Essential or not?

Today’s social media feeds were flooded by this screenshot and reactions to it.

Source: Plural Art Magazine on Facebook, which in turn was from the Straits Times.

Instead of jumping straight to the memes about the importance of artists (this I don’t dispute), I found three additional aspects of the spectrum of responses fascinating.

  • People reacted most strongly to “artists”, not so much “business consultants” nor “human resource managers”.
  • Almost everyone who expressed an opinion online did not ask what the word “essential” meant, which was interesting, because it was in the context of “keeping Singapore going”.
  • Why was so little attention given to the bottom right-hand corner?

On Artists

The first point was fascinating because the posturing for artists was so vigorous it reminded me of a discussion I had with artist friends. My layperson view of artists, and their professions would be limited because of the breadth of the industry. I know artists such as photographers, performing artists, and hobbyist musicians, but the field of art certainly extends beyond this.

The discussion first began with the question, “Are the arts important?” None of us disputed this. Without the arts, we would not be able to enjoy either the physical or digital world. Bad website design would plague us. Our lives would be poorer without music or fiction. The subsequent questions that followed, however, started to split us. They went:

  • How much would you pay for a work of art? How would you decide how much to pay, in broad terms? (E.g. a standalone item such as concert/book or an item with artist consultation such as a pretty website template)
  • If a free source of it was available of a comparable quality (not perfect, e.g. 720p vs 1440p video), would you get the free source at the expense of the paid source?

These questions are particularly pertinent in the face of the current pandemic. In Singapore, restoration of some forms of art (e.g. concerts, jams in bars/clubs) are only expected to return many months later, if they would even return in the form we are used to. The artists who resort to such work as a sole source of income may not be able to wait that long. In such uncertain terms, the question on how artists would survive in a changing economy will be reignited.

To sum up the first point from the artist angle, how much our arts would thrive is dependent on the feasibility of keeping the arts as a livelihood. For instance, if we are willing to pay hundreds of dollars for an American concert, but not a cent for a local artist, we would be collectively poorer in the long run as art with Singaporean flavour begin to decline. There are no straightforward answers to such questions of value and importance, but if we all can agree that the arts have a place in our society, we should rethink about how we can realise the value proposition for the artists to continue being able to produce work that we can enjoy.

It was also interesting, once we extrapolate to the other supposedly “non-essential jobs”, why the reactions were nowhere as vigorous. This deserves a different treatment. Surely the HR manager is important, for the HR manager, as part of his or her work, comprises talent retention and career progression in a large firm. They are part of a machinery that plans for each staff how best to match their skills and abilities to organisational need. Hence, it baffles me why the reaction vis a vis the “artist” classification was so much more vigorous than the other jobs. The second point shall take a stab at this.

What is Essential?

The answer to this question depends on the context and the times we live in. However, context is dependent on perception. Let me paint a scenario to explain this:

“There were several things that we were always thinking about — to be always on the alert, because death was around the corner at any moment, and hunger, constant hunger, where to find food.”

Freida Raisin, who was 8 at the time of World War II that ravaged Belarus. Source:

If you had asked such a wartime survivor what were “essential” jobs during those times, the focus of the question naturally lends itself to, “Whatever that would allow her to find food, refuge and peace from conflict.” The food ration provider, the soldier and the engineer that went around fixing broken infrastructure would rank as essential. If you had flipped the question around on what was “non-essential”, it would necessarily be implied that these would refer to jobs that did not directly contribute to that aim.

The exact same line of reasoning probably applied to the Straits Times article. In this case, the context on what was essential was probably, “Whatever could get us past the COVID-19 crisis.” Hence it was natural that healthcare professionals rank top, followed by hygiene-related work (cleaners), followed by those that maintained essential infrastructure (food through hawkers and deliverymen, and sanitary matters through garbage collectors). There are others that maintain essential infrastructure, but their comparatively lower visibility from laypersons would not result in them ranking higher, be it network engineers maintaining Internet infrastructure or production line engineers who made sure personal protective equipment (PPE) lines kept running. Hence, when the question was then flipped on itself, any job that did not fulfil any primary crisis role would be “non-essential”. Technically the argument is logical. Emotionally, such logic would never go down well, especially with industries containing the most expressive people.

Perhaps the survey of jobs to select as “most essential” and “least essential” was set as multiple choice, forcing people to perform ranking choices so they could not answer, “All jobs are essential.” Would that have validated why the results looked the way they were? That would be beyond this blog post, but is food for thought.

To put yourself in the same conundrum with the word “essential”, let me post a thought question as such.

Suppose you were in a decision-making polity such as the Government. Currently, there exists a crisis whereby you can only activate 30% of the total workforce to be able to report to a physical site to work. Select a crisis of your choice (e.g. health, war, famine), impose the restriction in the thought question, and debate with yourself how you would select three out of ten people.

The Elephant in the Room

For all that the article screenshot was worth, the elephant in the room never quite made it to public discourse strongly. I personally thought this was a pressing topic vis a vis the debate we had over migrant labour. There was an attempt to take a stab at that hot topic with the question:

“If the salaries of a construction worker, cleaner or security guard were to be tripled, would I consider taking any of these jobs?”

Straits Times poll

The responses were roughly divided evenly, which gave some food for thought. This information could be combined with the question above in the top-right hand corner: the jobs that these 1,000 people did not want to do. (57% said they did not want to be a garbage collector, 44% did not want to be a construction worker and 42% did not want to be a cleaner) If the survey was representative, it hints to us that wages are unlikely to be the main driving force behind the reason for low local uptake in these sectors, which also happen to be sectors that contain a high migrant workforce count. We can use this survey to also perish any thought of wage-based arguments to encourage more locals to take on such jobs. But someone has to clean the streets, build our flats and ensure our rubbish is cleared up, which explains our migrant worker reliance today. While we may want to, on one hand, talk about the reduction of reliance of migrant workers, we have to also simultaneously realise that this is not a simple one-for-one “migrant for local” substitution. Discussions on what these industries face in restructuring and solutions for them to lessen their reliance on migrant workers would have to take a sectorial approach. For instance, garbage cleaning could eventually be highly mechanised through pneumatic waste conveyance systems, which would indeed get rid of the foul smells in the neighbourhood associated with the garbage truck, and the drivers of said trucks too. To replace them, there would be fewer but higher-skilled workers involved in constructing these infrastructure, and eventually learning how to maintain such a piece of technology. However, this approach would fail in the security guard sector, where a physical presence is needed, especially at critical perimeters of the building.

Now That We Have Cooled Down

Was the survey perfect? Probably not. But I was glad that this was published, eliciting some responses, because our responses to this survey do indeed let slip some of the inner thoughts we have as a society. My hope is that we go beyond the cursory “memes” of mocking the Straits Times, to have deeper discussions on what it means for us to ridicule the responses from the respondents. What does it say about our attitudes towards different groups of people in our society? We should be cautious of being too loud with our responses, but be exposed paying merely lip service to the popular sentiments of the day without thinking more carefully what said lip service entails.

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