I Was One of Those Annoying MRT Salespeople. Here’s Why I Did It.

You might have been approached by one of those pesky MRT and pavement salespeople who would hold their clipboards and wave people down.

You might have also felt a sense of dread when dealing with these overly persistent and aggressive vendors.

You probably aren’t alone in that experience. Singaporean social media is filled with anecdotes that recount these negative experiences.

“Some insurance guy tailed me for a good 50m (the entire length of a sheltered walkway) despite me saying no politely. I literally had to run” said one post on Reddit.

“I just moved to Singapore a little over two months ago, and I’m struggling to deal with people trying to sell skincare products to me, stopping me while I’m walking.” said another post.

Though I share these sentiments, I somehow ended up becoming one of these salespeople.

Here’s the story of how I became inducted into a multi-level marketing (MLM) scheme.

The Start

Fresh out of the fiery pits of ‘A’ Levels, an acquaintance, who knew that I did volunteer work, asked me if I wanted to get paid to raise donations for charities. Since my previous job searches were long and arduous, I leapt at the opportunity – which seemed promising.

After agreeing to give it a go, I went through the three rounds of interviews. Whilst I repeatedly asked about my job scope, the interviewer only told me that it would consist of “face to face marketing”. Regardless, since I was young, eager, and delighted at the prospect of being ‘chosen’, I said yes.

It was only in my first week there that I found out what exactly I would be doing. While the company sold different goods and services, what I was about to sell was ongoing donations. These are monthly or weekly donation subscription plans that auto-deduct from your card or account. Once people signed up for the donation subscription, I was told that a portion of that subscription would be transferred to my account.

During this ‘induction’ period of sorts, I was taught to be the ‘ideal’ salesman. I was conditioned to use cloying and chiding phrases to psychologically entrap people into listening and eventually buying my products. You look so good in that dress! You look so happy today eh, where are you headed to? Looking good, sir. Eh, this one not sales lah horh. It’s helping people one. Etc. Cue me also smiling from ear-to-ear in an attempt to “play up my innocent appearance,” as my colleagues like to say. Yikes. Plus I was encouraged to gaslight people into subscribing to these donations. It was the norm to trumpet terrible and stereotypical perspectives that would dumb down our beneficiaries, all so that we could inflate the donations that we received from the public.

Once, for example, I asked my colleague why we would convince people if they didn’t really want to donate – to which she said, “only the really kind-hearted people will donate one”. Big red flag right there; but not to 19-year-old me, I guess. I swallowed that excuse and deceived myself, thinking that, if no one wanted to donate, I just needed to be pushier, and people just needed to be kinder.

Another time, my boss looked at my face, and told me to wear more makeup as I was ‘pretty enough’ and needed to use my ‘youthful charm’ to appeal to even more people.

Entering the MLM

Every morning, before being ‘sent out into the field’, we would have ‘stand-up meetings’. At

precisely 9AM on the dot every morning, people’s achievements from the day before would be recited and ‘celebrated,’ and this would precede a raucous team cheer and cheesy ‘pumped up’ fist in the air. At the end of it, the Director parroted something about financial freedom and being your own, self-made entrepreneur.

At the same time, I was incentivised to actively contribute to this rhetoric. By ensuring that I got a commissioned portion from the people who entered this line, the lineage of staff was bound to continue and span for generations after my ‘death’ as a salesman.

For the unacquainted, these are hallmark traits of a multi-level marketing (MLM) scheme.

There are two main components to it. The first is to earn money through direct sales with wide-eyed innocents; and the second is to rope people into the scheme with you – hence giving rise to its eponymous name and nature of being a ‘multi-level marketing’ scheme – or a pyramid scheme.

Through this process of chain referrals, the people at the top with the most referrals and sales stand to benefit more in terms of greater passive income streams and a safer financial net.

Why Did I Stay?

It is inconceivable to the outsider why someone would want to stay in a MLM. But trust me when I say that the biggest difficulty of an MLM is that once you get into it, it’s hard to leave.

Why? Because MLMs largely function on social ties. You bring one person in, and that person brings another acquaintance in. The cycle continues. Throughout it all, MLMs make a conscious effort to forge strong ties among their colleagues – be it through long work hours, daily dinners, fortnightly outings, or daily stand-up meetings that recycle mouth-watering adages on financial liberation and independence.

Such activities, under the guise of team bonding, are often used to fetter a person to the MLM’s ideals. By being integrated into the same-sounding propaganda and group, leaving becomes an increasingly distant concept.

Take my company for example. There, daily dinners and fortnightly team activities were the norm. It’s not exactly the best thing to look forward to after working from 830 to 1900, especially if you need to over-time to meet your personal sales targets.

In these social settings, I was genuinely conditioned to believe in the organisation’s ideals and that I could succeed in financial freedom, which is what most MLMs promise on; as you are able to sell at ‘flexible’ hours and build a big income stream over time. Given how identical everyone was in the MLM and how much time I was spending there, it became hard to believe otherwise. If anything, each time I experienced fleeting doubt, it would be immediately countered by an organisational member and masked over with some quick-fix propaganda.

Interestingly, Feng et al. (2021) corroborates this picture with the findings from a study on a China MLM, wherein the pyramid scheme presented “obvious homogeneity characteristics” (p. 7) and had “minimal cross-community and cross-hierarchy interactions.” So once you join a MLM, you get swamped and mired with these people who chime in on their beliefs about long-term financial independence and stability. As silly as it might seem to the outsider, the lack of contradictory opinion is absolutely what makes it hard to break out of the cult-like MLM mentality.

Point of No Return

I left because my physical and moral exhaustion came to a point of no return. My friend also asked if I knew that the work I was doing was part of MLM work; that kind of snapped me out of my daze.

A word of warning to the wise: No matter the pressure, do not make an on-the-spot decision, and do not sign any contract. That’s all. You’ll come to your senses and snap out of their persuasive tactics after a day or so — trust me. Been there, done that. And don’t join any workplace that claims that it functions like a family.

This letter was sent into us by a writer who wishes to stay anonymous. Kopi is committed to publishing a diversity of letters and opinions. Reach out to us if you have anything to say!

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