Do you like your job?

When I first found out that H was an electrician, my brain did a double take.

Woah, was my first thought.

Don't show it, was the second. It'll be rude to act surprised.

Instead, I smiled, nodded and behaved as if being an electrician was the most natural occupation in the world.

How interesting, I ventured a while later, then retreated. I pointedly ignored the topic for the rest of our lunch even though I was bursting with questions.

That was four years ago.

Since then, we've discussed it numerous times - and have had a good laugh at my initial reaction.

It's not an unexpected response, I think, at least in Singapore.

No offence to electricians (I'm married to one anyway), but most children here don't grow up wanting to be tradesmen.

So, when I heard that H - whom I'd known in school - had chosen a job that was so different from all our other JC friends (bankers, lawyers, doctors, pilots, businessmen, managers), I was shocked.

I was also intrigued. What made him go into it? What did he do every day? Change lightbulbs? What sort of tools did he use? Was it dangerous to be working around electricity? Did he hate it? Surely a person can't enjoy being an electrician, or can he?

I later found out that being an electrician wasn't the only thing he did in Britain, where he had settled.

He'd worked at the Singapore Sports Council after he finished university, then when he migrated to Britain in the mid-1990s, he got teaching qualifications and taught in schools. He also gave tennis and chess lessons and bought, renovated and sold houses.

But teachers aren't particularly well paid in Britain and earn less than what electricians can make.

So around 2005, he got qualifications to become an electrician. He registered a company, bought a huge Ford Transit van, stencilled his company name on it, and was in business.

One to two days' work doing more complicated stuff like re-wiring homes gave him the equivalent of one month's teacher's pay. To balance days when there were no jobs (or "callouts" as they say in the trade), he taught chess in several schools.

But it wasn't just about the money.

Being self-employed gave him lots of free time to do the things he liked, such as going to the gym, playing tennis, taking part in chess and poker tournaments and setting off on long motorbike rides.

Weren't you shy about being an electrician, I asked, much later.

He wasn't, he said, but added that his mother - who wanted him to be a doctor - was probably turning in her grave.

It was weird going into other people's homes, but also interesting, he said. He got to see how different people live. He visited homes that were filthy beyond imagination. There was a couple who refused to pay up because they were going through a nasty divorce and the harried husband claimed he had no money.

He remembers a callout to a family with a disabled son, who was 42 and had to be fed, washed and clothed by others, and could only open his mouth. He still feels guilty that he might have charged the family a bit too much, but then it was the going rate.

The work itself was easy enough and sometimes engaging, like when he had to figure out the cause of a complicated electrical fault in a building.

There was some job satisfaction. When I visited him in Britain, he showed me a small castle-turned-hotel which he'd re-wired all by himself. I was impressed.

The job wasn't without its risks. In 2009, he fell from a ladder while wiring an office. His right hand was caught on a metal ledge and the tendons of three fingers were severed. Blood gushed everywhere. He bandaged his hand, drove himself to hospital (in his heavy van) and had to be operated on.

He couldn't work for a few months so came to Singapore to visit his family. We reconnected and got married a year later - so I remain ever grateful he was an electrician.

When he came back here, he had to get a job. Becoming an electrician was an option but I gave him a long list of reasons why it wasn't a good idea. Unlike in Britain, it pays poorly; it's too dangerous especially at his age; it's really hot here and you'd be sweating; you have to start your own business and cope with the overheads.

He listened to me, and went back to teaching instead.

I got to thinking about H's time as an electrician because of events in my office last week.

The yearly job performance appraisal exercise is on, and some of us spent several days huddled in meeting rooms. We went through the work of every employee in the newsroom and rated and ranked them. Those who did well will get promoted, others will be held back.

It's a very structured rewards system and something we take seriously because people's livelihoods are at stake. Your appraisal determines to a large degree the sort of salary letter you get in January.

In the earlier years of my working life, I'd be in a funk whenever I got a poor salary letter. I'd make myself even unhappier by comparing how much more others got.

I've since come to realise that monetary reward is just one factor that determines whether you like your job or not. The nature of the work - whether it interests and engages you - matters a lot. So do the environment you work in, how far your office is from your home, and your colleagues.

Since meeting H, I've also realised that your attitude to your job ultimately has to do with yourself.

If you're the sort who finds fault in everything, even the most prestigious job title, generous salary letter and grand office will never satisfy you.

When we're out on weekends and we see foreign workers on lorries, I always say how sorry I feel for them and how they must be hating their jobs.

Not necessarily, H tells me. How do you know they don't like manual work, or aren't enjoying the wind on their faces as they travel at the back of the lorry?

I suppose he should know.

I was imposing my own view of what a "good" job is onto others.

I just hope I wasn't wrong in persuading him to give up his old life as an electrician.

sumiko@sph.com.sg

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