One essential nation: Why can't Singapore understand the different worths of its cleaners and artists?

PHOTO: Unsplash

All art, the great Oscar Wilde once said, is quite useless. In a remarkable letter to a young fan, he compared art's uselessness to that of flowers: "A flower blossoms for its own joy. We gain a moment of joy by looking at it… Of course man may sell the flower, and so make it useful to him, but this has nothing to do with the flower."

The uselessness of art, in other words, is precisely its power - the power to vanquish despair; to make life more than monetary calculation and one worth living.

One century on, the uselessness of art and artists is back in the spotlight (not that it was ever really out of it). In a by-now-infamous infographic, The Sunday Times surveyed 1,000 respondents on jobs that were "most crucial in keeping Singapore going".

Doctor, cleaner, garbage collector, hawker, and deliveryman were ranked the "top 5 essential jobs"; indeed, there's no questioning that these are jobs worthy of respect and higher wages, as the accompanying article suggested. What was questionable was the list of "top 5 non-essential jobs" set alongside it.

The number one non-essential career in Singapore, according to the survey? Artists.

Doctor, nurse, cleaner, garbage collector, hawker - these are the jobs that people consider most crucial in keeping Singapore going. Yet, many shun such work themselves: https://str.sg/JPyg

Posted by The Straits Times on Saturday, June 13, 2020

While the article makes little effort to define 'essential' and 'non-essential', its ranking system - pitting one against the other, school exam-style - makes clear that 'non-essential' is a disparaging term.

It's certainly the case that workers on the essential list, like hawkers and cleaners, have been undervalued. Insofar as the article seeks to improve perceptions about such jobs, its heart is in the right place.

Yet, how strange that it can only do so by needlessly positioning other groups of Singaporeans as lesser, be they artists or business consultants.

Are we unable to celebrate one person's value in this society, except by pushing others down the 'essential' bell curve? Are we doomed to some sort of nationwide musical chairs for disreputable jobs - with each parent scrabbling to push their children in the right chairs? Or can we not learn to see that value comes in many forms?

For even as the pandemic has made us aware of these unsung heroes' importance - deliverymen, garbage collectors - so, too, has it sharpened our need for art.

Stuck at home during the lockdown, which of us has not binged a Netflix series or found solace in music? In these dark times, we connect with friends in video games, and stay sane by travelling through a novel.

These marvellous creations are not useful, practically speaking; yet as Kurt Vonnegut once said, they are a "very human way of making life more bearable".

PHOTO: Unsplash 

Given our reliance on art, perhaps the final irony of the Sunday Times' infographic is that the two opposing lists are more similar than they seem.

If we should not continue to take, say, hawkers' skilled labour for granted - enjoying the fruits of their labour while refusing to pay fairly for them - the same can be said of artists.

That is, we cannot happily consume creative content, yet shrug off the pay and recognition due to the artists - as this infographic comes dangerously close to doing.

Both types of work have long borne stigmas of their own in Singapore. Both deserve better from us. At the very least, the humans who take pride in these jobs deserve more compassion than to be lumped wholesale into essential/non-essential dichotomies.

And at the end of the day, that is one more value of art: The ability to teach us empathy, and how there are more complex narratives about worth than this one.

The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

This article was first published in City Nomads