“If you don’t study hard you will be cutting grass like this man here!!”

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To be honest, this is the biggest culture shock I got in Singapore: I once saw a mother pointing at the hardworking landscaper, as if he is invisible, delivering her public lecture to this poor kid. It was along the lines of “If you don’t study hard, you will be cutting grass like this man here”.

It has been four years since I moved to Singapore. Every now and then I am still asked “What is your greatest culture shock since living in Singapore?” my replies are usually politically correct, such as food and lingo. But to be very honest this is the one: the lack of respect and bigotry towards a certain group of occupation. And unfortunately this is also the biggest shock shared among a lot of the Japanese here in Singapore. 

In Japan, first thing we teach children is “Every job is respectful and precious”. We cannot go putting our values on other people’s work.” In Singapore however, many adults would tell their children to study hard so they would not end up a cleaner or bus driver in the future. Worse still, they make it an effort to condescend those profession to make sure they got their point across.

We have a tradition to value every craftsmanship and professionalism in Japan. As long as we take our job seriously and keep improving, people will admire us and support us.

In Japan, professionals with great craftsmanship and skills are considered our national treasure. In fact we have a “Living national treasure” system and there are 166 living craftsmen (like cloth weaver, bamboo craftsman, potter etc) registered as “Living natural treasures” and the state supports them in passing of their skill to the next generation.

We also have a tradition of respecting every individual, regardless of the amount of education they accumulate.

Take for example: the ex-prime minister Mr Kakuei Tanaka. The man left school at the age of fifteen and worked as a construction worker, yet he was never discriminated and rose to be the head of a proud nation.



Mr Konosuke Matsushita aka “The God of management”, the founder of Panasonic, dropped out from the school at the age of nine. With determination and hard work, Panasonic is arguably the largest consumer electronics company in Japan. Upholding the true spirit of knowledge and education, he founded The Matsushita Institute of Government and Management in 1979 keeping a “No prior education requirement” for their new students till today, where 43% of their graduates making key politicians and policy makers.


If we want to work at the headquarter of big companies like Toyota immediately after we graduate, yes going to a good university does help a lot. But if we leave school at fifteen years of age and decide to become a craftsman, people will equally respect us as a professional.

I remember reading the results of an interesting survey. A survey was commissioned to understand children’s ambitions from 9 countries in Asia. The question posed was: “What do you want to be in the future?”

In many countries like Korea, Thailand, Hong Kong, Vietnam, becoming a medical doctor was the most popular answer.

In Japan, the most popular answer was to be a Patisserie (Pastry chef).

Guess what was the top Singaporean kids answer?

Interestingly, it is: “Manager”.








About Post Author

Aya Imura

Aya Imura was born and breed in Japan, she attended high school in Utah, USA and furthered in Beijing University, China. Mid way through her studies she had to return home Japan when her family business went under. She became stewardess with Japan Railway Hokkaido before following her interest, and joined “Recruit Co.” one of the biggest publishing and marketing industry player in Japan as a copy-writer. She won several copy writing awards including the prestigious East Japan Best Practice Award. Aya Imura started building her business in marketing research upon arriving in Singapore and helped Japanese companies increase their awareness and market strategy for both local and S.E.A market. In early 2012, ninjagirls.sg was born with a few like-minded Japanese friends. They made video blogs about fashion, food, tourism and anything fun under the sun (and even the moon)!
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51 thoughts on ““If you don’t study hard you will be cutting grass like this man here!!”

  1. Great article. People should be able to work and commit to tasks with dignity and the respect of their fellow citizens. Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.

    “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.” Martin Luther King

  2. Hi,

    nice article. To be honest as being a European I was shocked by this also on my first travels. Sadly it’s not only like this in S’pore. In some countries when ordering in a restaurant it is not done to look at the waiter as if he / she is not standing there. Even when waiting for an elevator when some other maintenance people would just step aside to let you go first gives me the kreeps, then sometimes I really insist they go first, getting odd faces from people around me. What usually happens is that everyone wants their children to be lawyers, managers, doctors etc… resulting that there are not enough butchers, carpenters, etc… Just fuel the creativity. That said I also graduated as an electrician and now run several oversea businesses ;-)

  3. Singaporeans are competitive. We have to, to survive. There is nothing wrong for parents to want their kids to become doctors and Engineers etc. but they should not insult manual workers. Every job is a respectable job. Every worker earning a decent living deserves to be treated with decency.

    Not All Singaporeans are insensitive. Some us us do instill in our children to show respect and thank the cleaners for their services.

  4. I’m a Brit in his early 40s. I never went to university because in my time it wasn’t considered ‘mandatory’, and I have earned positions of responsibility through hard work and experience; but I find that today’s job market in many countries discriminates against people without degrees, people often assume that a degree irrelevant to a role makes a candidate better than someone with experience. This arrogance shown in Singapore probably comes from having been a British colony in the past…

  5. Thank you for sharing this insight into how the Japanese are taught to respect the craft in all occupation.

    Here’s an alternative spin on what I think with regards to what the parent said. Perhaps at face value, it may seem condescending towards the grass cutter, but the spirit behind her words is to strive to do one’s best in all that one does. Given that in all likelihood the child is currently studying, she wants to impart on the child the ideal of devotion towards a craft, the craft of learning. This principle of devotion and dedication towards what one does is how one will achieve what one sets out to accomplish, otherwise the child might end up doing whatever that is available for a living; which in this instance cannot be totally ruled out for the situation of the grass cutter.

    The parent could probably have said it better, but the key takeaway for the child, who perhaps already didn’t want to become a grass cutter, is to devote towards achieving what he wants and determine his fate in life, or have fate determine his life for him, that’s my humble opinion.

    1. I completely understand what you are trying to say, and I think it has some validity in Singapore’s context, but I think you are missing the point. The problem is not that the mother is being rude for saying it ‘out loud’, but that she already made the judgment that a grass cutter job is of a lower status that other jobs in the first place. And the root cause of that is that in Singapore, such manual work/creative professions (construction workers, hairdressers, tailors, chefs) are undervalued. You see, undervalued –> underpaid, and therefore they are seen as ‘lower’ jobs compared to jobs that require university degrees such as doctors, bankers, and corporate workers. Why do parents want their child to become doctors and lawyers? Quite simply, because they are paid more. Did you know that in some other developed countries, construction workers and plumbers can earn a decent living, even on par with white-collar workers? They are not seen as ‘lower grade’ professions.
      The writer is not blaming the mother for making such a remark. The mindset of the society has been shaped in that way, and she might not realize it herself that there is another perspective to look at the issue. It is quite saddening that the country is economically developed, but the mindset is still lagging behind. I guess it won’t happen that soon, but I hope Singapore is on its way towards giving equal value to all kinds of professions.

      1. So then it seems to me that your issue with society not valuing all jobs equally is in the compensation. Now if it was remuneration, then you’ll have to consider supply and demand, uniqueness of craft, and mastery. In a free market economy, this would be the case. A grass cutter could still, in such a society, achieve such mastery that his craft becomes unique, that people would pay more for; which then ties in with the spirit of this article, which is full of examples of people who had dedicated their lives toward a certain craft, and had achieved mastery. These people earned their value, it is not given to them. And this is where what I wrote in my first comment ties in with the numerous examples of this article, which is to earn what one sets out to achieve through dedication.

        I admire those people listed above who had dedicated their lives toward one craft, they value their craft above the monetary, it is enjoyment and fulfillment that drives them. It probably does not matter to them how the society values their craft, their own valuation is supreme.

        1. No – you’re certainly the one who’s missed the key takeaway of the article. It’s about the author’s shock at the lack of value placed on certain kinds of labour in Singapore, and the contempt that some Singaporeans openly show for those that do less desirable jobs.

          It’s impossible to have this kind of conversation without looking directly at how Singapore approaches industrial relations and human rights in general. The fact that modern Singapore is built on the withered backs of indentured labourers and servants from less privileged nations like Bangladesh and Indonesia – servants who are denied the basic rights granted to everyone else living in that country – is an appalling indictment on the type of society Singapore actually is.

          Flowery talk about free markets and mastery of crafts completely ignores the realities of the distribution of wealth and the obscene measures of merit applied to work and human worth in Singapore on an institutional level. How can a banker who works 8 months a year, whose luck floats with the whim of the market deserve a five figure quarterly bonus? How does a Bangladeshi construction worker toiling 16 hour days deserves to be paid the pittance they get – and to be exploited the way they are in Singapore?

          This is a big moral problem in Singapore – all the cheerful spin in the world won’t change that.

          1. Going back to the article, it clearly and in bold states, “the lack of respect towards a certain group of occupation”. Nowhere does the article correlate respect with monetary value. With regards to respect towards occupation, there are two aspects to be discussed; the job minus the person, and the person executing the job. Now each job minus the person is meaningful and contributes to society in its own way, but a job as a non-living entity cannot inspire respect, and is still subjected to supply and demand. I shall get into this later. So then we will have to look at the person executing the job. I will have to differ with the author because I believe it has to be earned. I will respect a farmer who toils all day in the sun believing that his work benefits his fellow Men and has a passion for it versus a banker who hates his job and is just in it for the money. See the difference? I will not deny that the mother in the article lacked respect towards the grass cutter. But do we know if the grass cutter is dedicated to his work, and believes that his efforts contribute to the beauty of the country; or is he simply doing it because he’s here for the money, wants to get the job over and done with, and has got no other alternatives? You see, my take on what the mother was trying to convey is this idea of working hard and dedication towards something that the child enjoys and can be proud of, and not wind up doing something else that the child has to settle for. Yes, she should use a lot more words than she did. And yes, this alternative spin may be off tangent from the general gist of the article which is about the presumptuous scoff and disrespect towards certain groups; but truly speaking, the bulk of the article is full of examples of people who had earned their respect through their dedication towards their work, and this is what I’m saying that the mother hopes to see in her child. Now if you have to put monetary reward into the picture, then you really cannot run away from supply and demand, because a society with an equal distribution of wealth might be considered socialist. I do agree that bankers sometimes get paid too much, but then everything is worth what its purchaser will pay for. We can’t mandate the rich to throw less money at the banks because the more they throw, the richer they will seemingly get. It’s demand.

  6. As a Singaporean myself, I feel terrible when someone said bad about our country or people.

    Sad to say, you are absolutely right. We have been teaching all the wrong values to our younger generations. I remember recently one of the school teachers was so upset with a student’s assignment that he wants to pass a fast food job application form to the student. Such mindset should change. Otherwise, I can’t imagine how our kids will behave when they grow up in such environment.

    To give it a benefit of doubt, I still believe a sizeable group of Singapore parents has right values to educate their kids but I believe more could be done to make our society better.

  7. I fully agree with you. Having been brought up in Singapore, I grew up with the elitist mindset that some jobs are ‘better’ than the others. It was only when I started interacting with people from other countries then I realised it was all wrong. It is perfectly fine to dream of being a landscaper, a bus driver, a childcare teacher, a cleaner, an astronomer… etc. If everyone were to be doctors, lawyers and businessmen, society would cease to exist. It is just so sad that children in Singapore tend to be groomed to not have such dreams.

  8. 100% agree with you. My culture shock was in 1996 at Brisbane airport. I walked into the toilet and was greeted by a handsome young blond man. He paused from cleaning the toilet and greeted me with a cheerful, “G’day, Mate!”

    My mind exploded and has never been the same again. I immediately told my wife (it was my first trip to Autralia – honeymoon), that I wanted to migrate.

    Thank you so much for your article.

  9. This is the dark side of meritocracy.

    If meritocracy means that if you work hard you will succeed, then the corollary is that if you don’t succeed, you must have not worked hard.

    Meritocracy not only EXPLAINS why you are not doing your dream job, it also JUSTIFIES the discrimination or bigotry. After all, if the reason why you are cutting grass is because you didn’t do well in school, it is your own dam fault!

    1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meritocracy – “…political philosophy which holds that power should be vested in individuals almost exclusively according to merit. Advancement in such a system is based on intellectual talent measured through examination and/or demonstrated achievement in the field where it is implemented.”

      It’s not exactly about how hard you work.

      1. It’s implicit in most societies that a person can do almost anything if they work hard. It’s more optimistic than telling them their dna or wealth limits what they can do. So if someone is cutting grass, it implies they haven’t done well and, hence, haven’t tried.

        I don’t think it’s just Singapore where people who have low skill jobs are frowned on. And “frowned” may be the wrong word. Everyone respects a hard worker, regardless of their field of work. Yet low skill jobs rarely pay the bills and it’s not something anybody wants their kids to dream of becoming. I think if the lady in question had not been lecturing students to make a point, she probably would have shown some respect for the landscaper. Since school and achievement was the context, she had to say “You’ll probably be flipping burgers or cutting grass, one paycheck away from living on the streets, if you don’t do well in school.”

  10. You are right. The snobbery and discrimination against the blue collars are preposterous. Two generations ago our people were coolies, fishermen and mostly blue. Now it’s nearly all whites. Even the grad with lousy grades wants to enter the corporate arena, where he will get mauled. It’s just plain silly. Had we gone the Germany route and kept most of manufacturing, we will not be in this state. We never could have matched the other countries for price, why not go for quality, the Swiss way? I was in japan and even their construction workers are locals. Average pay is certainly much and a meal is about 5-6 dollars. And yet people here still do not understand we are worse off

  11. If it was just a small group of parents doing that. It is most definitely their own upbringing or some misguided parenting. But if it was an entire race/ countrymen doing it. It has to be something big man. The whole Singaporean culture of ‘Kiasuism’, competitive nature was infused into our education/ childhood since young. Our parents are affected. Their parents are affected. And Education and culture is developed at a much higher level. Just too bad that our leaders believes that being elite is the only way to survive. Lack of support on various occupation choices besides Doctors, Lawyers and Engineers. Heck, they even wanted to become the highest paid ministers in the world.

  12. It is partly due to the parents’ concern on their children’s future, they all wish for them to obtain ‘high wage’ jobs for a comfortable living. People want to become successful and thus shun those ‘low wage’ professions. That is Singapore’s social culture. It the thought of “If you are not better than them you are worse than them.” The fear of losing to others allowed social astigmatism to be imbued in people.

  13. Singapore is a young nation, many of the indigenous populace i.e. the aunties and ahpek did not receive much education. These people may not be pleasant in general, but the reasons behind this is pretty much the same – a lack of education, be it aunties or foreign workers. The latter having received a lot of flak for being perverts. This is a nation very unlike Japan, your homeland is one that had the fortune of developing early and the people are thus more cultured. We don’t have much resources, and with other ASEANs countries quickly gaining pace with us, we might lose out entirely in the future if we do not shoot forth now. The need for doctors, engineers and other more highly sought after jobs is justified, if not for the pay but for the betterment of our future. (The pay dictates that theres a need for such people btws). Criticising singaporeans for being rude bigots from your high horse really makes you no better than those aunties. There is a need for everyone, including foreigners, to exercise tolerance towards the older generation and ofc other foreigners. You would realise that most educated sgeans do not play a part in disparaging against these people, we do recognise their importance in our country, since many sgeans are unwilling to take up such jobs. Infact i’m glad that they are here to keep our country clean and build houses for us. I know that seeing the aunties being this way has tarnished your impression of my country, but please understand that this is a characteristic of a young nation that has developed quickly in 40years, and although it is a mindset that should be changed, many of these oldies have entrenched their view so deeply that they are unreceptive to new notions.

    1. Tolerance for bigoted comments about other people? It is utterly rude to insult a person and belittle them especially in front of the individual. It is unnecessary and completely lacking in empathy for the person in question. It also imparts the wrong values onto the younger generation, making it seem acceptable to belittle others just because of their job or social standing.
      It doesn’t matter who makes these comments, they are harmful and toxic to our society.

  14. The problem can be easily solved. Just mandate a law that everyone in the country who works get the same pay regardless. Meaning from CEO to doctors to fast food outlet waiter to road sweeper.
    When everyone gets the same pay next thing in mind will be which job will I want to do then. As everyone is having the same pay it doesn’t give you and additional peaks or benefit in that high ranking jobs like CEO or being a doctor. So what will be your choice of a job when income is no longer an issue of pay comparison?

  15. I think we have to recognize the nuance behind this idea of worth. Every job is equally worth in the sense of utility. We need sweepers and grass-cutters as much as we need doctors, lawyers and engineers. The job itself is important. Nothing changes that.

    But are all jobs equally worthy of being aspired for? I think not. And unless you are being stubborn for the sake of being such, you would agree. No one wants or should want the children to aspire to being a sweeper or grass-cutter. Why? Simply because, the average human is much more capable than that! It’s a fact. There is really no point in aspiring for a job that can be done by a well-programmed robot. And this is what makes certain professions more outstanding than others. The amount of effort one puts into mastery of the subject; that is not a joke.

    I think the mother could have said it better. But there seems to be a sincerity and grain of truth in her statement. It is competitiveness and an aversion for mediocrity that has always made humans great. Let us remember that. Truths hurt. But we cannot let the hurt hide the truth from us.

    1. “There is no point in aspiring for a job that can be done by a well programmed robot”

      First of all, the primary focus is on dignity of labour, which you seem to deny when you say “certain professions are more outstanding than others”. Mediocrity exists across every class, profession and industry.

      As for being replaced by machines, it is only a matter of time before more high level jobs are replaced by machines.

      The well respected and aspired banking industry has already witnessed this.

      Singapore’s real estate brokerage is a fine example of mediocrity protected by government legislation, ought we replace them with computers, in this shrinking job market ?

    2. I mostly agree with what you write.

      I disagree, particularly, on one thing. Not EVERYONE wants their children to have high aspirations. In fact, how many tales do you think are told of parents who wanted their child to stay in the family business or stay on the farm or stay on the fishing boats, as opposed to going off to ‘far away places’ to get a college education?

      I do agree aspirations matter, otherwise parents should not care if their child aspires to poor or homeless.

  16. We have the same attitude in the Philippines and it has destroyed our economy. Everyone wants to be a lawyer or a manager and the schools cater to that. We have an enormous glut of lawyers and managers now with barely anything else. The few good craftsmen, engineers, etc. that we do have go overseas because they can’t find work here. We don’t even have enough farmers and agricultural experts to feed ourselves.

  17. I have lived in Japan for 18 years, and Japan has the same, if not more, discrimination than other Asian countries. They just hide it better.

    1. I shared this article on my Facebook and my Japanese friend commented that Japan is not too different. As she quoted, it’s simply a tatemae i.e. false front.

  18. There have been cases where a person chooses to be a road sweeper simply because it’s the easiest – never wanting to stretch or improve oneself.

    Yes, there are people who would sneer at professions simply due to the low pay.

    On the other hand, the mother could also be trying to instill industriousness in her children – to be the best they can in the field they choose.

    It is also possible the child could end up only aiming for compensation and nothing else – that could be tragic.

    Most importantly, the person is always improving his craft, getting better every day.

  19. The truth is I never want my children to work as a cleaners. Respect but reality is reality. I mean I still respect my uncle who earns only few hundred dollars a month. But the reality is I would not want myself and my children to follow my uncle foot step.

    My uncle is a kind person and never cheat or show anger to us before. In fact he always teach us to be kind to other and stay happy. But we all know that we cannot be like him in terms of career path.

    Singaporean are just more practical and we know what is good and what is not. Cleaners here also doesn’t want their children to be cleaners. I respect the person that clean the office but telling children to work hard and so not to be a cleaner is nothing wrong.

    I will teach my children to aim high and respect the smallest in the company.

  20. “The Mind Creates What The Mind Envisions” By CharlesDesigns ™

    7 Billion People on the Planet, Everyone’s RIGHT & WRONG at the same TIME,It Might Be Perpective, but Only You have the Power to make the Change…So what are you going to Do.

  21. I’m a Singaporean and I gave a tip of $50 to a delivery man who carried my heavy vase. And i respect the cleaners as well. I guess in this article the parent is just being rude. Not all Singaporeans are brought up with this mind set. And rude people can be found everywhere…not only contain to Singapore.

  22. “If you dont study hard you will be cutting grass like this man here.” Simply disagree. Not because of high moral grounds like respecting other pple’s jobs but more pragmatic reasons.
    The paper/plastic currency in your pocket is simply just a piece of paper/plastic. It has no intrinsic value. The people who work hard for that paper/plastic currency in your pocket adds value to your currency so that you can go overseas on a holiday trip and with that high value buy up cheap products back on their own soil.
    “If everyone knew how money is created and flows, there would be a revolution.”

  23. Dear Aya. I agree 100%.

    It is dreadful when people imply a “manager” is better than a “landscaper”. The “value systems” which society imposes upon different things are archaic and utterly demeaning.

    A word of caution though…It is equally dreadful to say one’s culture is better than another!

    You clearly took great lengths to prove your Japanese value system as superior to Singapore’s value system.

    It isn’t the first time Japanese people felt that their system was superior to others. In fact, this deluded self-belief was their justification to annex, colonise and massacre all their Asian neighbours. Perhaps, if they didnt have this habit to make themselves feel superior, then WW2 in Asia may have been averted.

    All cultures are different. Thus,they have different value systems, and different ways to indicate superiority or inferiority within a country’s social system.
    They aren’t better or worse than each other.

    SO let me remind you that if you — as young woman — were working in Japan in a large company, you would be systematically discriminated against because of your gender, you would be expected to serve you male colleagues, and you will have a hard time rising to the top of the corporate ladder.

    Women are institutionally considered inferior in Japanese culture. From the perspective of gender equality, Singapore is centuries ahead of Japan’s backward attitude towards women.

    But hey, who’s comparing.

    1. Dear Frank,

      Had you bothered to look at other articles of the same author, you would see that the author has other articles comparing Japan with Singapore – all of them IN FAVOR of Singapore. Incidentally, one of them harshly criticises the Japanese corporate culture that you just mentioned in your reply.

      Therefore, clearly, the author does not feel that “the Japanese system is better”, much less is trying to prove that. Actually, it’s you that went great, great lengths to believe this, to the point of even mentioning the World War II. In reality, your reply exposes far more your own biases than the author’s way of thinking.

  24. Hi Aya, thanks for the article. First welcome to Singapore and secondly, I am glad you are slowly uncovering the other side of the beautiful Singapore that you use to know.

    Well, I am not going compare with Japan. In Singapore there are basically two society, the rich and the not rich. People here respects money more than anything else. If the so call grass cutter earns millions, the society with look at him otherwise. Everyone will say that he is smart and hardworking. Even our leaders are making us to think that if we can’t retire (need loads of money) we probably didn’t work hard enough.

    This article of yours is closely linked to your other article, why graduates here can’t find job? Have some thoughts about it.

  25. bottom line is “RESPECT” job is still a job you work to earn money what else would you work for if you have stomachs to feed? not everyone is fortunate enough like you! really don’t be ignorant because education is really expensive! try putting your feet in someones very poor slippers!

  26. In this respect, I’m so proud of living in Australia where everyone is afforded a fair wage. Here the carpenter, cabinet maker, plumber, and all blue collar workers are earning way more than the executive white collar worker.

    There is no discrimination because there is a minimum wage regardless of occupation. I’m still a S’porean on paper but I’m Aussie to the core.

    These deeply entrenched beliefs are not the fault of the person’s upbringing but the govt’s focus on meritocracy over giving people a fair go. The govt shapes the country’s culture and in this case, it has made S’poreans bigoted and discriminatory.

    So glad I got out of there when I could. Otherwise I would have been one of those people the mother would have pointed at. Yep someone who has successfully run his own wedding photography business for the last 5 years, because it’s assumed I can’t study. Except she’s wrong. I have an honours degree in psychology.

    Eat that, auntie.

  27. […] Which is the better path? Which is the better choice? I think it all boils down to what you want in life. There is a chinese saying: “敬业乐业” : If you respect your job, you will enjoy what you do. There is much wisdom in this and this view is also shared by the Japanese. Check out this blog post from ninjagirls! […]

  28. We should sneer at criminals and corrupt politicians than those who are earning a decent living no matter what job they do.

  29. Thank you for the interesting article! I do believe that it is hard to to break the stereotype that we have of what it means to be successful, and just because a man’s job is to mow the grass does not mean he is not successful. He might be pursuing his passion and trying to build himself up in the horticultural society. There are plenty of people who aspire to build their businesses around grass cutting and we should not condone them, but recognise that they are part of society that deserves to be respected. Thank you for this insightful article :)

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