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Co-opting Care under Capitalism

Updated: Jun 29, 2022

Illustration with pink gradient background, showing a person sitting at a desk typing on a computer with a cup of tea, and various items floating around them like a clock with the hands at 8 o’clock, dollar signs, the hashtag #selfcare, a checklist, dumbbells, and a salad bowl with spoon. On the top right is an open window with crescent moon outside, showing that it is nighttime.

“Take care and stay safe” can sometimes feel like an affront, reading these words in front of my laptop on yet another rotation week of “work-from-home” on day hundred-and-something of the global pandemic. It is no fault of the email writer of course, but more of a sense of disjuncture from the word “care” appearing around me. Lifestyle columns list among other tips, “buying a new designer bag” or “finding your zen'' at a yoga studio, while social media’s #selfcare yields inspirational quotes and the occasional gym selfie. Once an act of nourishing one’s holistic well-being, looking after one’s mental and physical health, care has now come to mean navigating through a US$11 billion self-improvement industry. Taking care of oneself has turned into hard work.

Life in Singapore can be quietly structured around work: the familiar motion of snoozing an alarm, the drone of conversation around promotions and prospects, the unceasing daily commutes to and fro, the trying-to-make-ends-meet. These quiet rhythms have been upended by the COVID-19 pandemic and its restrictions. Just as for Arundhati Roy, the pandemic is like an “x-ray” revealing the many faultlines of society, workers in Singapore are beginning to question the values surrounding work: what are the meanings we attach to work and how does work give us meaning in Singapore? In short, the pandemic asks us: why work?

Work has been at the centre of pandemic discussions. From Chan Chun Sing’s recent parliamentary statement that it is “unrealistic” for the work hours of teachers to be capped to a nation-wide debate over what constitutes “essential” jobs, which, unfortunately for art workers, felt like another snub under the country's long history of belittling the arts.

Text says “Top 5 essential jobs”: 1-Doctor/nurse 86%, 2-Cleaner 78%, 3-Garbage collector-77%, 4-Hawker 76%, 5-Deliveryman 70%, with upper body illustrations of each job.
Diagram from Straits Times article on survey of "essential jobs"

Beyond the shambolic exercise of placing jobs on yet another social hierarchy, the list also revealed an utter mismatch of workers seen as “essential” and their treatment. At the top of the much-discussed 2020 survey of “essential” jobs were medical workers, especially nurses, who have pointed out the stress and poor remuneration working in understaffed hospitals under pandemic conditions, or doctors who have little recourse to mental health support. Delivery workers, who risked infection and enabled the rest of the population to “work from home”, were banned from using Personal Mobility Devices (PMDs) before the circuit-breaker and more recently, face the prospect of onerous mandatory CPF contributions.

And while medical and delivery workers have been rightfully recognized as deserving of more remuneration, Singapore’s migrant workers and migrant domestic workers did not even make it onto the list. Migrant workers, many of whom are indispensable to Singapore’s construction industry, have been in lockdown almost two years since April 2020 and displayed “increased symptoms of stress and depression” as a result. In November 2020, a Taskforce was set up to provide mental health support, although this seems like a measure that stops short of going deeper into issues such as the curbing of migrant workers’ autonomy and their precarious labour conditions that long preceded the pandemic. Migrant domestic workers, almost all of them living with their employers, faced more demands on cleaning and care-taking during the pandemic, with some even working up to 21 hours a day. This discussion over “essential” jobs, as well as the segments of workers it excludes, points to a broader crisis of care: who takes care of workers? Who cares for the care-takers?

Crucial to this conversation is the category of “care work”, which has historically been relegated to women and continues to be undervalued as a form of work that deserves proper labour protection and remuneration structures. During the pandemic, “work from home” policies have seen more disproportionate care work foisted onto working women with families, in having to take care of schoolchildren on home-based learning and meet housework expectations–a point made by President Halimah Yacob herself. For more privileged families, these labours are further displaced to already overworked and underpaid domestic workers.

Besides these structural imbalances, the pandemic lays bare the deformed concept of “care” within a society with an uncompromising culture of work. Many visions of self-care remain premised on efficiency gains, where looking after one’s mental and physical health is not seen as a worthy end in itself, but a stepping stone towards more productivity. In other words, workers are expected to take care of themselves to work better. While there is a greater emphasis by the Singapore government over work-life balance, it is often done out of economic instrumentality. For instance, Minister of State Gan Siow Huang recently spoke about the importance of supporting worker well-being, but also added that “employees need to demonstrate that progressive workplace practices help to improve staff morale, productivity and loyalty.” Dr Yaacob Ibrahim noted that with a work-life balance strategy, “the average return was $1.68 per dollar spent.” For the same reason, many self-care guides recommended establishing a routine.

Starting a schedule, time-management tools, and time-saving tips have become part of a work culture that has oriented from following strict working hours to task-orientation. This means less of spending “a fixed amount of time on work, but to spend as much time [as needed] to complete the task at hand.” Beyond the 44 hours cap per week under the Employment Act, some surveyed office workers can work up to 55 hours a week—a figure that probably does not include replying to work emails at home or thinking about the next project. Coupled with online work arrangements, it is little wonder that time seems to melt into an undifferentiated blob during the pandemic.

During the Industrial Revolution, the eight-hour work week was the product of organising by labour activists, protesting against the day-to-night work hours under Dickensenian conditions. At the first May Day protests in 1886, workers in Chicago sang: “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, and eight hours for what we will.” The last phrase alludes to the need for space to pursue other goals and desires outside of work, such as organising and activism, but also rest and leisure. True to Marx’s adage that capitalists themselves were “occupied with revolutionising themselves and things,” the leftist invention of the eight-hour work week was later stolen and adapted by large companies like Ford Motors as part of their practice of corporate paternalism, which lead to new factory management principles of industrial time-discipline, better known as Fordism.

In this current “revolution” of neoliberal capitalism, “time-management” now takes over enforced time-discipline, where control over one’s time is internalised by the worker themselves. For instance, even though gig app workers ostensibly have the autonomy to structure their own time, they still have to work long hours in order to earn a living wage. In the ongoing labour dispute between bus drivers and SBS Transit, one bone of contention is whether the company that “requests” (rather than “requires”) drivers to work on rest days contravenes existing labour laws, even though bus captain Mr Chua noted that “he can’t disagree with the request”, believing it will affect his bonus. This echoes with many other workers who feel like they have no other choice but to continually “volunteer” their time to work, even if these hours are not officially tabulated. At the same time, the takeover of mindfulness by the self-care industry represents another extension of capitalism’s tentacles into life beyond work. We are now told to do the impossible: breed a tiny manager in your head and relax, all at the same time.

Screenshot of news article with headline “Request vs require: Bus driver suing SBS Transit says made to work excessive OT, company says his calculations wrong”, and photo of man in navy polo shirt and mask with caption “Mr Chua Qwong Meng contended that SBS Transit had breached the Employment Act”

The fact that hard work, resilience, and grit are enshrining values to the Singapore story does not help reduce the toxicity of local work cultures. These values continue to be persuasive enough to become justifications for the state’s deliberate non-regulation over certain labour practices, such as capping working hours for teachers. Such forms of capitalist labour extraction have roots that trace back to Singapore’s colonial period. Under British colonial rule, values surrounding work have come to be harmfully seen as intrinsic to specific races, giving rise to “the myth of the lazy native” that pathologised the local Malay population’s resistance to wage work as “laziness”. On the other hand, Chinese and Indian migrants were seen as more cooperative (and yet unworthy of trust), without considering the indenture conditions that produced this work-discipline in the first place.

Caring for ourselves is inseparable from what work has come to mean to us. Care cannot be a mere balm that helps produce shinier, more productive workers. The immense popularity of “Lie Flat” antiwork memes circulating in Mainland Chinese cyberspace, now banned by the Chinese government, attests to a desire for a lives built on less rather than endlessly more, a collective realisation that the dialectic between care and work cannot be resolved through more work. This echoes with “The Great Resignation” of workers in the US, many of whom are not solely unable to work due to the pandemic, but made the decision to not work in an environment that would compromise on their well-being. This should be a signal for workers in Singapore to re-examine our ideas of work, ask if its demands on your entire being are justified, and reclaim your right to be lazy. Crises in Singapore and around the world– including the climate crises– are revealing hairline fissures in the promises of work, and we should care enough to further its shattering.


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