It is no secret that Singapore is a fast-paced society, with Singaporeans striving to get ahead of one another. Children as young as three years old are scheduled back-to-back “enrichment” activities. Adults evidently do not fare any better, with people in Singapore found to sleep the least and working among the longest hours in the world.
Not only does working longer hours result in less leisure time, but Singapore’s prosperity has also compelled people to maximise the utility of their leisure time, resulting in a “harried leisure class”. Maintaining this frantic pace of life not only exerts a toll on Singaporeans’ physical and mental well-being, but also has broader social and economic ramifications.
Singapore’s attempt at being productive has led to Singaporeans having one of the longest work weeks in the world. Long working hours might have made sense in a manufacturing economy where the value of output produced by each worker is limited by the speed of production; and where each worker needs to be physically present to perform his or her tasks.
In contrast, today’s knowledge work transcends the boundaries of space and time. One could gain insights from a casual conversation with a colleague from another industry, draw inspiration from how nature solves complex problems during a trail run, or discover a creative way to resolve a workplace dispute in the midst of resolving an argument between kids at the playground.
For knowledge workers, transition periods — times for rest, recuperation, introspection, fostering relationships and developing personal interests — contribute to, rather than detract from, productivity.
Maintaining the routines, work practices and assumptions of a manufacturing economy are detrimental to the quality of knowledge work, and damage Singapore’s transformation into more of a knowledge economy.
Exposing children to this frantic pace can also stymie Singapore’s transformation into a knowledge economy. Filling a child’s schedule with “enrichment” activities, to give him or her an edge in school, reinforces the perception of being trapped in a race. This perception discourages experimentation, discovery and learning from trial and error, in favour of uniform thought processes and reproducing scripted responses.
While uniformity is prized in a manufacturing economy that values a predictable workforce, such traits are less valued in a knowledge economy that deals with complexity, ambiguity and unpredictability.
If this frantic pace in Singaporean children’s lives persists and becomes more pervasive, I am concerned that the nation will have a workforce skilled at performing production work in the knowledge economy, but will still lack visionaries, creative thinkers and collaborators — the main drivers of a knowledge economy.
Resistance to slowing down
Maintaining a simplistically fast pace is clearly unsustainable for Singaporeans. Yet, the idea of slowing down will raise eyebrows. Such a reaction is expected; the virtues of speed are embedded in Singaporeans’ national consciousness, as evident from the narrative of Singapore’s successful transformation from a sleepy fishing village to a modern metropolis.
The belief is that speed allows for economic and social advancement, while slowness threatens Singapore’s sovereignty, especially given the nation’s size and scarce natural resources.
While a slow pace of life might translate into slower economic growth in manufacturing economies, this change is needed to be successful in a knowledge economy. For Singapore to be competitive and “fast” in a knowledge economy, Singaporeans will need to slow down their pace of life.
This paradoxical idea — of the parts in a system moving at a different pace from the system itself — is evident in competitive swimming. The next time you watch a race, pay attention to the tempo of the swimmer’s limbs in relation to the speed of the body’s movement through the water. You will notice that the fastest swimmers are not the ones with the quickest tempo, but the ones who cover the most distance per stroke.
Being efficient conserves energy, allowing the swimmer to finish the race strongly. In the final lap of the race, the synchrony between the tempo of the limbs and the body’s movement through the water will be evident for the fastest swimmer, while the slower swimmers can be seen flailing their arms and making big splashes with little forward movement.
Similarly, one would have to be mindful that a packed, frenetic lifestyle is not mistaken for being productive in a knowledge economy.
Productive slowing down
While Singapore has been focused on building capabilities and a culture around speed, I see the next big challenge for Singaporeans as grappling with productive slowing down in order to thrive as a knowledge economy.
What does it mean to productively slow down? I shall discuss this idea in the context of people’s mindsets and work routines. Productive slowing down entails a shift in mindset from a competitive orientation to an artistic one.
With a competitive orientation, life events are perceived as a race that creates winners and losers. These “races” are zero-sum games in which a single champion prevails and is distinguished from the rest of the pack.
In contrast, with an artistic orientation, life events are perceived as opportunities for expression and discovery. Instead of focusing on winning, an artistic orientation focuses on the authenticity of expression.
In an examination, these orientations manifest as the difference between an emphasis on scoring the highest versus an emphasis on applying one’s best effort to prepare for the exam.
In the choice of occupation, a competitive orientation influences one to make decisions based on external rewards such as pay, whereas decisions influenced by an artistic orientation place greater emphasis on fulfilment and other forms of intrinsic reward.
Adopting an artistic orientation allows people to slow down by reducing the compulsion to pack their schedules with “strategic” activities that are purported to give them an edge over the competition. Instead, activities are fuelled by one’s interests and natural curiosity, and completed at his or her pace.
Thus, the difference between competitive and artistic orientations lies not in productivity, but in the source of motivation.
Productive slowing down also involves creatively reconfiguring work routines to protect transition periods. Singaporeans’ strong work ethic has led them to prioritise production goals over temporal boundaries.
These priorities have led to longer hours at work at the expense of transition periods. Productive slowing down involves protecting these periods from “work time”.
To be clear, I am not advocating for reduced workloads, but for reconfiguring the flow and allocation of work to protect these transition periods that are vital to performing knowledge work.