The new Pioneer Generation: Freelancers

Labour MP Ang Hin Kee recently spoke of how freelancing is seen as a "frontier town". On Pages B2-4, Olivia Ho and Aw Cheng Wei interview seven freelancers and find out how they are redefining the notion of work.

Peggy Chan, Desmond Toh, Henry Sun, Noorhana Kairi, Anees Khan,Vannesa Sim and (far right) Zakaria Zainal. ST PHOTOS: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES, ALPHONSUS CHERN, CHEW SENG KIM, LAU FOOK KONG, KEVIN LIM, DESMOND FOO
Web developer Anees Khan. Photographer Zakaria Zainal (left) and driver Henry Sun. Handyman Desmond Toh (left) and tutor Noorhana Kairi. TV and film production coordinator Vannesa Sim (left) and yoga instructor Peggy Chan.
TV and film production coordinator Vannesa Sim. PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
Web developer Anees Khan. Photographer Zakaria Zainal (left) and driver Henry Sun. Handyman Desmond Toh (left) and tutor Noorhana Kairi. TV and film production coordinator Vannesa Sim (left) and yoga instructor Peggy Chan.
Yoga instructor Peggy Chan . ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN
Handyman Desmond Toh. ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM
Web developer Anees Khan. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM
Tutor Noorhana Kairi . ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG
Web developer Anees Khan. Photographer Zakaria Zainal (left) and driver Henry Sun. Handyman Desmond Toh (left) and tutor Noorhana Kairi. TV and film production coordinator Vannesa Sim (left) and yoga instructor Peggy Chan.
Photographer Zakaria Zainal. ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG
Web developer Anees Khan. Photographer Zakaria Zainal (left) and driver Henry Sun. Handyman Desmond Toh (left) and tutor Noorhana Kairi. TV and film production coordinator Vannesa Sim (left) and yoga instructor Peggy Chan.

It is a stereotype of Singapore work life: the boss staying back late to ensure that his subordinates put in ultimately unproductive face-time.

But that idea of having to be chained to an office desk is changing. Singaporeans are forgoing full-time employment - and the perks attached - to be freelancers, choosing whom they work for and for how long.

The downsides are uncertain cash flow and a lack of medical benefits and legal protection. But for many, the freedom of being master of their own time makes up for the risks.

Says photographer Zakaria Zainal, 31, who has freelanced for five years: "This is not the lifestyle the average Singaporean would want. It's not restaurant dinners every weekend and big holidays.

"But I treasure the independence, especially when I hear my friends talking about their unreasonable bosses or politicking in the office. I just have the work, and it is good."

The labour movement has been promising to throw its weight further behind freelancers, a group that has been notoriously difficult to unionise due to its diverse nature.

National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) secretary-general Chan Chun Sing said at a remembrance ceremony for late founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew last month that freelancers "require new forms of services to take care of... and protect their interests".

He added: "The labour movement has evolved new models to help them, even though they are not technically union members. But they are our associate partners, and through the new partnership we want to make sure we can take care of them."

NTUC revealed in February that it plans to hold a job fair for freelancers, where those looking to market their services can find buyers while undertaking networking. The fair, whose date is yet to be set, would also bring in services to gather a pool of freelancers, market their services and transact on their behalf.

In Parliament in January, NTUC assistant secretary-general Ang Hin Kee called for policies on freelancing to be updated, noting: "Freelancing may look like frontier town to many of us. Some of the rules appear unclear and the marketplace seems fraught with uncertainty."

True, it has also been looked down upon as the province of the stay-at-home mum and retiree - or the last resort of the retrenched worker. But the changing economy and the needs of a tightening labour market have made it a more viable work option, not just for the likes of tradesmen and drivers, but also high-end professionals such as coders and graphic designers.

Mr Matt Barrie, chief executive of global freelancer portal, says: "In the olden days, you thought of freelancers as doing data entry, perhaps, but we have software programmers and Web developers, very highly skilled people who are earning more freelancing than they might at a full-time job."

Freelancer numbers in Singapore are hard to pin down. According to Manpower Ministry statistics, the number of "own account workers" in Singapore last year was nearly 170,000, where it has hovered over the past 10 years.

But this number of own account workers - defined as those who are self-employed and do not employ others - may not capture all freelancers. It does not include sole proprietors, some of whom are also freelancers, but encompasses other groups such as taxi drivers, who are beholden to cab firms.

Mr Ang, who is also an MP for Ang Mo Kio GRC, estimated the number of freelancers to be closer to 200,000 - a figure he believes is likely to go up. "We talked about encouraging entrepreneurial and pioneering spirit in our people," he said in his Parliament speech. "It is a positive sign that there are increasingly more Singaporeans opting for freelance work."

Global online portals for freelancers have observed a significant rise in interest from Singapore recently., which has around 80,000 freelancer users here, saw membership in Singapore grow by nearly 39 per cent in the past year - the highest growth it registered in South-east Asia. Another portal, Upwork, saw freelancer registrations here more than triple in the third quarter of last year.

Human resource experts say they are observing a surge in the demand for freelancers as companies try to cut costs in a softening economy.

Ms Linda Teo, country manager of HR consulting firm ManpowerGroup Singapore, says more companies are bringing freelancers in for one-off, creative roles. "Companies can keep costs lean because the freelancer is chalked up not under a permanent headcount but as a project expense. Also, (they) leave once a project wraps up, so there is no redundancy of man hours."

Ms Rynette Tan, 26, turned to freelance website developers and graphic designers to get her online maternity business off the ground.

"I'm a start-up and I don't have the capital to hire an in-house team to manage the site," she says. "Freelancers can give me ad hoc support as and when I need it, and they tend to be about 50 per cent cheaper than the companies I've approached."

Online platforms are also expanding the pool of clients for freelancers, who previously relied mostly on word-of-mouth for business.


Now, the pool of clients is no longer confined to the country's borders. On, the biggest employer for Singapore users is the United States, where 30 per cent of the jobs filled here originate. South-east Asia regional director Evan Tan says this is due to the stronger US dollar, and also because US employers post 15 times more jobs than Singapore ones.

The lifestyle itself is evolving, as freelancers juggle more than one line of work and turn to technology to expand their reach. It appeals especially to millennials who do not want to be tied down to one job, and to parents who want flexible work hours so they can spend more time with their children.

Former journalist Eve Yap, 57, turned to freelance writing in 2001 so she could spend more time with her children. "I recall one particular night when I returned home at 8.30pm, and my daughter Beth (who was 51/2) said: 'Wow, so early, Mummy!'" She returned to full-time work when her children were in their teens, but is now freelancing again so she can care for her elderly parents, who are in their 80s.

Such independence comes at a price, however. Freelancers are not covered by labour laws and must do without Central Provident Fund support to save for retirement, or employee benefits such as subsidised health care. If they take time off for skills upgrading, NSmen duties or maternity leave, it comes straight out of their incomes.Dodgy contracts and unclear market rates mean they are often at the mercy of clients. If the client refuses to pay their fee, their only forms of recourse are the Small Claims Tribunal and costly civil suits.

Insight looks at seven faces across the spectrum of the freelancer economy today, from the traditional to the technological, from the millennial to the mature veteran.

Some took pay cuts to pursue their passions; others are earning more than they would have as salaried employees. Each faces different challenges in this "frontier town", but all cherish the freedom that comes with it.


THE YOGA TEACHER: Skills and mat are all that's needed

Ms Chan sells 10-lesson packages from $80 to $100 a session and conducts group sessions. Each lesson lasts an hour. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

"Over time, students tend to open up about their lives and we form a deeper connection," she says.

The free-spirited 64-year-old singleton also likes that she does not have to answer to superiors. "That also means when something (bad) happens, I kena (get into trouble)," says Ms Chan, a former travel agent.


THE HANDYMAN: 'Ah Beng' kind of job? It gives him freedom

Mr Toh became an electrician on graduating from the Institute of Technical Education but later expanded into other areas, such as air-con maintenance and carpentry, to get more jobs. ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM

Now 45, Mr Toh has been a freelance handyman for more than 20 years. Many look down on his profession as "an Ah Beng-Ah Seng kind of job", he says (referring to being uncultured), but he has never contemplated a change.

"I don't feel like being tied down," he says. "I want the freedom to be my own person."


THE DRIVER: It's a struggle but he loves the road and flexibility

Mr Sun has been a freelance driver for nearly 10 years. The limousine van he uses to ferry tourists and visitors here on business or for events is like a second home to him as he often ends up sleeping in the vehicle. ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO

The 50-year-old driver of the passenger carrier often has to resort to this when a client's late night out coincides with an airport pick-up at the crack of dawn. "Sometimes I only have three hours in between," he says. "If I went home to shower, it would be all gone. So I rest in the van. It's like a second home to me."

Mr Sun has been a freelance driver for nearly 10 years. "It's a one-man show," he says. "Everything, I bao ka liao (Hokkien for 'handle everything')."


THE PRIVATE TUTOR: Quality time with daughter and students

Madam Noorhana left her previous job teaching maths at an enrichment centre and now teaches students in her four-room flat in Choa Chu Kang on Mondays to Wednesdays. ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG

That is why Madam Noorhana Kairi left her part-time job tutoring primary school pupils at an enrichment centre to go freelance as a private tutor.

She now makes double the $320 that the enrichment centre paid her each month at a rate of $15 an hour, says Madam Noorhana, who holds an engineering diploma from Singapore Polytechnic.


THE WEB GUY: Time for family and to pursue big dreams

The nature of Mr Khan's work makes it perfect for freelancing - dealing with computers and the Internet means he can easily work from home, allowing him to spend more time with his family. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

For the past eight years, the 41-year-old has been working as a freelance Web developer to have the best of all worlds.

The push to go freelance came when the firm he was working for changed to a new server framework. "I was getting stronger in PHP (a programming language)," he explains. "I could choose to pick up the .Net framework (which the company was switching to) or focus on getting better at what I already knew."


THE FILM COORDINATOR: Heady life on set but cash flow is an issue

As a freelance film and TV production coordinator, Ms Sim says there are no CPF or health benefits, and "we have to watch our own backs and make sure we have enough savings to settle the rent in the months when we're not paid". PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

"I knew then that I wanted to make films," she recalls. "Of course, I didn't realise at the time that it was going to be so difficult."

Now 24, she has been a production coordinator in the film and TV industry for close to two years.


THE PHOTOGRAPHER Living off his passion for personal projects

Mr Zakaria juggles being a freelance photographer with mentoring undergraduates at the National University of Singapore and working on book and documentary projects that he feels passionately about. ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG

"People think I'm just waking up late and goofing around at home in pyjamas," says the 31-year-old, who has been doing portrait and events photography for five years. "But I get up at 9am. I have a task list. I have yearly goals."

When he graduated in 2010 from Nanyang Technological University (NTU) with a degree in communication studies, Mr Zakaria gave the nine-to-five life a shot, spending seven months as a civil servant.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 10, 2016, with the headline The new Pioneer Generation: Freelancers. Subscribe