COMMENT: Don’t let Singapore control your work-life balance

Leaving the island for a de-stress quick-fix isn’t always the answer

Young woman sitting on the top of mountain enjoying the panoramic view of spectacular city skyline
PHOTO: Getty Images

AMERICANS have Florida. The Brits have the Spanish coast and Singaporeans have Australia. Our escape from the rat race. A utopia promising the perfect WORK-LIFE balance, in big, bold capital letters.

And I should know. In 2006, I quit Singapore for Australia to achieve a better work-life balance, just like celebrity couple Edwin Goh and Rachel Wan, who recently announced their move to Sydney to escape the sweaty, torturous grind of our city-state, as if five million of us are shovelling coal into the bowels of the Titanic every day.

But I once agreed with Goh and Wan. I bought into the tranquillity of suburbia. I even had a white picket fence (actually it was more of an eggshell colour, largely painted by my heavily-pregnant wife. She still complains about that, but gender equality matters.)

Lazy Sunday afternoons were spent maintaining our peaceful Aussie garden and widening our vowel sounds.

In fact, I’ll never forget a long day spent weeding the cracks of my driveway with nothing but my bare hands. The concrete removed the skin on every one of my bloody knuckles, but there was not a weed left standing in any of my cracks.

I stood back to take in my afternoon’s productivity and complemented myself on a job well done. And then I thought, “Sod this, I’m going back to Singapore."

No one's work-life balance is going to match

Everyone is different. For some, a work-life balance is more of a work-work balance, as the joys of life come from being constantly pushed to solve problems and create something new and original. For others, there’s a clearer distinction between the two. Go hard in the office, then go easy at the beach resort. And then there are those who believe a work-life balance must involve beanbags, whale music and a dimly-lit office filled with Gwyneth Paltrow’s vagina candles.

The point is, your work-life balance is never going to match mine, and nor should it. If the will of the individual is greater than the will of the many, then one’s choices should not necessarily be determined by geography. In other words, it might be a tad simplistic to blame Singapore for a lopsided work-life balance.

At this juncture, I’ll pause for the outraged angst. I get it. We’re all sleep-deprived sardines squeezed into packed trains and ever-shrinking homes, working longer hours for diminishing returns and constantly upgrading our skills to face the challenges of AI, in a city that’s getting busier, faster and hotter and will eventually sink beneath those waves of melted ice sheets.

And, worst of all, a cup of teh-c is more expensive than ever.

If the average metropolis is a rat race, then Singapore is the rodent Olympics. We’re all scampering round that wheel, perhaps indefinitely, unable to stop the cycle.

But who’s fault is that really? Gen Z is arguably most threatened by the economic and existential challenges highlighted above and yet, according to a recent Yahoo story, Zoomers are the most willing to step away. They prioritise mental health, self-care and inclusive workplaces that celebrate diversity. They are looking beyond the pay cheque towards work with purpose, work that aligns more closely with their personal values. It’s wonderful.

It’s not just Gen Z either. In June, a Randstad survey showed that over 40 per cent of Singaporeans will quit jobs for a better work-life balance and 79 per cent of respondents believed that non-monetary benefits were important. More people are essentially saying, ‘it’s not you, Singapore, it’s me.’ The old relationship isn’t enough. There’s a yearning for something more. The pandemic teased us with a glimpse of a simple life beyond the daily grind, even in Singapore.

Don't let where you live control your life

And that’s the point. My lifestyle barely changed through the pandemic. Simplicity defines my routine. I get up, eat, write, cycle and sleep. It’s an inexpensive existence, which helps to support an erratic career choice. But I’m content with that choice, because it was my own, consciously dropping out of the rat race almost 20 years ago to boost my mental health. I addressed my work-life balance, not in Australia, but in Singapore, combining a city’s frenetic pace and opportunities with a relaxed, almost reclusive, lifestyle that suits me.

Was it as easy as it sounds? No, it was bloody difficult, having to deal with those cultural pressures that torment us all. At the risk of outrageous stereotyping, when folks over 40 learn what I do for a living, they invariably ask, “Can make money ah?”

But Zoomers are generally more empathetic towards the professional risks that come with taking a road less travelled, which makes sense considering the surveys that show younger respondents are increasingly putting mental health before wealth.

It’s still easier said than done though. There have been occasions when well-meaning strangers have confused “being a full-time writer” with “being terminally ill”, giving me a tilt of the head and a sympathetic sigh whilst they hurry through some mental arithmetic to work out how long I’ve got left (i.e. until I need to get a “proper” job.)

Singapore certainly doesn’t make it easy to put personal needs and desires ahead of the cultural pressures to push harder and stride further, but escaping to Australia will not necessarily fix things either. Some will thrive Down Under and elsewhere. Others need the adrenaline of life in Singapore’s fast lane. And a few believe that they can have their cake and eat it, i.e. live in a 24-hour city but maintain a slower pace that suits one’s internal clock (that would be me).

None of them are wrong.

Working for an MNC, running a start-up, going part-time, moving to a new country, or writing columns that maintain a disturbing obsession with Gwyneth Paltrow’s candles are all valid pursuits as long as they are our pursuits, rather than those laid down by others.

Singapore shouldn’t control our professional and personal lives, just as Sydney shouldn’t dictate Edwin Goh and Rachel Wan’s lifestyle options (though they really should invest in a decent weed killer.)

Self-care comes first, in any country. An improved work-life balance can be found overseas, sure, but it doesn’t really need to be determined by a passport stamp. It comes from within.

An improved work-life balance can be found overseas, sure, but it doesn’t really need to be determined by a passport stamp. It comes from within.

Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 28 books.

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