It is Friday, 4pm. With her iced chocolate and cheesecake, chilling out with a laptop at an Orchard Road cafe, Ms Cheryl Chua looks like she is starting her weekend early.
But the 33-year-old Web developer is working. She had just come out of two back-to-back meetings with clients. Now she is coding madly for an Android app due in a week.
"My friends are always telling me, 'Urgh, are you pretending to work again? You're just having brunch at some cafe, right?'" she says with a laugh.
"What they don't see is that I'm juggling five projects. If my clients ask for last-minute changes, I pull all-nighters. Just because I'm a freelancer doesn't mean I'm not working as hard as they are."
Working on her own time and targets, Ms Chua is part of a burgeoning freelance economy in Singapore. While contract work is not new, freelancing has become more common here, buoyed by changing expectations and priorities in both employers and employees.
Flexibility is the new buzzword. Full-time freelancers may sacrifice stability in the form of monthly pay, but they have greater freedom.
Companies stay lean and agile by keeping their full-time head-count low to minimise fixed costs, hiring freelancers only when needed.
There are times when it may get a little tough, especially when I'm feeling sick. But I'm alone. I don't have any medical leave and I don't have a replacement. So I have to push myself up.''
MS WILYANA WIDJAJA, a freelance designer who is married with a son
Young people value work-life balance and empowerment. They work only when they want to.''
This explains why sites connecting freelancers and businesses, such as Freelancer.com and Upwork, are doing so well. Services in demand include website design, copywriting and data entry.
Freelancer.com launched its site freelancer.sg in 2012, picking up close to 15,000 users here. Three years on, it has almost 100,000.
Upwork had 40,000 businesses and 47,000 freelancers here at the end of the third quarter this year, up from 29,000 businesses and 36,000 freelancers in the same period last year.
The sluggish economy and the labour crunch will make freelancers a necessity for some firms.
Mr Sanjay Modi, managing director of job site Monster.com (India, Middle East, South-east Asia), says the global slowdown has made employers in South-east Asia guarded about increasing their headcount.
This leaves significant room for short-term contract staff to fill the gaps, as and when needed, he adds.
Freelancers are not entitled to CPF contributions from their employers and can bring about cost savings, which is attractive to small firms and start-ups.
Take seven-month-old company Fit Me, which is behind SnapFit, a plug-in that allows people shopping online to drag clothes over photos of themselves to see how they fit. It has 10 full-time staff.
For data input and administrative work, owner Gordon Lim hires freelancers to save on office space and equipment. This has translated to over $50,000 worth of savings so far, he says.
Upwork's senior vice-president of international, Mr Rich Pearson, predicts that the offices of the future will be a hybrid team. "There will almost always be a need for traditional, full-time roles but they'll be augmented by a team of people providing flexible skills as needed."
This will be true for not just small and medium-sized enterprises, but also large corporations.
Furniture giant Ikea, for instance, hires freelance "specialists" with expertise in areas such as interior design and visual merchandising to help refurbish its stores.
ABR Holdings, whose stable of eateries includes casual dining restaurant Swensen's, will launch a jobs portal that allows freelancers to fill vacancies in its restaurants in real-time.
For instance, if an employee takes medical leave at the last minute, a posting will go up on the portal alerting freelancers who have registered their interest and who have the skills - such as dishwashers or service staff - to step into the role.
This system will be piloted in five Swensen's outlets. The group's director of business development Andrew Khoo hopes this will help combat constant staff shortage in the food service sector.
Mr Alfred Low, 60, is a salesman by day. But once he clocks out, he turns into an "aggressive freelance courier" who chooses jobs on delivery service RocketUncle, which links parcel senders to third-party couriers, and makes deliveries in his car. The father of two usually delivers three hours on week nights and half a day on Saturday, making an extra $1,200 a month.
"I'm enjoying the experience. I've a bit more spending money, I make enough to cover for petrol and it's very easy. All I need is my mobile phone and my car," he says.
It is tough to draw up a portrait of an average freelancer - he can be doing it full-time or in-between jobs or moonlight for extra cash.
A mixture of all three is found on freelance platforms, including FastFast and RocketUncle, which both specialise in courier services.
But one thing is for sure, freelancing is mostly a young person's game.
Financially, it makes sense. People who can deal with irregular pay checks usually do not have heavy commitments such as mortgages or children. But it is also a matter of changing attitudes and expectations in the younger generation.
Mr Evan Tan, regional director for South-east Asia for Free- lancer.com, says millennials tend to demand more flexibility in their lives. "They don't see work as something to sacrifice their lives for, especially work that does not align with their passion."
In fact, 60 per cent of the 30,000 registered freelancers on homegrown job-matching site Freelancezone.com.sg are aged 18 to 28.
Its co-founder Leon Lim says young people "value work-life balance and empowerment".
"They work only when they want to. Once in a while, you'll notice them posting Instagram pictures or having tea break at a cafe or sun- tanning during work hours and you wonder how they do it."
Freelancers say it takes guts to strike out on their own, discipline to meet their own targets and resourcefulness to fend for themselves.
"Freelancing gives me freedom to control my working hours and working style, but it also requires strict commitment," says freelance designer Wilyana Widjaja, 32, who is married with a son.
Her clients include Western Union and dessert shop YiLi PaoPao Ice. She adds: "There are times when it may get a little tough, especially when I'm feeling sick. But I'm alone. I don't have any medical leave and I don't have a replacement. So I have to push myself up."
When it comes to delayed payment or non-payment of fees, freelancers are not protected by the Employment Act. They are considered their own employers, so there is no employer-employee relationship between them and their clients. Freelancers will have to turn to the courts instead.
Other freelancers have stories of ups and downs, failure and perseverance. When freelance illustrator Chen Ziyue first started working in 2008, she struggled to break into the small market. She gave up and went on a job hunt, but after an interview, decided she was not keen on a full-time job.
She then applied for a scholarship to pursue a degree in illustration at the Ringling College of Art and Design in the United States.
After graduation, the 29-year-old tried freelancing again, with better results, getting jobs to illustrate children's books.
She says: "It can be daunting to take a leap of faith but I'm thankful that at least I have tried."
An accidental freelancer
Melody Chong, 38, is a freelancer in not one, but two industries - public relations and health coaching.
She does PR for mainly health- and fitness-related companies, such as PanAsia Surgery. Her other job involves giving advice on nutrition, sleep and training to individuals and organisations.
She earns between $3,000 and $10,000 a month. Her father is a retired businessman and mother a housewife.
Ms Chong, who is single, never set out to be a freelancer. She says her younger self would have laughed at the idea.
She used to work full-time for restaurant group Tung Lok and was its advertising and promotions manager. But as her colleagues left one after the other, her workload grew.
"I was still happy about getting the work done, but I started to feel something wasn't right," she says, recalling how she would get tightness in her chest and shortness of breath.
I feel really blessed. I am doing what I love, loving what I do and that means I don't have to work a day in my life.''
MELODY CHONG, a freelancer in public relations and health coaching
She went for a full health screening, but doctors told her the results showed she was healthy and physically fit.
"They asked me questions like 'Are you suffering from depression?'
"It was a wake-up call. It made me sit up and re-think what I really wanted to do in life."
She left her job in 2007 and searched for an MBA programme in the United States, but requests from former work contacts to help with short-term public relations work derailed those plans.
She says: "I started with two, then three, then more, and realised, with so many projects lined up, I could be a full-time freelancer - and that was it."
After entering a make-your-own- ice-cream-flavour contest with Ben & Jerry's, she got in touch with the company. In 2010, it offered her a job and she moved to San Francisco to work as a sales and marketing manager.
She was exposed to Californian- style health-consciousness there and, after two years with Ben & Jerry's, took up a one-year degree course with the Institute for Integrative Nutrition.
In 2013, she returned to Singapore a qualified health coach. Now she conducts health talks and programmes at schools and wellness events, as well as cooking demonstrations, while juggling her PR work.
She says: "I feel really blessed. I am doing what I love, loving what I do and that means I don't have to work a day in my life."
He works five hours a day - at home or in cafes
At 19, Temasek Polytechnic graduate Kelvin Lim decided a nine-to- five job was not for him. He did not want to be stuck sitting in a cubicle or trapped in an office hierarchy.
So he dived straight into the world of freelancing, despite not having any work experience.
Mr Lim, who is now 24 and is attached, has a diploma in interactive media informatics. He taught himself Web design so that he could set up a website to showcase his works.
To boost his credentials, he enrolled in the Lasalle College of the Arts, taking up a degree in design communications and juggling work and study.
His portfolio as a freelancer includes an app for Digital Fashion Week 2013, whose design he was in charge of, and a site for the Hong Kong Tennis Open last year.
I don't think I would give up my carefree lifestyle in exchange for a fixed and routine lifestyle.''
MR KELVIN LIM, who does freelance work in design
He usually sets aside up to five hours a day, working from home or from cafes in town.
In October, he took up a full-time job as a graphic designer at an events management company, but this is only a temporary stint for him.
He says: "The only reason I'd put myself on a nine-to five job would be for the experience, to handle bigger projects and, of course, to learn how to run a business so I can start my own company one day."
Freelancing can be a constant struggle with irregular income, he admits.
He once went for three months without a project and had to dip into his savings.
But he adds: "I don't think I would give up my carefree lifestyle in exchange for a fixed and routine lifestyle, even if it means having a stable income with CPF contributions and benefits."
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 06, 2015, with the headline 'Freelancing freedom'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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