, we resolutely finish at 6 each day. We stay late only when we need to. Our bosses initially did not like our "Gen Y" ways but saw that we got all our work done, we put in good work and thankfully being intelligent evolved beings, they soon left us alone. But we were not penalised because we had pretty good bosses.)

    Singaporean management should really "wake up their idea". If they see employees staying late habitually, the logical question is whether the staff is overworked or is not being productive enough to finish work within office hours. That ought to quickly cure skivers of after-office facebook.

  3. I tell all my sales staff that all sales people "jiak cuah". It is only more or less. But as long as the sales is done and my customers don't call up to complain that they cannot get the salesman to respond, then they are practically free to do as they want.

    SME Owner

    1. Hi SME Owner,

      That was how the Country Manager managed his staff at a subsidiary of an MNC that I had worked with in the mid-1990's. I was very impressed with his understanding of the individual motivational needs of each of his staff. I felt sorry for him when bad times felt (1997 Asian Financial Crisis) and he was relegated to being an ordinary salesman. Still such Singapore-citizen bosses with balls are rare, IMHO.

      I do hope for the sake of Singapore that there are more responsible SME owners like you, Mr SME Owner. IMHO, we cannot depend on MNCs and the government to build a resilient Singapore economy. Singapore's future is dependent on the creativity and productivity of its SMEs.

      Cheers, WD.

    2. WD,

      I was an employee once too and like I said before, I strive very hard not to follow the footsteps of my previous bosses who took advantage of me.

      It is the same issue with clocking in. The employees will clock in on time for sure. They will also clock out on time doubly sure. For MNC factories with a few hundred workers, I can understand but for SMEs ?

      SME Owner

    3. Hi SME Owner,

      With regards to clocking in on-time or otherwise, frankly I wouldn't care if I were a boss. Important things are:- did the employees deliver as required (e.g. sales volume), are the customers happy (e.g. repeat customers who praise the service), is there teamwork amongst the staff (e.g. cover each other's asses to ensure an overall positive customer experience).

      Afterall, if we expect employees to OT (clock-out after the official hours) even when they have already completed their work, it is really meaningless to stay behind. On the other hand, if the employees had stayed late several nights in a row to rush out a delivery, it only make sense (and humane of a boss) for them to clock-out early the next few days to compensate for their voluntary OT to ensure the project's success. In fact, I ever had a boss (an SVP at an MNC) who did that -- he specifically told my team to knock off early for a few days after we had OT for a period to launch a high-profile project successfully. He even reminded us to go home early when it was 1-2 hours before the official knock-off time. This boss was from Hong Kong, not a Singapore-citizen. Like I said, IMHO, Singapore citizen bosses with balls are rare species.

      Cheers, WD.

  4. It is nice to hear of someone strong enough not to compromise his principles, it looks as though the universe is starting to smile on him because of his courage and hard work :)

  5. My ex-company some more listed company expect us to work on Sundays and PHs with no overtime pay or allowance never mind, its GM still come and "catch" us on Sunday morning for coming in late.
    The big boss younger brother also one of the directors in the company, his wife recently came out in the "shit times", I was surprised how they become husband and wife, his wife interest and hobby is so much high class than him as he is perceived to be more ah seng.

  6. worked for an IT firm before
    -onsite at customer's place from morning & afternoon
    -go back to office evening to do internal meetings/testing & paperwork
    -standby at night/weekends for activation

    no OT..

  7. I teach, and we have no end of work. And I have no choice either. Students come in the next day and lessons have to go on. You can't have the class stare at you because you can't finish getting lessons ready.

    But we have so much shit going on at the same time it's impossible to finish. Basic requirements for a teacher is to be involved in 17 hours of lesson time, which means around 4 classes if you teach a core subject like EL. Involvement in 1 CCA, and 1 department. 1 form class and any other duties or projects the school requires you to take on. On top of that you are expected to go for a certain number of lessons each year as professional development.

    I typically am in school for 12 hours then bring work home and work at home every weekend.

    And then you have parents and then some.

  8. Oh. And technically school hours are in the from 715 to 1400 only.

    Neither is school holidays equal to teacher holidays, contrary to popular beliefs.