February 2014

It is desirable for Singapore to adopt policies that can lead to a better work-life balance. Discuss.

1st Place - Liew Zhen Hao

I wholeheartedly agree with the assertion that Singapore should adopt policies that can lead to a better work-life balance. In the last few years, Singaporeans have accepted its importance- the government has responded with initiatives to promote work-life harmony. Although it seems like what we are dealing with here is already an acknowledged fact; the drive towards achieving this balance is stagnating. This is evident in mixed signals from the government itself, when PM Lee ominously warned that there are “trade-offs” in achieving this balance. Thus, it is imperative to dispel these fallacious arguments against work-life balance and reiterate its benefits before all the achievements to date are reversed.

 

There is essentially only one argument against an ideal, positive development such as work-life balance, in that the balance could harm economic growth in Singapore by decreasing economic competitiveness. PM Lee mentioned that potential competitors in countries like China are hungry and want to “steal the lunch” of Singaporeans, if Singaporeans were to slacken in pursuit of work-life balance. This appeal to an unrelenting, Darwinist picture of global economic competition is always going to be a slippery slope argument. Efforts to achieve a work-life balance in Singapore will not result in a drastic drop in competitiveness. It is a widely recognized fact that Singaporeans are stressed out, thus the balance will likely increase Singaporeans’ economic productivity by relieving work-related stress. By employing the term ‘balance’, it is clear that the idea is not meant to provide a disincentive for work. It is also important to take note that the developing countries, whose people are lusting for the livelihoods of Singaporeans, are at a different economic level as compared to Singapore, a mature economy. Thus it is important for Singapore to differentiate itself by other means from cheap labor. People may spend less time doing overtime at work because of the implementation of work-life balance. But isn’t it as important that Singaporeans become happier and experience an increased qualitative standard of living, while potentially increasing their economic productivity?

 

The benefits for work-life balance are clear to all and include the relieving of stress and the increase in time for families or leisure. Policies may include extended maternity leaves and paid sick days and more work remains to be done in terms of promoting these policies. Singaporeans still face immense amounts of pressure and stress from work and society and are in need of a better work-life balance. Admittedly, work-life balance may be difficult for everyone to achieve. It is true that it is a personal choice and people may have different conceptions of the balance that will maximize their happiness. For example people with less disposable income may want to earn more and some may derive their identity from work, thus they would prefer to devote more time to work. Nonetheless, policies have to be effected to change the economic environment and allow the choice to be made. In the rat race that Singaporeans still have to contend with, it is definitely easier for people to work more than to work less. This also has implications for the culture and expectations of our society. The overemphasis on consumption, having more and constant competition are what ultimately the society has to address, beyond the immediate goal of adopting policies for better work-life balance.

2nd Place - Justin Wong Yu Quan

Work-life balance is widely understood in Singapore as adopting fewer working hours and having more time for lifestyle activities.

 

Many companies refrain from adopting work-life balance policies since lower labour-hours would result in lower output and lower profits. Hence, the Singapore government could consider adopting policies that lead to better work-life balance.

 

This could be desirable as it prevents companies from overworking their employees and could improve employee satisfaction throughout the economy. With Singapore having some of the longest weekly working hours in the world, more time for lifestyle activities could mean better standards of living in Singapore. It could also lead to more motivated employees and higher efficiency and productivity in the workplace.

 

However, one of the major obstacles in adopting a work-life balance policy is finding a way to implement it. How can one decide what the “right” number of working hours should be? This is highly subjective and varies widely between different industries. Beyond defining the maximum number of working hours per week, a catch-all policy that applies to every employee in Singapore would be extremely hard to draft and implement. Such a policy may also force companies to conform to certain standards that may be counter-productive to their organisational objectives.

 

One such example of this policy being enforced was when it was mandated that teachers in Singapore no longer had to work on Saturdays. While this definitely improved teachers’ job satisfactions, a lot of co-curricular activities such as uniformed groups that used to operate on weekends had to severely cut down on their activities.  There will definitely be losers if such a policy is imposed on everyone. The corollary is that having a work-life balance policy mandated by the government would cause the cessation of many profit-generating activities in the private sector and may cause a reduced aggregate output of the economy.

 

However, the crux of work-life balance should be proper prioritisation between work and lifestyle. Work-life balance should be a personal choice based on one’s priorities in life, and the government should not intervene in this field.