Can we be anti-work, Singapore?

Workaholic. Overworked. These are the two most common terms describing Singapore’s intense work culture. We hear about new strategies from nap pods to employee well-being days but none of them addresses the real question: Can we truly reimagine the nature of work?

By Sorfina

In truth, I am a true blue Singaporean. While I may convince myself otherwise, I have fully subscribed to the “work till you die mentality” since I entered the schooling system and traded my hours for juggling two jobs and my university studies. My experience seems to be a national one — Singaporeans are some of the most overworked people in the world. Sometimes, I stopped to ask myself: 

Is this what working life is — a never-ending grind that takes up most of your time? Does it really have to be?

[Photo: Tara Winstead via Pexels]

Turns out, my questions resonated with a particular subreddit, r/antiwork, that started in 2014 to trigger a conversation on the exploitative conditions of work in the modern capitalist society. 

Recently, r/antiwork rose to prominence with a sleuth of viral posts showing workers standing up for themselves against their bosses, which resulted in the subreddit’s subscriber count jumping from 100,000 to more than 1.3 million today

r/antiwork’s proposition of transforming how we define work may cast the subreddit as an overly idealistic and isolated Internet community. However, its recent popularity is part of a larger workers’ movement that started in 2020. With the greatest number of resignations in the USA, the rise of unions amongst workers, and strikes against companies, the subreddit’s growing popularity indicates that something is broken in the employment system — significant enough for workers to say “enough”.

But, what exactly is wrong with our employment system?

Anti-work supporters usually point towards the long hours, gruelling work conditions, and low pay as a problem of work today. For many subscribers of r/antiwork, they are often stuck in jobs with single-digit hourly pay with little to no benefits like health insurance or paid time off. 

These jobs often do not have progression opportunities, pushing workers into a cycle of low-salary jobs. Furthermore, the hours spent on commute and “invisible work”, aka the work salaried workers are forced to complete after office hours, are often unaccounted for. For most people, work is central to their life, but here’s the ironic part — despite the long hours of labour, the money earned isn’t enough to cover basic expenses. In the US, for example, nearly half of American workers are not able to afford a one-bedroom rental. 

This disparity highlights a crisis in the work system where people are overworked and yet underpaid, a disparity that has been propelling the rage quits of r/antiwork subscribers.

Screenshot of r/antiwork’s tongue-in-cheek motto. [Photo: r/antiwork via Reddit]

These grievances can be seen in Singapore where workers work some of the longest hours in the world, as the Shopee scandal in November 2021 highlights a rather prevalent overtime culture here. 

However, while Shopee workers may reconcile their long hours with their high pays, most average to low-income workers are often stuck in 12-hour workdays with insufficient pay to grapple with the increasing cost of living in this city, especially with inflation and rising taxes.  In fact, Singapore’s Goods and Services Tax would be increased to 8 per cent from 2023, and 9 per cent from 2024.

This culture of overtime, in addition to the Covid-19 restrictions on our social life, has resulted in the declining mental health of many Singaporeans.

Shopee came under fire for allegations of workplace discrimination and their culture of long hours in November 2021. [Photo: Office Concept Design]

So, what do r/antiwork supporters propose to solve this crisis?

Various anti-work proponents have called for more pro-worker systemic changes like adopting a minimum wage to enable a better standard of living for workers and encouraging workers to unionise to ensure workers’ rights are protected. 

However, these proposals fall flat when it comes to Singapore.

Singapore’s incumbent government has rejected the minimum wage and effectively took over unions to form a singular National Trade Union Congress (NTUC), limiting its role in mobilising workers. Adding the strict laws on strikes and protests, Singapore’s structural and systemic limitations stamp out any collective antiwork resistance.

Lee Hsien Loong, Singapore’s Prime Minister, giving a speech at NTUC’s May 2021 Rally. [Photo: NTUC]

Furthermore, many Singaporeans may not share the same principles of anti-work as seen in this Reddit post, where most Singaporean commenters regard the movement as too radical and impossible to achieve. 

In a country where most have been primed since young on the importance of work to make up for the nation’s lack of natural resources, Singaporeans tend to view work as simply a necessity, no matter how taxing it is. This mindset, complemented with Singapore’s limited pro-worker laws, dampen hopes that work can be revolutionised here in our tiny city.

Hence, while promoting changes like independent unions are important for workers, a huge paradigm shift is needed in how Singaporeans approach work. Our glorified workaholic culture prevents us from having a critical conversation — are we truly working for fulfilment or to simply survive? While a lucky few have jobs that fulfil them and keep them afloat, many Singaporeans are deeply unsatisfied and are simply working to put a roof over their heads.

[Photo: from Pexels]

The solution, it appears, can be found in redefining how we view work and value labour. 

No, this does not simply mean talking about work-life balance like introducing “Eat with Your Family Day”, which are merely treating the symptoms of a broken employment system. Instead, this involves rethinking work as labour that contributes to the benefit of the community, expanding the category of what we consider as paid labour, including undervalued labour like care work. 

Reimagining work also provides us with an opportunity to decentre work from our lives and recognise leisure as a necessity. This allows workers to find personal fulfilment while also contributing to society instead of being disregarded as cogs in the machine.

So, is there another way of living? Can we really reimagine the idea of work?

To that, I say a definitive, yes.