Overworking and toxic productivity is pervasive in Singapore’s landscape
This wasn’t the campus life I imagined.
Students trying to nick an A-line on their academic transcript, talking about upskilling and Dean’s List-ing, and being productive at any and all operational hours. It’s no longer about working the 9-5 — it’s about working a 9-9 job while paying for it. Everywhere I go, such talk of productivity proliferates discussions and online forums. Come Summer, it’s an internship. Come Winter, we seek courses to furnish our resume and upgrade our skills. No holiday is a real holiday — it’s always another gateway to more time for work or to learn something new.
Of course, I can claim to be free and to work without the influence of these societal pressures. And yet such pressure pervades and invades our studying atmosphere. When I have downtime, I feel obligated to study; if I’ve done next week’s prep, then I do the prep for the week after. New supplementary notes on LumiNUS? More work for me! Free time? Nah, it’s time for part-time internships and jobs.
What on earth is compelling me to behave the way I do? Could it be the fact that I saw the same guy study at the same desk for 6 hours straight without eating? Or perhaps I may attribute it to the tacit strife of class participation, where students are constantly gunning to speak up at every turn they may have. Each hand, raring to shoot up and recite well-rehearsed answers in their head.
The Productivist Nation-State
This toxic productivity is perpetuated on two levels. On a personal level, students use it as a tool to market themselves and their potential productivity. When we talk about learning, it’s never so much about the fact that learning is valuable in itself; rather, it’s always about doing better and being better, about buffing our portfolios. Learning a new language? That’ll be great for the workplace and in overseas markets.
Dancing? Fantastic — that’ll make it look like you’re fit and actively seek out hobbies. To that end, everything, and anything can be weaponised as a tool for marketing. Nothing is safe. The capitalist sees all.
But this might not just be an individualised problem. In a country which plays up the vulnerability of its small size and lack of natural resources, human capital is seen to be the competitive advantage. We are only attractive as a nation to large multi-national companies and investments as we have a highly skilled and productive workforce. Time itself is portrayed as a scarce resource to use efficiently. According to Lim (2010), Singaporeans hence are taught about the importance of time management from young, by socialising agents like friends, family, the education system, and the media. They are taught that the onus of simultaneously being productive and tending to themselves is on them, as individuals, to manage. Often, all of this has a ‘productivist’ tilt to it. From the prime minister warning young Singaporeans that competitors like Vietnam, China and India are out to steal their lunch, to the Ministry of Manpower website stressing how work-life policies could lead to “higher productivity and shareholder value” for employers, the role of productivity in survival is emphasised.
The knock-on effects of this can be seen in our day-to-day lives. To do well is to overwork and show you are committed to studying; meanwhile, detracting from studying after 6 and spending time with one’s family is often seen as ‘slacking off.’ In other words, being productive is inherently tied to rewards.
In order to get ahead, one is expected to, and must practically dedicate their whole fibre of being to excelling. This means outstanding grades, curriculars, strong networks, and good working experience. On the contrary, whittling away one’s time can poorly impress upon others. One may even be negatively punished by being deprived of a promotion or bonus. Every move is scrutinised, and every action recorded — formally or subconsciously.
Breaking the Chain
All of this isn’t to say that productivity is an inherently bad concept. Being productive helps make society better. In my personal line of Social Work, working hard enables me to help more clients. Being efficient and accountable also ensures that the system brokers resources faster. Similarly, being productive in various professions can be beneficial to society. It would also be unwise of me to mock people who are invested and passionate about the work they do.
What is an issue, however, is the concept of toxic productivity – the pursuit of academic and professional goals above all else. Above mental health, above passion, above personal relationships – above oneself. One way to stop the proliferation of this rhetoric would be to look at the “socialising agents” that we talked about earlier.
Both online and in campus, there seems to be a glorification of this lifestyle. Between classes and desks during discussions, conversation usually hovers around what we’re doing for the summer. The expected answer: An internship at (major start-up 1, 2, 3, etc). Doing nothing, oddly enough, is often seen as the exception to the majority.
On the internet, we see Singaporean students plaster their thumbnails of them burning the midnight oil or grinding hours away on their studies. It’s practically become the hotkey to YouTube stardom. Out of these ideals emerge several catchphrases: Hustle culture, toxic productivity, the grind.
I reckon that it’s time for the glamorisation of these lifestyles to end.