On a typical day we’ll cross paths with many different people – construction workers building or renovating the urban landscape, MRT staff directing passenger traffic, the office auntie cleaning up the office for the day ahead, the old uncle clearing utensils at the CBD hawker stalls, to name but a few of the more common ones.
Most of the time we walk by them, glance at them, and then go about our daily lives, without actually stopping to imagine what their own daily lives must be like, how they feel, what hopes and dreams they may have, or even what their background stories are.
Especially in a fast-paced country like Singapore, where the rat race is such that it’s easier to be self-absorbed in our own lives – our next meeting, our next holiday trip, our next big bonus – instead of taking the time to look around us and really appreciate what’s going on.
It’s no coincidence that major media outlets are telling us more and more about a day in the life of a cleaner or a taxi driver; most of us live our lives from success to success, from care-free environment to care-free environment, rarely taking the opportunity to experience the work on-the-ground workers go through.
The Keep Singapore Beautiful movement recently ran an initiative in which ITE students became school cleaners to commemorate Earth Day, with the aim of teaching the students ‘empathy and understanding towards the cleaners’.
Across our local universities, students can participate in Work & Travel USA for the summer, in which they can opt to work in part-time jobs (waiters in Yellowstone or amusement park operators at Six Flags for instance) to fund their travel experiences in the US.
Feedback from people who have experienced the programme range widely, as not everyone is equipped to face the difficulties of holding tough and underrated jobs; from juggling two massive trays with plates of food or dealing with rush hour crowds to facing impatient customers, many people aren’t used to such levels of stress.
It’s not easy at all, they say, but it’s definitely an eye-opening experience. According to P. Lim, a 26 year-old copywriter who worked as a waitress in New York, “everyone should be made to wait tables at least once in their life. Then they would realise how tough and stressful it is, and maybe they’d be a bit more patient instead of complaining all the time. After my own experience I actually made efforts to be more understanding and less demanding!”
In China, too, where the rise of new millionaires has created an entire generation of pampered and demanding young adults, some people feel it’s necessary to give a positive example.
A millionaire property tycoon works as street cleaner to teach her sheltered children of the value of hard work. In a US hospital, the CEO shadows and works alongside his employees in its ‘not so undercover boss’ programme, and can even be seen collecting and disposing litter outside the hospital.
In fact, there are various follow-up stories to the reality TV show ‘Undercover Boss’, one of which the President of a restaurant admitted to being ‘intimidating working the cash register alongside a general manager’ despite having trained in a restaurant before.
Such instances are an eye-opener, primarily because manual labour does not indicate it’s a less-valued work. Differentiated by expertise and skills, a CEO may be able to grow his business, but a waiter with many years of experience may be more equipped with customer service skills.
Think celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay and his aide Jean-Philippe, both equally good at what they do but for different reasons; one yells at people behind the scenes to get the best out of them, while the other smiles fussy customers into submission.
May Day may be just a public holiday for some, and perhaps perceived to be a well-deserved break for others. But we should all see it as a day to give thanks to those who work around us and consistently make Singapore the clean and safe city it is.