In 1990, my grandmother took me job hunting. She was 55 years old, had no education and was desperate to look for a job. We went to Chinatown in Singapore. It was a stifling afternoon and we started at Chinese restaurants, asking door to door whether positions were available. The adult conversations were boring for a 5-year-olds, but just being out in Chinatown was much better than staying at home. After many hours of rejections, finally we ended up at a Korean restaurant where she finally found a job as a dishwasher.
From that day onwards, she worked 12-hour days, washing and scrubbing heavily burnt Korean hot plates. She was earning about S$12 dollars a day, and often complained how heavy they were. Yet, nothing fazed her. She had lived a tough life, having worked as a seamstress, nanny, housekeeper when she was younger. But at age 55, the job seemed to be robbing her of her strength. I saw her grow weaker with time. Soon after, she was diagnosed with lung cancer. She passed away a few years later.
She had never been out of Singapore, not even for an overseas vacation. For her, Singapore was the story of her entire life – the whole 600 square kms before land reclamation. I have now lived a quarter of my life overseas and, as a millenial, I couldn’t have lived more different from her.
More recently, I lived in a small town in the Philippine countryside where life resembled Singapore in the 1960s. It was fascinating to see families queue for ice-cream outside the first 7-11 store in the city . Because of my ongoing work in education in the countryside, I get to talk to many young people whose families live on S$3 a day. I have known mothers who leave their children behind for their entire childhood to find work abroad. I have known of fathers who work 3 jobs, labourer, farmer and a tricycle driver, just to make ends meet.
The thread linking these mothers, fathers and my own grandmother is not that they can’t get a job – around the world there are millions of jobs at retail stores, restaurants, and hotels. But most of them offer low pay, few benefits and no pathways to increase income. We see this problem daily in Singapore; elderly working low pay jobs as cleaners in hawker centers and food centers.
If my grandmother were still alive today, she would probably be stuck in a low-wage job or would have been made redundant. One would also find many domestic helpers who have called Singapore their home and workplace for the last 10 years without much career progression. When they eventually return home, they inadvertently return to poverty.
It is true that a job is better than none. However, bad jobs are one of the reasons of the startling income inequality we see in the world. According to the International Labour Organization, despite low unemployment, Singapore has one of the highest income disparities among developed countries, measured by wage disparity between those in the 90th percentile and 10th percentile of the wage distribution. Perhaps the goal for us is not merely to ensure that low-income individuals have jobs , but to have good jobs which fulfill both basic and higher needs. Needs that we must have today to thrive, like personal growth, purpose, achievement and recognition.
People are afraid of automation and artificial intelligence taking away jobs. However, many also forget that before the invention of the washing machine, many grandmothers of the past, including mine, spent countless hours handwashing clothes for the whole family. Today, the hours spent on washing clothes could be used by relaxing with the family, earning extra income and, most importantly, learning. I believe that good jobs can be created with technology, and with companies who realize that treating employees as mere digits and not human beings is not sustainable. In a world today, the heart of business disruption is more than just technology, it is maximizing human potential.
This is why I do what I do. A few years ago, together with my co-founders, we started a business to upskill low income, frontline workers so that they can achieve better lives. By deconstructing key skills that employers need, we are able to empower workers to break through self-limiting beliefs and help them attain today’s most important digital and socio-emotional skills. This learning experience is what employers say is creating talents who are not only high performers, but also purpose-driven.
I am sure my grandmother was a lady of many talents, just like many people I get to meet today. But I didn’t get to know her much, and the world she grew up in didn’t allow her talents to flourish. According to my mother, Grandma was very talented in cooking Hakka food, dumplings and suanpanzi (abacus seeds). She was also a great nanny; the children whom she looked after can’t forget her, whether or not they were related to her. I imagined that she would have been a really talented teacher. She regularly hugged each of her grandkids before weleft the house. In the short 10 years that we spent together, she profoundly changed how I see life and is a huge inspiration to what I am doing now. She taught me kindness, resilience and quiet strength to fight for a better life for others.
Richard Bach wrote, “You are never given a wish without also being given the power to make it true.” My wish is a world where little boys and little girls will not have to see their grandmothers suffer to make a decent living. This is a world that I believe in, and that I believe we all have the power to realise.
Zhihan is the Co-founder and Group CEO of BagoSphere. He worked at a medical-tech start-up in Stockholm before venturing into rural India to work with a rural IT outsourcing social enterprise. He graduated from the National University of Singapore’s Engineering Science Program and studied entrepreneurship at the Stockholm School of Entrepreneurship & The Royal Institute of Technology (KTH). He was a Singapore Ambassador for the Sandbox Network – the leading global network of innovators under 30, and a 2016 Global Good Fund Fellow. For his work at BagoSphere, he was named as an Ashoka Fellow in 2018, the world’s largest, most prestigious network of social innovators.