Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Long working hours in Singapore

Summary of comments

Lilian said
I agree on the long working hours in Singapore. the peer pressure and competitiveness is really strong. My american friend is working here and he also feel pressurized to stay back sometimes, which he tell me that it is very uncommon in US.

php said...
I am not sure if any government is able to help at all. I think the most important person who can influence the working hours is the BOSS himself. I have been running an Asian HQ of a European MNC for the past 20 years and I told my staff that there is no need to stay later than the office hours unless it is extremely critical. The result is (almost) all the staff will leave the office just 5 minutes after working hour.

Tan Kin Lian said...
Hi php. You set a good example. Unfortunately, there are not many bosses like you. The majority are of the other kind.

I believe that there is a lot that the Government can do. They have the power to legislate and to regulate. As they have ignore this problem, the situation has gone really bad.

So, if the Government and the Parliament address this problem, a lot can be done. At the least, it will send a message to the majority of employers.

(Note: somebody object to my use of 99% of employers, so I change to majority).


  1. Not sure whether it is a good idea to legislate.

    Different jobs are different and to have blanket rules may not be appropriate. If there are too many variables, it becomes very complex and expensive to enforce.

    Some people who choose to work long hours will say that it's their choice and why should the government interfere. For example, if the employer is willing to reward more for harder work and the employee is willing, why should the government interfere. (Unless we are saying that a weaker party is being exploited-then it is a different thing).

    If we start legislating against longer work hours, what why not also legislate against short work hours? Or for that matter, why not legislate that everyone must work? And if you legislate for minimum work hours, there will probably also be people who will not be happy because some people may want to work less so that they can have more time for other things.

    Some of these things are personal matters and although the government can do certain things, do not keep looking to the government to solve problems. Better to rely on oneself more and rely on others only when absolutely necessary.

    To each his own. For those who want to earn more, they can work harder. For those who want more time, earn less, change job, adjusts your wants.

    In most things in life, there is always a cost to pay. If a person wants more money, he has to sacrifice more of his time and personal life. For a person who wants more personal life, he has to sacrifice part of his career. Not easy to have your cake and eat it. And this balancing act happens all the time.

    If you look at Japan, Korea, Taiwan, HK and even China, you will find that the peoples in these countries generally work hard. Any, they progress materially. Whether they have "quality" life, I don't know. But for those who were poor once, and have now become economically well-off, they may say things are better now.

    Even in Singapore, working hard is not unusual. Many of our forefathers worked very hard and long hours because they had little back then. I am sure they would have had their complaints but they still did it for want of a "better" life. Is life "worse" or "better" now? We like to complain all the time. Life would be better if we learn to be more positive and count our blessings.

    For those who are down and out, the government or society should help.

  2. To legislate against long working hours effectively makes working hard a crime. Most people would have thought that honest hard work is a virtue. So, prima facie, to legislate may not be appropriate.

    I agree that working long hours, taken to an extreme is a bad thing. Like most things, there must be some balance. Even a good thing, taken to an extreme, may not be good. The problem is a mindset/values/aspiration issue which legislation may not be the most appropriate tool to deal with. And sometimes, people prefer not to have the government getting too involved in their personal life decisions.

  3. I guess this is becasue the habit got from young. Tution is so popular here, most of kids have to go for extra lessons after school hours. Does that really necessary?

    The good students go for expensive tution for advance learning to bring up the standard, so the "average" studends become slow and they have to be sent to tution centre to catch up. The slowest students also have to be send to tution centre as request by teachers.

    The good students later find the school lessons are rather bored as they already learned in advance, so can not concentrate and even disturbe others in the class.

    Why Singaporean have to run for life from very young, if everybody slow down, will life be worse?

  4. All work and no play makes Jack a "Dull Boy".....Long Hrs. at work and no time for making babies!
    There should be balance of work & play as ultimately "STRESS" will set in to upset and break up family life.

  5. The legislation does not have to be the inflexible type that is feared by Robert Tan.

    There is legislation on the working hours in each week, with the requirement to pay a higher rate on overtime pay. This has to be implemented across the board for all workers - including those not covered by the trade unions. It will send a message that working long hours is discouraged.

    No legislation is perfect. Legislation has to weigh the pros and cons and strike a balance.

    We need to deal with these problems, rather than leave them "to the market". The market exploit the weak. This led to wide disparity of income and other ills in society.

    I hope to see the Singapore system change for the better of the people and society.

  6. some stay after 7pm, so that they can drive the off-peak car home.

  7. im not supportive of govt intervention. i am a firm believer of free market, lasseiz faire adam smith style.

    having regulations allows deadweight losses, read exploitation by innately undriven and unproductive workers. good examples are europeans or US, "Customs office not open till 8am, so u have to wait. sori."

    what will change this attitude of unproductivity? reward productivity and not mere long working hours. its up to market participants to change. if demand is skewed towards higher productivity over working hours, supply will follow in that direction.

    Good examples are folks in Google, mobile sales people, traders, RMs, doctors, businessmen are very elastic in terms of working hours, not becos of regualatory working hours but becos of the drive and the main factor of reward/effort raio.

    on the contrary, many inefficient offices operate only "official working hours" when a longer or more flexibility would seemingly better the service rendered.

    this perceived "culture" of overstaying and extended working hours should be curbed and monitored by individual companies and managers. it is important to educate the managers that there are costs, indirect or direct, from overstayers. direct costs arising from higher electricity bills, overtime costs and indrect costs like subservient culture, unproductivity, rising attrition and absency rates.

    passing regulations wont kill such mentality, perhaps suppressed and allow morphing.

  8. Problem with paying more for overtime work may have the opposite effect if the reason for working long hours is for more pay in the first place. I heard some people even deliberately stay back till past a minimum time so that they can claim taxi fares or dinner allowances. True or not, I don't know.

    For those who in the past used to go off "on time", seeing a significant increase in overtime pay may cause them to stay back and work longer! For those who have been staying back, they will most assuredly welcome this additional pay....

    As another anology, if you increase the midnight surcharges for taxis,especially if the increase is significant, I am sure there will be more taxi drivers working longer and taking the mid-night shift.

    The point is : what is the cause of the long hours? If it is money, by giving more money will encourage it more. Of course, I may be wrong - money may not be the real reason - maybe is the love of the work or loyalty and commitment to the job etc. And I guess, (good or bad, I don't know)there are all sorts of people in this world with different motivations. (This is also why a blanket solution may not be appropriate).

    In fact, some self employed/own business people work 7 days a week and 12 to 16 hours day. No holidays maybe except when really sick or CNY. Why? Because of money. They may already be "rich" but each day they don't work or don't open shop, the "opportunity cost" of the lost income or profits is something they can't bear even though it may have been better they take some time off to spend time with their family, take a holiday and have a "better" life.

  9. I agree that disparity of income and protection of the weak from being exploited and helping the less fortunate and poor in society is important and should not be left solely to the market.

    In this regard, both the government as well as society in general should pay a part and lend a helping hand.

    In doing this, the help should also be targeted so that resources is used wisely. As an individual, we have limited resources and we can and should help others who really need help. We can't afford to help everyone, because we have limited resources, time, money etc. We need to do what is necessary and within our means.

    In investing our hard earned savings, we are careful in choosing what and how to invest so that it gives us the best possible returns. Similarly, to be prudent, we try to spend wisely.

    Something similar should apply in the larger scheme of things, in a country and society. Resources should be allocated to areas where there is greatest need and can do the most good. After all, funds/reserves are not unlimited.

  10. There is one angle to this issue and this also applies to competition in general that could be thought provoking.

    Let me give an anology.

    Let's say one has 2 kids.

    A works very hard and as a result gets good grades. (I am assuming that he academically sound and is able to accomplish with hard work- otherwise, just like the less fortunate in society, help is needed despite hard work).

    B seeing that A works hard and gets good grades, feels the "peer" pressure because he doesn't want to left behind.

    So, B goes to his parents and tell his parents to enforce rules so that A cannot or should not work so hard because B don't want to be left behind.

    So, should the parents enforce the rules?

    So what if by enforcing the rules, A's grades drop to the same level as B's grade if all the other children in schools are working hard and scoring good grades? Maybe B will "feel" better and less stressed because he finds that he is not "worse off" than his brother A now . They can go watch more TV, play more computer games and spend less time studying....Doesn't how they perform relative to their classmates, school mates matter?

    Similarly, in a country, we can get everyone else to "lower" their standards so that the rest feel less pressure(peer pressure/boss pressure whatever)

    But is our competition just from our fellow citizens? Don't we have to compete with our neighbouring countries and the rest of the world? Otherwise, we should tell the other countries to take things easy as well?

    So, the answer may not be straight forward. We just need to give thing more thought to make sure the pros outweigh the cons before implementing changes.

    In general, I think we have to be careful when a policy tries to bring down the "averages" or lower the bar to reduce inequality. I think a better approach, in general, is to keep the averages/bar high and help the those who are less fortunate.

  11. I'm from a western country and have been managing a Singaporean staff member here for a year now. I worked in the same company previously and now.

    If find here that people work more late as a rule and in my previous posting it was more normal to work late when needed and leave a bit early when there is less to do.

    I'm trying to get my staff to change her ways but she often would work late and miss personal appointments wihtout telling me.

    I have now become more firm that when she books time off or have mentioned appointments that I make sure I tell her to leave. I'm more used to staff that would make sure they let me know if they have to leave for some other event.

    It makes it a bit more tricky as a manager as I should not really be making sure my staff leave early!

  12. There is a difference between working hard and working long hours. Some people just stay long in the office and act as if they are working but they are not. If you have this culture in your company it is time to change job!

  13. America calls itself the land of the free and home of the brave. A country that gives its citizens the opportunity to be all that they can be. In such a creative country, when one leader falls, another equally as capable will take his place.

    Singapore on the other hand is a country of digits (workers). The Singaporean solution to all problems is to work harder. Although lately the slogan was changed to cheaper, better, faster.

    But really, it's the same old wine that's being put in a new bottle. Singaporean leaders only know how to work their digits harder. And for that type of insightful leadership, we pay world class salaries.

    Think I'm being unfair?

    Think back about to our mini-bonds. The digits lost their money and were even too scared to voice their unhappiness in Hong Lim Park.

    You mini-bond investors owe a huge debt of gratitude to Mr Tan Kin Lian. I just hope that you are brave enough to stand up for Mr Tan the way he stood up for you.

    I personally doubt it. But then again, I'm just a cynical old dog barking in the background. All talk and no action. Once again, I take my hat off to Mr Tan.

  14. I agreed with 3.57pm and we owe Mr. Tan a sea of gratitide but robert tan talk too much or NATO that is talk only no action.

  15. There is a great difference between working efficiently and effectively.

    I had illustrated in a separate potsing here before. 2 workers work to achieve the same results, equally well; in term of quality of work, and even make it perfect.

    1 worker took 2 hours, and the second took only 1 houre. The first work efficiently. The second work effectively.

    Understanding this concept will lead to greater productivity, and shorter working hours / per worker will materialise.

    There have been wrong argument here to illustrate the converse to champion for longer workers hours. This is wrong thinking and this culture must change. Some supporting that stand seemed to be bosses and supports a bad culture.

    Peer pressure can help to push workers to work faster. I believe by working "Cheaper, Better, Faster" it should lead to "Shorter Hours". If people are then forced to worker even longer hours; especially without pay, this must be termed "exploitation" and not productivity.

    This is the real issue the Govt. must address. Not just stop at "Cheaper, Better, Faster" as advocated by the NTUC, it should be "Cheaper, Better, Faster and Shorter Hours". The former is only for the Singapore National Employer Federation to shout loudly, and I think NTUC should be shouting "Cheaper, Better, Faster and Shorter Hours" instead if it proudly claimed to care for worker's welfare. It must not lead blindly or confuse the workers.

    I think a good national policy should define objectives clearly to the common people. It should not hide hidden agenda or skew in terms of objectives.

    Only this will ensure a better work culture which supports work-life-balance and helps to boost
    birth rates.

    Not a "half-baked" policy which is then left to "market" forces...which will lead to "Mini-bond" scenarios and results.

  16. I am a firm believer that certain regulations are needed to protect the interests of the common people. Even more important is the common sense implementation and enforcement of such laws & regulations. Europe, Australia and even US have strong labour laws and you don't see their workers as being chronically lazy or slackers. In fact, workers in such countries who are hardworking, capable and skillful often earn more than similar Singaporeans, even when compared on a purchasing power parity basis.

    As already mentioned by a few people, this mindset towards mindless long working hours should start with top management. I would add that it must start from the govt itself. And don't just give the PR BS about "balanced work life" without any teeth to it. Btw, this PR exercise was meant to encourage people to start thinking about having babies, but as usual the half-hearted action by govt who is scared to change the status quo for fear of damaging the GDP.

    For those who are scared that workers may abuse the system, purposely stay back to claim OT or taxi fares etc. Come on, as a manager or boss, you would naturally require your staff to show evidence of why he/she needs to stay back late. Surely you are able to tell whether it is justified or whether that worker is simply not efficient. Otherwise Singapore will already be facing numerous "cheating" by workmen like technicians, factory workers, tradesmen, port workers etc since 1965, as they all fall under the Employment Act which mandates maximum working hours per week (or fortnight) and OT rates.

    I have worked for a few companies so far, and none of us qualify under the Employment Act, so there is no "max" working hours or OT pay. What we do is to have off-in lieu and staff need to justify and managers need to endorse. This also applies to taxi fares or dinner allowance (which are capped at nearby foodcourt prices) and can come with conditions such as having to stay on after 10pm.

    As for believing in laissez faire and letting free market take care of things, you might as well liquidate all your investments, cash out all your savings, pour petrol over them and light them up. Throw your computer at your boss and tell him to F-Off. Then tear up all your insurance policies, and burn your car and house also. Because this is exactly what would have happened without the massive "communistic" intervention by govts all over the world. The US govt of 1930, its economic advisers and even the president then were all much more of free market thinkers and capitalists than most people today. They refused to intervene in the economy and believed that free market forces will correct the imbalances. Intellectually yes, but it will maybe kill off 33% of the people in the process. It is a chemotherapy approach.

  17. Many people who take on a job or join an organisation would already know or have been informed about working hours either from their employer, their head hunter, their predecessors, or the grapevine.

    A prudent person will do his "due diligence" to find out more about an organisation and job before joining them. Therefore, there should not be too many people being "surprised or shocked" about the work hours.

    Despite prior knowledge, many people choose to join certain organisations. Why?

    Is it because they can't find any other job?

    More likely than not, these jobs pay better or provide other rewards that have greater potential eventually translate to higher income.

    There are many other jobs which allow one to go home on the dot. Some prefer these jobs/companies and join them. Others prefer the higher pay, despite the long hours.

    Nobody "forced" them to take those jobs.

    If anyone is forced or are made to "sign-on" under duress, or are weak and need help, sure, the government should protect them.

    For those who rest, let's take responsibility for our own decisions.

  18. KAROSHI KILLS..................
    It is too easy to think that our bodies can cope with an unrelenting schedule and balance is unimportant. Our egos like to think we are indestructible. Clearly, we are not. In Japan, they have a word 'karoshi' meaning 'death by overwork' when workers succumb to long hours, high stress with no let up - and it can kill. In fact around 10,000 Japanese workers a year die from karoshi. However, it seems it is not the hard work that kills; it is the continuous and relentless pressure without adequate recovery time that poses the danger

    Have you thought who would be affected if you do not make changing your work-life balance habits a priority? Do you have young children, a family, people who love and care for you? I do not know anyone who, on their deathbed, would wish for another extra day at the office, over spending time with loved ones. What about you?

    Working long hours can put you at risk.
    If your job is getting you down, look at your hours: researchers have found the increasing tendency to work back late may be making us sick. Researchers in the US surveyed 11,000 American employees, and found those working overtime were 61 per cent more likely to suffer a work-related injury or illness, compared to those clocking off on time.

  19. I agree. I also generally do not support working very long hours although I acknowledge that in certain jobs and at certain times for other jobs, long hours may be more difficult to avoid.

    It is better to have balance in life, for the sake of one's health, family etc.

    And career and money is not everything.

    I just think that:

    - to a large extent, choosing a job and how we choose to live it is largely a personal choice.(as long as what we do is not illegal or immoral)

    - as much as possible, in personal matters, it is better that the final decision is left to each person rather than have outside intervention.

    - I also think that one should take greater responsibility for one's life and the consequences of one's own decision making.

    - when we really do need help, we hope that there will be others who are willing to extend a willing hand, be it the government or society.

    - and where we can, we should also have enough concern to extend a helping hand to others who are less fortunate than us.

    Lastly, I think our government in general is good and has done a good job and I hope they will be wise enough and compassionate enough with good government into the future. Nobody's perfect and where they have erred, let's learn and move on.

  20. I think the current system of not paying OT for "executives" is alright as long as both employers and employees adopt the right mindset. That is letting the employee manage his work sensibly, if he is able to complete a piece of work within a short timeframe, so be it, he is already being rewarded by being able to leave on time (as long as the result is of good quality). Another employee might prefer to take a longer time to complete the same task (for whatever reason), that's alright as long as the quality is good and the deadline is met... in both cases, both employees should not feel pressurised or shortchanged, it's up to them to manage their own work. In the second case, the employer is not affected as there's no OT to be paid.

    Unfortunately, there are employees who exploit the system, e.g. produce sub-standard results and still leave on time, resulting in consequences that affect others and the organisation. On the other hand, employers may load employees with excessive work (and unrealistic deadlines) which resulted in long working hours regardless of how effective or efficient the employees can be, which is demoralising.

    Having time for one self and loved ones has intangible effects on the well being of an individual, which could affect both emotional and physical well being, and ultimately the well being of the society.

    Mr. Robert Tan's idea of choosing a job based on the prior description of working hours may not be feasible, in some contracts (I suspect most contracts), there is a clause that says "employees are expected to be flexible in their working hours", there is no way to tell how "flexible" they are expected to be.

    The government can only do so much in terms of regulations, employers will always find ways around policies (eg. using employment contracts). Therefore, the mindsets and culture have to change. If everyone leaves on the dot and don't spoil market by staying back to act busy, the system will work out by itself.

    Just my 2 cents worth. :)

  21. Mr Tan, I apologise for my long prose. but i think its a need to state my views clearly for a better discussion here.
    I think there is a misconception amongst many that govt regulations can do wonders. It is illegal to park by double yellow lines, speed along 60km/hr roads, send your maids to your office/shops/relatives homes to work, not paying the due cpf to the employees and many many more. But we still get to see many who conviently sidestep such regulations.
    Hence my point of laissez faire does not equate to liquidating all your assets, burning and tearing up your contracts (i do not noe how to classify such "apocalystic" behaviour), but am trying to point out that, the converse of, resorting to regulation will not solve this issue of unneccessary and unproductive long working hours.
    Regulation will only create another set of problems. Having maximum hours means employers will cap maximum payout, restrict due OTs to worthy hardworking employees, means workers have to put in max number of hours, and thus might not neccessary mean a lightening of workload and hours etc.
    Educating the managers n business owners of a better understanding of having a happy workforce brings greater productivity is much better. And that the govt can stimulate with more seminars/blahblahblah..butnot regulation.

  22. In mosy MNCs, Sr. Staff work long hrs. and they envy those Unionised Bargainable Staff of the highest Levelin the Bargainable Job group, as they are NOT allowed OT allowances.

    So you see Sr. Staff of MNCs are not allowed to join UNIONs and their positions or Job Status are between the"Devil & The Deep Blue Sea" so to speak!

    The are frustrated for holding on to their Sr. Post and work long hrs. There are times when their jobs are at stake when company restructures or face retrenchments or redundancies and mind you NO SUCH THING AS GOLDEN HANDSHAKE!!!

  23. Some Singaporeans dont mind working longer hours as they have nothing to look forward when they finish work.

    If they dont work, what can they do?

    Its a kind of mental illness.

    They become more stressed if they dont work.

    Working helps to distract them from the fact that they dont have a life.

    So they work.

    And work.

    And work.

    They buried themselves with work and sacrifice their health, family and most importantly their own personal well-being.

    Mental problems are increasing in Singapore and that will only lead to more society problems.

    When they are stressed, they eat unhealthily, load themselves with sugary stuff, coffee, coke and worst heavy smoking.

    Over-working will only create a unhealthy society.

    Singaporeans need to understand that they are humans not super heroes.

    If we work longer hours, how can we ever have enough time to exercise, spend quality time with family?

    How can the body recieve enough sleep hours to recuperate from mental stress?

    I think the governemnt should launch a healthy lifestyle campaign to encourage singaporeans to lead a healthy and balanced lifestyle.

    Ask yourself, how many Singaporeans is able to achieve success without sacrficing their own health.

    The sad fact is some singaporeans are proud to sacrifice their health for success.

    They feel respected by others when they sacrifice for the sake of "success".

    Is that really worth it..?

    Sacrifice? I dont think so.

    They are only abusing their bodies to achieve success.

    They are willing to burn their soul for work because they had lost their souls long ago.

    These are the people that have no meaning in life and they expect others to join them so that they are not alone.

    This is already a social problem.
    I hope that the governemnt will look into this issue and take action.
    Thank You!

  24. If nothing is done, we are going to move towards the kind of lifestyle in Japan, living in increasing tighter spaces, smaller but increasing expensive home, expensive food etc, longer working hours and higher stress and lesser or no kids!!! Who got time for kids when you got to struggle and work long hours for a decent living. This is the trend if govt is only after GDP growth and do nothing else to enhance citizen's quality of life like work life balance etc and affordable living. What does this lead to? Just look at Japan - increasing unhappiness among their people. I shudder to think Singapore will become like Japan......What's worse is that we may get increasing higher pay for longer working hours and stress just to realise anyway tht higher pay is an illusion with the increasing property prices and inflation. i.e. compared to the previous generation, generally you work longer hours, more stress, more money but which is an illusion only with the much higher costs of property etc