Manual workers deserve a bow too

My ideal Singapore would be one that not only gives all its people equal opportunities, but also a country where we treat each other with equal courtesy and kindness, no matter what job one does and the status it carries.

This is not something I learnt from my family, but rather it is what I think and feel. How big a role the schools I attended have played to mould my way of thinking, I am not sure. But I don't remember any point in my life when I simply adopted the attitude of the people who surrounded me.

I was four years old when my father became prime minister. My "black and white" Cantonese maids reportedly said to me: "Now that your father is prime minister, we should address you as little mistress." I reportedly replied: "It is my father who is prime minister, not me. So please continue to call me by my name."

I don't remember this episode but it was recounted by one of my Cantonese maids after they had returned to their home town in the 1980s. The incident was related by the maid that a magazine, being circulated in China, had interviewed. It was published in 2006 and brought to my attention by the principal of the school my nephew was attending. There was no way the maid could have known that I would read what she had said. So I suppose it was an honest recollection of the importance she placed on how she was treated as a service provider.

There is dignity in all work, so surely society should treat menial workers with the respect they deserve. Yet, there are a host of jobs that people tend to look down on, like the "hewers of wood and drawers of water" referred to in the Old Testament. Joshua cursed the Canaanites with this terminology. I state this not to criticise a quote from the Bible but to show that, throughout history, there are references to how men and women who make a living by menial labour have been despised.

Here, one can question the manner in which people treat cleaners. Knowing that others are following in their wake cleaning up after them ought to prick their conscience, but often it spurs them to just leave their trash behind without a second thought.

As picking up clean habits ought to start from a young age, the Ministry of Education has "taken a cue from Japan and Taiwan", as reported, and will get students in primary and secondary schools, as well as in junior colleges, to spend at least a few minutes each day cleaning classrooms, canteens and corridors. Acting Education Minister Ng Chee Meng said getting students involved in daily cleaning is a good way to get them to learn personal and social responsibility, cultivate good habits and make them a part of their lives.

Yes, these are appropriate goals, but there is a deeper and no less important lesson to be learnt from such a practice, which is that all labour that serves a useful purpose to mankind should be valued and not despised.

When I was in primary school, my Cantonese maids at home used to threaten me thus: "If you don't study hard, you will end up clearing night soil." Now there is no night soil anywhere in Singapore. So instead, my friend, an assistant superintendent of police, threatens his sons thus: "If you don't study hard, you will end up as a cleaner." The above clearly illustrates how the manual labour associated with cleaning is looked down upon in our society and many other societies throughout history.

I was in a Chinese-medium school from Primary 1 to Secondary 4 in the 1960s. The principal and many of the teachers were immigrants from China. There was a rule that the cleaning of our classroom would be done by students. Each day of the week, it was the responsibility of a particular row of students to sweep the floor and empty the wastepaper basket. No one derided us for cleaning the classroom, and all of us took turns to do so.

My sense is that in the 1960s, Nanyang and many other Chinese-medium schools felt an affinity with China, where the communists mandated that all legal labour should not be despised. Though that form of politics has been rejected, I wish more would adopt the thought that all legal labour gives the labourer dignity. So whether one is a cruise ship cleaner, hospital attendant or domestic maid, that person's contributions are indispensable to society. It would be a simpler society to navigate if we all thought this way. However, it is because many do not that we have foreign labourers and maids being ill-treated by their employers. Unfortunately, many often dare not complain or get help until the abuse is fairly severe.

There are some who say that Chinese-medium schools taught their students to view all useful labour as honourable because of their Confucian influence. But Confucianism ranked people in society in the following order: Scholar, farmer, labourer and businessman. However, the Chinese are too pragmatic to adhere rigidly to that ranking in this day and age when the businessman is usually the wealthiest of the four. So in Singa- pore, many successful business- men are prominent members of society. And the labourer's position has sunk to the bottom.

Before writing this article, I e-mailed a few friends, asking what schools they were from and whether they were required to clean their classrooms. Those from Chinese-medium schools, who are at least in their 50s, replied that it was part of their routine. It was rare in English-medium schools for students to be expected to do any such cleaning.

The daughter of one of my Chinese-educated friends gave a most enlightening reply: "I was from Pei Chun Public School, a Chinese SAP school. I studied in the old campus for the first three years of primary school under our old principal. Back then, we had a roster scheduling people to clean the classroom.

"However, my classmates always took the initiative: Whoever was free would clean whatever they could. The tall boys would clean the fan and the top of the blackboard and the rest would sweep the floor, empty the bins and arrange the tables.

"When we moved to the new campus, we also changed our principal and the culture changed as well. We weren't required to clean anything but I took it upon myself to sweep the classroom floor. We were provided with a broom and a dustpan in every classroom, and sweeping the floor and arranging the tables would be up to those who took the initiative as well.

"I must say the younger generation who were not exposed to the old principal's ways did not have the same habit of cleaning up the classroom."

This illustrates how figures of influence can help shape the thinking and habits of people. When the People's Action Party first came to power, my father, the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, and other party leaders "mounted a series of well-publicised campaigns to clean the streets of the city, clear the beaches of debris and cut the grass of unkempt vacant land".

As he noted in The Singapore Story: "It was a copycat exercise borrowed from the communists - ostentatious mobilisation of everyone including the ministers to toil with their hands and soil their clothes in order to serve the people."

The point is that even dirty work is valuable and none should feel above it.

But clearly not all occupations are considered equal. If the majority of the members of our society feel this way, schools must help to change that thinking. By making cleaning of the school by students part of the routine activity, one might inculcate in our students personal and social responsibility. While cultivating good habits of keeping one's environment clean and tidy, the practice might also change the perception that manual labour is "low class".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 06, 2016, with the headline 'Manual workers deserve a bow too'. Print Edition | Subscribe