A local celebrity’s recent Facebook post reveals more about the structural inadequacies underlying Singaporeans’ seeming inability to take pride in their work.

Singaporeans are no strangers to Facebook posts that can provocatively kickstart national conversations about race, politics, and sexuality. But the most recent one to make its rounds bucked the trend and introduced a breath of fresh air into the usual roster of topics: taking pride in your work.

About two weeks ago, well-known local artist Michelle Chong took to her Facebook page to voice concern about the alarming lack of pride Singaporeans express in what we produce. Asserting that “people here generally don’t care about what they do”, Chong says this issue confounds her because she honestly believes “Singapore would be a better place if people really just take pride in their work”.

As of 3rd August, the post has racked up 8.9k reactions—mostly likes—and been shared close to three thousand times.

Why?

Complaining is one of the things Singaporeans are remarkably competent at, while work often brings us face-to-face with some of the sloppiest colleagues we will ever encounter in our lifetimes. (There is a popular meme amongst university students that goes: “When I die, I want my group project members to lower me into my grave so they can let me down one last time.”)

The harmless ones are merely inefficient; it’s the destructive ones who raise our ire, and become the subjects of spirited lunchtime trash talk sessions. We all know a handful of people like that—the bane of our existence, really—and that’s probably why Chong’s post seems to have touched a very raw, very Singaporean nerve.

The 40-year-old film and TV veteran’s sentiments are certainly valid. As some have suggested, the results-driven culture of our formative schooling years appears to have successfully produced generations of workers who are simply good at turning things in—and even then, sometimes past the deadline.

This practice of repeatedly submitting work for its sake means getting things done, but not getting them done well. It means rote learning, not meaningful learning. It means quantity without quality. It means KPI checked off the list like clockwork, but pride? Nowhere to be found.

To be steeped in this culture from young means it’s only natural that what Chong calls the ‘“pass up homework” heck care attitude’ continues to manifest itself throughout the course of our lives.

Yet, as well-intended as Chong’s message may be, let us not forget that her message comes from a position of—and this word is chosen deliberately—privilege.

Image: Michelle Chong’s Instagram

There are many rungs on the ladder of privilege. For example, someone who has access to various employment opportunities through circumstances beyond one’s control is more privileged than another who simply does not. Someone who is employed is then better off than someone who is still searching for employment, generally speaking. Someone employed in a well-paying job is more privileged than someone who has to live from hand to mouth, even if the former hates their job.

Then there is Chong, who is on the highest rung possible: being gainfully employed in a profession of her own choosing.

Chong waxes lyrical about “[having] access to information and resources” and how “we don’t have to worry about civil wars, famines, natural disasters, guns, drugs, political unrest and homelessness”. Ostensibly this is an assertion that since our basic needs are met, we can afford to channel our energy into being passionate about our work. Well, by the measure of Maslow’s hierarchy, the constant accumulation of wealth and capital in a professional circle like Chong’s certainly ensures that her basic needs are met, which allows room for her to find meaning in more abstract concepts such as passion and pride.

However, not everyone receives the same amount of basic security as Chong does.

Her notion of taking pride in one’s work likely falls under the tiers of esteem and self-actualisation (think achievement, respect of others, creativity and so on), but these tiers are available only to people who need not expend time and energy to fulfil physiological and safety needs.

For better or for worse, she doesn’t seem aware that she’s letting on how much privilege she enjoys when speaking of this issue.

At the risk of making this an argumentum ad hominem, consider also the fact that Chong is in a line of work that many consider lucrative and desirable (to an extent) for its endless connections of fame and fortune. More importantly, consder the Japanese concept of ikigai (生き甲斐), or “a reason to get up in the morning”. Ikigai is at the heart of four things: that which the world needs, that which you love, that which you are good at, and that which you can be paid for. Maybe we don’t need a sequel to Chong’s 2016 comedy Lulu The Movie, but we can all agree to needing some variance of entertainment. So she is privileged enough to have found her ikigai—but can the same be said for the rest of us?

Above all, consider this: what if not needing to face the array of problems she’s raised doesn’t imply that our basic needs are met?

Has she considered that there may not be an equitable distribution of such information and resources, even amongst Singaporeans? More importantly, who is this “we” that she is appealing to, and what kind of ingroup identity is she constructing here, and for whom? What does it say about “us”—and consequently, who are “we” identifying as “others” and what kind of punishment have we already decided on their behalf?

There is one way to interpret the thousands of reactions, replies and shares Chong’s post has received, which is that many agree with her position. “We” (I’ll continue to run with her choice pronoun) do not seem to take pride in our work despite having the circumstantial fortune to do so.

This resounding agreement seems great, right?

Surely it implies that we are all consciously working towards bettering ourselves and the work we produce, now that we are aware of the need to take pride in our work?

Really?

Out of those numerous likes, shares, and comments, a large number of them seemed instinctively to locate the reason for their lack of pride in others. You name it, they got it: groupmates, managers, bosses, clients.

The same narrative is repeated across comments, the narrative of having your pride worn down by others in the industry. Let’s say that some of them are simply quick to play the blame game. For the most part, however, it appears that the nature of working life in Singapore—its pace, its harsh realities, and an intrinsically exploitative system—is too much of a grind to sustain one’s pride in their profession.

Perhaps this can be chalked up to the high cost of taking pride in one’s work.

When Joseph Schooling bagged the Olympic gold last year, the entire nation erupted into cheers without realising just how much that record-breaking, podium-placing moment had cost both him and his parents. More than money, it has cost him his entire life here with his parents. But who cares? We had the gold yarn we needed to spin the perfect golden boy story and peddle it to the masses as national pride.

When young Schooling decided he wanted to be in the Olympic games, he put his words into actions and started training early.

Other times, pride is not something we aren’t even entitled to. Should we really be proud of the name Chong has made for herself from playing (and profiting from) a heavily caricatured version of a female Chinese national?

What does it say about ourselves that we celebrate and encourage the renewed stereotyping of those we continually alienate from mainstream society?

Is this the type of cultural narrative Singaporeans ought to be taking pride in?

Chong’s post is ultimately an appeal to the elite, and I do not myopically mean the educated, Facebook-thumbing elite. I mean those who have had all the array of choices that cannot be democratised for the entire Singapore population. I mean those who have the resources and liberty to pursue what they love because they can afford the basic costs of living and not be chastised for their choices. Because pride is not a basic need and pride works towards self-fulfilment, not everyone has the means to take pride in their work.

Not everyone can afford it.