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Gen Y Speaks: What I learned as a cleaner for a week is more relevant now than ever

I am a consultant with a global consulting firm, a co-founder of a technology firm in Singapore as well as an adjunct faculty member who lectures part-time in universities here. Growing up, my parents taught me that no one owed me a living and that I should earn my own keep.

The author took up a week-long job as a floor cleaner in 2014 when he was an undergraduate at NTU, where he subsequently obtained his PhD.

The author took up a week-long job as a floor cleaner in 2014 when he was an undergraduate at NTU, where he subsequently obtained his PhD.

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I am a consultant with a global consulting firm, a co-founder of a technology firm in Singapore as well as an adjunct faculty member who lectures part-time in universities here.

Growing up, my parents taught me that no one owed me a living and that I should earn my own keep.

Starting at the age of 16, I worked various part-time jobs to be self-sufficient. I have worked as a waiter, an usher, a flyer distributor and a retail assistant, selling my fair share of clothes and toys.

I stopped receiving pocket money from my parents upon entering National Service and have been giving them 20 per cent of my salary.

I have learnt valuable lessons from these jobs. In particular, I had the opportunity to work as a floor cleaner for a week and it taught me a valuable life lesson that I hold close to my heart.

That was in 2014 during the first summer break of my undergraduate studies at Nanyang Technological University, and I had about a week of spare time on hand.

I wanted to make the most of it, so I cold called several cleaning companies to inquire if they had vacancies available for a part-time job.

I had never been a cleaner before but wanted to try it out.

I got a positive response on my third call. The company had a position to sweep and clean the floors for a community event held at the open space area at Toa Payoh Hub.

I was the only floor cleaner for the event as the event space was not huge, and I worked for about eight hours a day.

Over the short one week, two incidents left a deep impression on me.

The first involved a group of ushers at the event.

In the late afternoon, when the crowd was thin, the ushers would usually stand in a circle to  chat. Being of around the same age, I tried to make friends with them by joining in the conversation. 

But immediately after I stood in the circle, a few of them gave me a puzzling look and walked away. The circle dispersed shortly after.

This was shocking as I am usually able to warm up quickly to people. But this time around I found it challenging to do so — they dispersed before I had the chance to speak.

The second incident involved a children’s art booth at the event, where kids could work on some art pieces for free.

As I was sweeping the floor in the art booth area, I heard a woman whisper to her daughter: “Ah Girl ah, if you always spend time on these things, you’ll end up sweeping the floor like that Kor Kor (big brother, or me).”

I am sure many of us have heard our parents or seniors make similar statements.

But being on the receiving end of one made me wonder why we are quick to pass judgement on certain professions or individuals.

I have always believed that people should not be defined by their qualifications or occupation, but by who they are and how they behave.

Yet there are still professions in our society that are being judged and ostracised, such as floor cleaners.

Even in my other part-time work, I was sometimes treated with less respect because of the nature of my job.

When I was a retail assistant selling toys, I once asked a customer who jumped the queue to join the line, but she yelled at me and asked me to mind my own business.

The author on a trekking trip to Sapa, Vietnam, in June 2019. Photo courtesy of Goh Jing Rong

These incidents have taught me the importance of empathy, especially for those working in occupations commonly frowned upon.

It is unlikely that we would understand what some of them are going through, much less their life story and the difficulties that they are facing. But it would help for us not to pass judgement prematurely.

More importantly, we should always try to help one another if we are able to.

Recently, with the disruptions brought about by Covid-19, there are more families than ever who may be falling through the cracks.

In response, I started a social enterprise in order to reach out to and help as many families in need as possible. It is a simple platform (www.consideraid.com) that connects those who need help to those who can help.

I firmly believe that if our society is more empathetic towards those in need of aid and is more willing to help others, Singapore would be a much happier and more gracious society.

Another thing I learnt from my various part-time jobs is that customers tend not to acknowledge nor appreciate the work that was done.

This made me realise the importance of being thankful and appreciative.

These days, I always try to say a simple “thank you” to service staff or blue-collar workers whom I meet, looking into their eyes while doing so whenever possible.

If the person wears a nametag, I will try to catch his or her name and thank the person by name as well. Sometimes they do not react or they will give you a weird look, but more often than not it actually puts a smile on their face. I recommend everyone to try it.

Coming back to my experience as a floor cleaner, it was not negative. At the end of my stint, I did manage to make a couple of new friends among the ushers.

Although this experience happened years back, I am sharing it now because I feel that in light of the disruptions brought about by Covid-19, the need for empathy in our society is higher than ever. 

I believe that being more empathetic towards those around us can help forge a happier community and a more robust economy. We are stronger together.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Goh Jing Rong, 28, holds a PhD in actuarial science, banking and finance from Nanyang Technological University (NTU). He is a consultant at Risk Lighthouse, a global consulting firm; co-founder of Anapi, a business insurance software platform; and is an adjunct faculty member who lectures part-time at Singapore Management University and NTU.

Related topics

work empathy career community volunteerism

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