In these tough times, let's celebrate the Year of the Rooster without crowing

Don't let the looming economic crisis turn into a crisis of empathy

The Year of the Rooster has arrived.

Family reunions and visiting seniors to pay them our respects are hallowed traditions of Chinese New Year, and they are typically accompanied by a profusion of auspicious phrases wishing each other prosperity and good health. What is our iconic lohei but an annual homonymic ritual of well-wishing before a festive meal?

But economists and market analysts at home and abroad are not giving us much good news to celebrate the occasion.

The headline says it all: "Singapore's overall unemployment rate rose to its highest since 2010".

Redundancies, which have been trending upwards since 2010, rose to 19,000 last year, largely due to restructuring and a slower economy.

It is not surprising because the Ministry of Manpower's Labour Market Advance Release (2016) had already indicated that the annual unemployment rate increased from 1.9 per cent in 2015 to 2.1 per cent last year.

People who lost their jobs are mostly in the service sector, including community, social and personal services, professional services, and transportation and storage.

There are many reasons for this inauspicious downturn, including a backlash against globalisation, slower investment growth in the United States and China, uncertainties over the timing of Britain's exit from the European Union and China's rising debt levels.

The rooster is known for being constant. But it comes with a caveat that "being constant without changeability leads to woodenness". PHOTO: REUTERS

Trade growth is sensitive to such global uncertainties and as a trade-reliant economy, we are naturally one of the most affected economies by far.

But unemployment is not just a set of statistics. In such a challenging macroeconomic environment, individuals we know may be affected.

According to an Asian HR report, employment contracted in the third quarter of last year. The first nine months of last year saw a record number of redundancies since 2009.

And some unscrupulous employers may have been using contractual clauses for termination to mask what the labour movement NTUC calls "disguised retrenchments". It was a serious enough concern for the assistant secretary-general of NTUC, Mr Patrick Tay, to have raised the matter in Parliament last month.

What does all this have to do with Chinese New Year celebrations?

As we go to "bai nian" (wish one another well) or do our visiting, we need to be sensitive to the people we meet. They may be one of those who have just joined the ranks of the unemployed.

Psychologically, losing a job can be devastating. For some, it is a complete loss of self-worth because too many of us have allowed our identities to be defined by our employment and employability. For these people, a careless word may cause deeper psychological damage to their self-esteem than we can ever know.

While some among us would argue that it is precisely in the Year of the Rooster that we should loudly crow such auspicious greetings to bring about better fortune and prospects for the unemployed, it's not easy for someone who lost his job to smile away real worries about providing for the family.

Our insensitive mouthing of "luck-inducing" greetings could even increase doubts about one's value and self-worth.

A good place to start would be to turn the conversation away from the typical "what" questions on transactional topics like fortune, success, promotions, investments and the like, and focus on each other as people. Instead of asking, "What are you doing nowadays, ah?", try asking, "How have you been since we met last year?"

The change seems inconsequential, but it is significant. The former possibly puts a struggling relative or friend on the spot to make up some vague answers like: "Oh, I've decided to take a break and am finding it a good opportunity to think of what I'd like to do next."

The "how have you been" or "how are you" phrasing, on the other hand, turns the attention to the person, focusing on his being instead of what he is doing.

In a generally happy reunion setting, it's unlikely that even a worried relative or friend will immediately give you a heart-on-sleeve response.

But it at least opens up an avenue to not talk about the job (or the lack of it), but to talk about oneself, even if in general polite terms like "Oh, could be better" or "Thanks, coping but let's not talk about that now".

When we show genuine care, the relative or friend may eventually open up and start talking about difficulties and doubts. Even if you don't know much about the subject or are unable to offer any advice, just offering a listening ear is enough to bring some brightness to him.

Psychologists tell us that the opportunity to talk things out is, at the very least, cathartic, but also often helps us process our thoughts and perhaps arrive at our own conclusions - whether they are actual solutions or simply alternatives we had been too stressed out to consider.

It is important to affirm that a job can be lost, but the abilities within oneself that secured the job in the first place are never lost.

The opportunity to listen and affirm will help our friends to detach themselves from an unhealthy dependence on career and other external props to retain their self-esteem.

We can, with our empathetic listening and understanding, promote the truth that the abilities, qualities and strengths within us are what define us, not our job status.

In an economic downturn, being empathetic and sensitive are great virtues. The rooster is known for being constant. But it apparently comes with a caveat that "being constant without changeability leads to woodenness".

As the Year of the Rooster begins, let's not be wooden and thoughtless as we visit each other in a time of acknowledged economic uncertainty.

Let not a looming or already evident economic crisis become a crisis of empathy, but an opportunity for us to change our outlook from material transactions to valued relationships, characterised not by tactless questions and mindless cliches, but encouraging words of grace and graciousness.

•William Wan is general secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 28, 2017, with the headline 'In these tough times, let's celebrate the Year of the Rooster without crowing'. Print Edition | Subscribe