What do you do?

This is an interesting question and I never realised there are such various nuances when asked in different countries of different cultures.

Ask any Singaporean here as the first question when you meet each other, be it at a cocktail party or a networking event or even just a friend’s birthday party, the response you get — “Oh I work at XXX as a YYY”. For sure.

And I never knew there was any issue with it. Isn’t that what the person asking was looking for?


Turns out if you ask this question to a non-Asian, they start sharing with you about their lives, their hobbies/interests (things they do at their own free time). For example, “Oh I paint”, “I create things out of wood”, “I write a lot”.

Until someone came and told me what they noticed through a different cultural lens would I not have realised this.

It’s interesting.

I started wondering why.

I realised that it’s the way we (Singaporeans, or in fact perhaps most Asians) are being brought up, the socio-economic environment that has framed our minds to believe that ‘Who we are’ = ‘What we do’ = ‘Our job’.

You see, if you look at the lives of any Singaporean (around the age of 25 to 35), they get so caught up in life, either they are slogging till late at work everyday, or they just want to go home and spend time with their family. Any bonus hours go to themselves for some pampering time, because well, they deserve every bit of it after working so hard for all the commitments they have.

Where’s the time to invest in a hobby? Is there any need to? What’s the value of it?

(I’m not saying Singaporeans do not have a hobby/pastime, I’m pretty sure they do, but this is about their priorities and how they have framed their lives).

If you look at our education, it’s focused on academic results that define how good you are. It quantifies your value with grades.

“It’s either you make it or you don’t”.

I will never forget this famous comedy film, back in 2002, from a local director, Jack Neo, called ‘I Not Stupid”, featuring local students aged 15 to 18 and their struggles in life and in education. And one quote that stuck with most Singaporeans was this term of “ITE = It’s The End”. (ITE, Institute of Technical Education, is a public educational institution that focuses on training vocational skills to prepare students for a direct workforce after). We all laugh watching it, but we know, deep inside, it’s not that funny..

(But I believe this is slowly shifting as Singapore is investing more towards Arts & Culture)

Back to “What do you do?”, when I asked this among my friends, some of them find no issues being defined by their jobs, instead of a unique identity, something quirky about them, something they stand for, something they just do, regardless of any judgement, that makes people remember them who they are.

Which I believe most people do have them, it’s whether they notice it, value it and invest in it.

I hope that while we, Singaporeans, work hard for ourselves and our family, to be able to step out, smell the roses, learn to create and let their identities grow as an individual.

Embrace themselves as authentic, imperfect individuals.
In Advertising, we are constantly helping brands build their own identity, essence and personality. Beyond the functional attributes. We often talk about people not buying your product for what it offers but what your brand stands for. (The “WHY” — quoting Simon Sinek).

So, what do you stand for?

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