Man at His Best

Screw The Exposure, Show Us The Money

Work for free? Pay to work? What's wrong with Singapore?

BY Neil Humphreys | Dec 13, 2016 | Money & Career

My father is a plumber. After 45 years, he’s a very good plumber, making his negotiations with potential clients wonderfully routine and straightforward.

The kitchen sink leaks. Dad assesses it, calculates the man-hours and the cost of spare parts, and gives an estimate to the client, who invariably agrees before he or she ends up swimming in his or her kitchen.

Dad fixes the leak, client pays, job done.

Plumbing remains a noble profession, particularly when it is the only industry willing to tackle a foul, blocked toilet.

Singapore’s creative industries, on the other hand, are often treated with the kind of contempt usually reserved for a foul, blocked toilet.

Recently, a PR executive contacted me on behalf of a corporate client, who was after an irreverent, jolly column for a festive campaign.

Having cornered the market in irreverent and jolly columns—it’s a small market, it doesn’t pay, we’ll get to that—I was surprised that I had to “pitch” column ideas first.

The pitched ideas proved to be longer than the desired length of the (still unwritten) column. The client returned with the ideas tweaked and asked for revised pitches (for a column shorter than the one you’re reading now.)

A tad miffed at all the hoop jumping, I, nevertheless, complied, mostly because I did not want to make life difficult for the understanding PR girl. The client came back with a further request. Could they see the first six to eight paragraphs of the column before making a final decision?

I dutifully replied, “No, they can piss off.”

There are limits to one’s patience, usually reached when a 41-year-old author is essentially asked to give a lap dance for a corporate suit, desperately hoping that the suit agrees to take me into a back room for a “special service”.

Freelance writing may be the idealistic pursuit of the professional pauper, but that doesn’t mean we’re prostitutes tempting punters with a flash of thigh.

Or maybe we are.

Recent news that the Singapore Management University called on potential vendors to pay the university SGD100 to pitch for a media campaign, essentially contributing untold manhours and handing over intellectual property along the way, surprised no one eking out a living in the creative industries.

Singaporeans have long been expected to work, write, draw and create for free in a competitive, artistic environment. Now, they’re expected to pay for the privilege, too.

Try that shit with any doctor, lawyer, teacher or hawker and see how far you get. Try it with my father and expect more four-letter words than a couple of kindergarten kids playing Scrabble.

Once again, this is the inevitable cultural offshoot of a textbook-oriented, facts-obsessed, literal society unable to grasp, let alone appreciate and quantify, the value of creative thought and intellectual property.

In short, the archaic misperception remains that writing, illustrating and designing are the indulgent scribbles of half-baked artists, folks who “play” for a living, after dropping out of a regimented economy that values “real” jobs like selling insurance, stocks or properties.

Such jobs can be measured. Targets are easily set and boxes ticked. But how do you assess the merits of an idea, judge a design sketch or estimate the economic value of the written word?

Artistic assessment remains a largely alien concept, unlike the obvious concrete blocks of a housing estate, a literal property for a literal mindset to buy and sell. But intellectual property isn’t really tactile. If you can’t see it, you can’t sell it.

Awareness begins in the classroom, where hypocrisy abounds. On more than one occasion, well-intentioned HODs have asked me to give inspirational talks on the benefits of being a full-time writer—for free.

Good luck trying to engage a hedge fund manager for a PowerPoint presentation on “How to Be a Millionaire in Six Minutes” without paying him.

Ah, but that’s different, comes the inevitable reply. The hedge fund manager is offering something “valuable”, which only reinforces the stereotype in impressionable minds that artistic endeavour is somehow inferior, unworthy of their time and talent.

The ang moh guy on stage waffling on about fulfilling a childhood ambition of becoming an author isn’t even getting paid. He’s expected to cultivate ideas and offer column pitches for free and, most contemptuously of all, he is often paid in “exposure.”

The bane of a freelance writer’s existence is the universal currency of exposure.

Fortunately, my daughter eats three square meals of exposure a day,so I’m happy to be paid with the abstract commodity.

In the United States, established writers are rebelling against The Huffington Post’s policy of giving contributors “exposure” in lieu of payment. Singapore’s small (and diminishing) pool of established writers should do the same because the knock-on effects are two-fold.

Apart from reinforcing the stubborn, kiasu notion that a creative industry job isn’t really a “proper” job, the “exposure” form of payment reiterates the idea that artistic pursuits are pastimes only for the rich and the fatuous.

In Singapore publishing, for example, the shelves are sprinkled with children’s books and Peranakan cookbooks seemingly knocked out between coffee mornings and brunch dates.

If payment exists only in the form of “exposure”, then the publishing business becomes (and mostly is) a playground for the wealthy and the well educated.

This narrow mindset diminishes the very quality that Singapore purportedly champions: diversity. Where are the literary voices beyond the respected (if a little repetitive) elite schools?

If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys. If you pay nothing, you get moneyed hobbyists writing books for fun, while aspiring, working-class writers sell insurance for a living.

So, in the interests of Singapore’s literary longevity, screw the exposure.

Cherish intellectual property and acknowledge the incomparable value of diverse, creative voices in shaping an inclusive, empathetic society.

Nourish talent by paying a dignified fee or risk losing it to the corporate sector.

There are enough lawyers and bankers to take care of the economy. What Singapore really needs is more freewheeling artists to feed its soul.