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"Beggars can’t be choosers", and the creation of a toxic work culture

Kirsten Han
Kirsten Han
9 min read
"Beggars can’t be choosers", and the creation of a toxic work culture

This week’s special issue focuses on employers, employment practices, and ideas about power and entitlement. I was prompted to write about this because of a post that went viral on Facebook (what else), so I’ll first be catching you up before delving deeper into the issue.

A reminder that this weekend’s round-up will hit your inboxes a day late, because I’m taking a break from 3–5 September! 🥳 Then it’s right back to reporting and writing again — I’ve already got stuff to work on lined up.

If you haven’t been on Facebook recently…

Over the past week, an employer by the name of Delane Lim attracted attention on Facebook for a post in which he detailed his experience with seven anonymous Singaporean job applicants. The applicants had made a range of requests, from not working on weekends to transport allowances to increased salaries.

“Hello.... now is economic crisis and pandemic…” he wrote. “I felt I was being interviewed as a [sic] employer not doing my job to interview potential employees”.

“There are jobs available and there are talents for sure,” he added. “But these young talents are not hungry for a job. Many are not willing to be humble and not willing to suffer. They prefer to work smart than hard unlike our older generation.”

Lots of people agreed with him, but there were also detractors. It being the Internet, it didn’t take long for people to unearth other things about Delane Lim and his enterprises.

Someone pointed out that one of his company websites, Agape Group Holdings, published a PDF list of trainers they’ve debarred, listing their names and partial NRIC numbers. (I’m not linking to this page so as not to amplify the doxxing of former employees, but you can check out the screencap below.)

Among the infractions listed against some of these debarred trainers is smoking, because “Agape has always pledged to be a Tobacco Free Learning Organisation, thus such actions are not acceptabe [sic] in the education training industry”. It’s unclear if it means the individual was caught smoking during an Agape training session or in the workplace, or if the termination was simply for being a smoker. (If it’s the latter, surely it shouldn’t have been any of the employer’s business if the employee was smoking during breaks and outside of work?)

Lim, winner of the Executive of the Year for Education award at the 2019 SBR Management Excellence Awards, was also reported to have sent an email and text messages to his employees in June that made it look as if they were getting retrenched (they weren’t really), so as to use it as an “experiential exercise” to teach his team empathy and keep them “humble and grateful for what we have”. (What the hell?)

The point that Lim was trying to make in his Facebook posts — not just the one about the seven job applicants, but also an earlier one in which he said he was “disappointed” with young Singaporeans because none of those he interviewed were “hungry for a job” — is that young Singaporeans today are too entitled to be willing to “suffer” and put in the work, which is why small and medium enterprises (SMEs) might end up hiring non-Singaporeans; they can’t afford to offer the terms and perks that young Singaporeans have come to expect.

He’s in the spotlight now, and says he is now a victim of doxxing (don’t do this, people), because of his Facebook post, but Lim isn’t the only employer to have said this about young Singaporeans, nor is he going to be the last. This issue is therefore not actually about Delane Lim, but about the broader power dynamics at play, and how it feeds into our society.

Learning not to self-pwn

Employers have power. In the capitalist societies we live in, we need money, which most of us (unless we’re already fabulously wealthy, sitting on a huge inheritance, engaged in crime, or all of the above) get from our jobs. As the ones who offer these jobs, employers therefore have quite a lot of power over a worker’s ability to survive and function. An employer/employee relationship is fundamentally unequal because of this.

But this relationship turns especially toxic when this power is equated to the right to control and make demands without being questioned or criticised. This mindset doesn’t just have to be held by employers — workers can internalise such beliefs too.

I used to think like this, when I was just starting out as a freelancer; I think it was part of a deep sense of hierarchy and fear of authority. I used to think that, as an employee, I should do whatever I was asked and never “talk back”, lest I was seen as troublesome or lazy or greedy, then sacked or rejected.

This, coupled with greenhorn ignorance about market rates and industry practices, led to a lot of underselling myself and undercharging for the work that I was doing. I would quote rates that were far too low because I was afraid of asking too much (lest I turned out not to be worth it, or the employer got put off), or accept lowball rates because I didn’t dare to ask for more in case I was seen as being too pushy. I wanted to demonstrate the virtues that I was told were the hallmarks of a good worker: to show that I was hardworking, diligent, and that it “wasn’t just about the money” because I also had passion, which may or may not be “the X factor” that everyone always seems to be looking for.

Over time it became clear that this sort of attitude was not only unsustainable, but actively harmful to myself and others. It was hurting me financially, as well as physically and mentally, because I was doing a ton of work but not earning very much for it, and therefore often exhausted and stressed out. It was hurting others, too; even though it wasn’t my intention and I wasn’t even aware that I was doing it, I was undercutting other freelancers and workers in my industry, making it worse for everyone overall.

You can’t pay bills with passion

Every freelancer — especially those in journalism, the arts, or other creative industries — can tell you about the bullshit that is “working for exposure”. Some of us have even done it: in my early days of freelancing, I wrote for the Huffington Post, even though they didn’t pay, because I was so wowed by the idea of being in the Huffington Post. (Later, when I visited their New York office as a slightly starstruck baby journalist and saw their staff pantry — which, if I remember rightly, had a popcorn machine — it finally sank in that I’d been conned.)

Talk about being “hungry for work”, “demonstrating passion” or “being humble”, and the willingness to “go above and beyond” or to “suffer” should be delegated to the same Bullshit Basket as “do it for the exposure”. They’re lauded as virtues, but what they actually mean is that workers are expected to accept less-than-ideal conditions just to secure employment (“hungry for work”), work at a level disproportionate to the amount of remuneration given (“demonstrating passion” / “being humble”), and sometimes even do extra or more work for no further compensation at all (“going above and beyond” / “willing to suffer”).

(There might be situations in which workers willingly do this — lots of us in journalism and arts are constantly putting in extra hours and covering tasks that weren’t originally ours because we do love our work and are willing to do whatever it takes to get reports, features, plays, productions, exhibitions, etc. out there — but there’s a difference between a worker voluntarily doing this extra labour, and employers not only taking it for granted, but expecting it.)

Hello, crisis and pandemic doesn’t mean there are no standards

There’s a common proverb I heard growing up: beggars can’t be choosers. It tells us that, if one has a need, one has no right to dictate or try to control how or what fills that need. This is why, as a kid, I wondered why unemployed Singaporeans didn’t just go work as manual labourers construction sites: sure, it would be tough and the conditions punishing, but having some salary must be better than no salary, right? After all, beggars can’t be choosers.

This same mindset can be found within Delane Lim’s expression of frustration over un-hungry millennial job applicants. “Hello.... now is economic crisis and pandemic…” he wrote. Implicit in this statement is the idea that, at a time when people are getting retrenched and jobs are getting harder to find, applicants aren’t in a position to be asking for this or that. Beggars, after all, can’t be choosers.

But everyone has their own metrics by which they make decisions about what they’re willing or able to accept. As a child I wondered why unemployed Singaporeans didn’t seek employment as construction workers; as an adult I’ve learnt that there’s much more to it than “no salary” versus “at least a little bit of salary”. From financial obligations to caregiving responsibilities to mental health to quality of life and personal happiness, everyone has their own circumstances to consider.

The hiring process, then, isn’t an exercise in which an employer sifts and picks his favourites. They’re opportunities for both sides to evaluate one another, and figure out if they can come to a mutually beneficial (or at the very least, agreeable) arrangement. A job applicant making requests or demands at this point isn’t being entitled or demonstrating a lack of “hunger” — they’re just negotiating. If an employer isn’t able to meet those demands, or if they think the demands are unreasonable, they can simply say so, and both sides can consider if there’s still enough on the table for them to proceed. If there isn’t, then it’s no big deal: just say “thank you but no thank you” and move on.

I was put off by Delane Lim’s post not because I felt like every request he scoffed at had actually been reasonable, but because he seemed annoyed that applicants had dared to even ask for more than he was initially offering. It read as if he was upset to discover that those he’d taken for “beggars” were actually trying to be choosy.

Bringing up SMEs’ hiring of non-Singaporeans in this context, implicitly arguing that they are “hungrier” than Singaporeans, is very problematic. Because we now know that this “hunger” is just code for a willingness to do more for less, even if that means entering into a potentially exploitative scenario. This isn’t something we should be encouraging: we shouldn’t be pitting worker against worker in this way.

I understand the concern of SMEs that they can’t compete with the terms that larger and more well-resourced MNCs can offer. But that doesn’t mean they have nothing to offer, and not everyone wants to work in an MNC anyway. Perhaps, instead of complaining about job applicants who had the gall to ask for more, employers could review the way they’re selling themselves to prospective employees, and think about what they offer that might be able to offset the more attractive salaries and perks of an MNC.

Breaking out of toxic mindsets

Last but not least, we’ve got recognise that this toxic mindset about power and what “beggars” deserve goes far beyond SME hiring practices — it permeates into multiple other aspects of work and life.

When we think that power equates to right and might, we create poisonous work environments where those with more power are more likely to get away with abusing that power, and those with less are gaslit into thinking that’s just how it is, or that they have no right/power to change things anyway. We create scenarios in which a boss thinks it’s okay to police whether his workers are smokers or not, and to toy with their mental health so he can have a “teachable moment”. We create scenarios where employers of domestic workers feel entitled to confiscate passports, regulate their communications by controlling when they have access to mobile phones or the internet, or invade privacy by setting up surveillance cameras. We put ourselves in situations where, as long as there’s someone who has more power than us in the picture, we see ourselves as disempowered and helpless against their will.

If there are young Singaporeans breaking out of this toxic cycle, we should be glad, rather than annoyed. We don’t have to give in to every request — of course not every request will be justified, reasonable, or righteous — but we shouldn’t stigmatise the acts of knowing one’s worth, asking for better conditions, or trying to negotiate a fairer trade. We shouldn’t be faulting attempts to establish boundaries and even out power relations, because these are precisely the actions that we should all be practising for our own well-being, and the well-being of the people around us.

If you liked this issue or We, The Citizens in general, please feel free to share!

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