Should Singapore work towards a ‘996’ working model?

With an ageing population and a shrinking workforce, Singapore’s economy needs a game plan. Could a ‘996’ working culture be the key to greater productivity?

By Maegan Liew

Reputed for its capable workforce, Singapore’s position as a global talent hub has been integral to its economic progress. But an ageing society poses a threat to the Republic’s status as a regional economic and financial hub.

The labour crunch will place more pressure on the workforce. To sustain its economic achievements, the city-state needs to maximise the potential of its shrinking human capital. Last year, Singaporeans spent nearly nine hours a day at work in a typical five-day work week – the lowest in a decade. Would the adoption of a ‘996’ working culture— where employees work 9am to 9pm, six days a week— increase productivity and fill the human capital deficit?

The ‘996’ work schedule was a key driver behind China’s tech boom

China’s notorious overtime work culture known as ‘996’ was applauded for enabling young professionals to reach their full potential. It has been heralded as the driving force behind the rapid growth of China’s tech industry.

Former Google China president Kai-fu Lee compared Chinese tech executives to gladiators in ancient Rome’s Colosseum and wrote that “compared to China’s startup scene, [Silicon Valley’s] companies look lethargic and its engineers lazy.”

But tech workers are fighting back against the 996 working week. In March, a page titled ‘996.ICU’ appeared on the online code-sharing community Github as part of an online protest by programmers against labour conditions.

The post suggested that following the ‘996’ schedule risks landing oneself in an intensive care unit (ICU). ‘996.ICU’ quickly became the site’s most popular post, gaining widespread attention at home and abroad.

Chinese tech billionaire Jack Ma leapt to the defence of the ‘996’ model. He called it a ‘huge blessing’ for young workers. The Alibaba co-founder and chairman claimed the 72 hour work week is key to an efficient and optimal workforce.


Executive Chairman of Alibaba Group Jack Ma at the meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club.
Photo Credit: Kremlin

Overworking risks both economic and societal well-being

Death by overwork has become a concerning aspect of Asian working cultures. An estimated 600,000 people die from work-related stress in China every year. This means 1,600 deaths a day are due to overwork.

Longer working hours also not necessarily mean higher productivity. According to a 2016 survey of 1,989 UK office workers, the average employee only works for about three hours over the course of an eight-hour workday. And in a 2015 study of consultants by Erin Reid, a professor at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, managers could not tell the difference between employees who worked 80 hours a week and those who just pretended to.

In fact, the lack of association between long working schedules and productivity has been long established. In the first decades of the 20th century, Frederick W. Taylor, the originator of ‘scientific management’, found that reduced work times led to remarkable increases in per-worker output in factories. The Harvard Business School replicated this experiment in 2015 with white collar workers and reported identical findings. 

Singapore is already suffering from excessive work schedules

Although Singaporean workers are working fewer hours than they were in 2010, for the 15th consecutive year Singaporeans worked the longest hours of any workforce on earth in 2018.

Source: Ministry of Manpower

Such long working hours have not translated into greater productivity. The Republic’s gross domestic product (GDP) per hour worked (a general measure of labour productivity) is among the lowest in the world, despite boasting one of the highest levels of GDP per capita.  

Singaporeans are also among the most sleep-deprived workers. In an international study in 2014, Jawbone, a maker of sleep trackers, ranked the Republic as the third most sleep-deprived city in the world, after Tokyo and Seoul.

Photo Credit: Harald Groven/Flickr

A lack of work-life balance is detrimental to Singaporean society

An ageing population and low fertility mean that a work-life balance has never been more necessary.

By 2030, one in four Singaporeans will be aged 65 years and above. An increasingly large proportion of young workers will have parents who are approaching or are in their 60s. These Singaporeans will face the dual responsibilities of working and caring for their ageing parents. If Singapore’s working culture is not revisited, there will be nobody to provide care for the elderly at home.  

At the same time, Singapore has been experiencing a sub-replacement fertility rate. In 2017, the Republic’s total fertility rate (TFR) reached a seven-year low of 1.16. More women in Singapore are choosing to remain single or have fewer children, often-citing long working hours as a factor in their decision to remain childless or only have one child.

24-year-old postgraduate student, Vithiya Gajandran, expressed such a concern, commenting that while she plans to start a family someday, she foresees difficulty in having kids and a career. Recalling how her own mother was able to juggle both work and family responsibilities, Vithiya laments that it is much more difficult to do so in an increasingly competitive economy today.

If family is to remain at the core of Singapore’s social structure, the government must ensure its citizens have access to a work-life balance. Only then can its people contribute to the nation’s economic growth while fulfilling their family commitments in providing care for the young and the old.

Singapore’s economy needs to do more with less. The goal of re-energising the economy will rest on innovative, flexible strategies that can empower the people driving it.

Human capital is the nation’s most valuable asset. But more attention must go to boosting the potential of its human capital without exhausting it. As more Singaporeans take on the role of both carer and provider, their time will become even more stretched. Instead of getting workers to invest more hours behind their desks to fill the labour gap, Singapore’s businesses should find innovative ways to get them out of the office earlier and make the hours at work count for more.