TL;DR – Find yourself.
“I don’t take lunch…I only take two meals a day.”
Seated in front of me is a man who hasn’t taken lunch for 6 to 7 years.
Meet Mark, a 41-year-old non-typical Singaporean who juggles many “revenue-generating interests” which he thinks is a sexy term for “jobs”.
He acts, emcees, teaches and does sculpting. If he looks vaguely familiar to you then you might have spotted him in television advertisements or even on Crime Watch.
These “revenue-generating interests” should be keeping him very busy but that’s not good enough for him.
Mark told me he has signed up for pet grooming lessons by an award-winning Korean pet groomer and plans to put his new skills to good use if he ever loses his voice one day.
“I don’t have to talk to dogs when I am grooming them.”
He also wants to host dinner for a group of eight foreign visitors at his designer HDB flat in Sengkang through apps like WithLocals. He envisions himself sharing stories about Singapore or his family with them.
Cooking is obviously something he is good at and he loves doing but hasn’t gotten the chance to maximise his true potential, apart from cooking for people he love.
“I can kill two birds with one stone – cooking for them and making some money out of it.”
Trainer who doesn’t teach with slides
I first met Mark last year when I attended the SkillsFuture for Digital Workplace (SFDW) course at NTUC Learning Hub – a basic course that helps mature workers keep up with digital transformations.
Mark was everything but a typical trainer.
He didn’t flash any PowerPoint slides throughout the two-day course and didn’t introduce himself till much later.
And when he did, he made class participants download a QR code reader and scan the QR code on the projector screen to find out more about him.
The most epic teachable moment was when he asked us to search for his grandma in the obituaries within National Archives.
So by the end of day one, older class participants who didn’t know how to use a tablet and were skeptical that online banking would “swallow” their money, were empowered to generate QR codes and use the National Archives.
A full-time part-timer
Mark told me he refused to use the term “freelancer” because there is a stigma of freelance work in Singapore.
“The general perception of freelancers is that they have a lot of time or they can work for free. I hate using the word freelancer.”
To him, being a full-time part-timer is redefining the old conventional wisdom of having one job and doing what you’re trained to do.
He is fully aware of the risks of not having medical benefits and CPF like normal employees but he believes that it also drives him to work a lot harder.
“You wake up every morning and think where’s your next dollar coming from. It drives you to find new things. If you’re in full-time work, you lose a sense of curiosity.”
Now I am curious where he gets the inspiration to explore new things all the time.
He simply tells me to quit my job.
“If you’re stuck in a full-time job, you’re only fully aware of that environment around you. You forgot, like I said, you lost your sense of curiosity as to what else is outside of that environment. When I said quit your job, I mean it. The day you quit your job, your eyes and ears will all of a sudden open 200% more.”
He tells me that people will start looking around for things, receive signals and pick up little nuances that give them ideas on what they can create.
“Sadly, if you’re in a full-time job, nah, all you want you do after work, is switch on your TV, sleep, watch Korean dramas or some of you read a book. There’s no energy left for it.”
I asked him if he thinks most people are doing what they’re good at or just being comfortable with their jobs.
He revealed very frankly that 80% to 90% of the adult students he met in the past 11 years, hate their jobs. They’re just working for the sake of paying their bills.
He doesn’t blame them because he knows we’re living in a very practical society.
But he believes that there hasn’t been enough dramatic reforms on how we educate ourselves and have spent very little time asking what we’re really good at.
“What I see in class is a product of people who are not satisfied with what they’re doing. They’re trained to do it well but are they happy to do it?”
From US$8900/mth to S$1800/mth
I asked Mark if he knew what would force people to step out of their comfort zone and get paid for something that they’re good at doing.
He admitted that people don’t move until something very drastic happens to them.
“My personal sense is people don’t move until something very drastic happens. Many drastic things happened to me and I moved.”
I learn that he spent six years in Hawaii, drawing a monthly paycheck of US$8,900 in the hotel business.
When he returned to Singapore, the employment landscape has changed so much that he was left jobless for some eight to nine months until he met someone who offered him a job in training.
But it only paid him S$1,800 a month.
“It was really hard to swallow but you got to adapt. Nothing kills you makes you more resilient…It took me a long time to get over it…You have to let go of historical baggage that don’t matter anymore.”
Those were the darkest days of his life but he said he was most grateful for his ex-girlfriend (his current wife).
He then moved on to take up full-time roles with NTUC Learning Hub and up-skilled himself by completing his Masters in adult education.
But he woke up one day and thought to himself that maybe he should do something else and go out on his own.
“That’s the whole point of education, isn’t it? To help you think broader, bigger and to create.”
So he started to transform himself together with digital transformations.
Five years ago, he branched out on his own and did freelance training with NTUC, Kaplan and even dating workshops for the formerly known Singapore Development Unit (SDU).
That didn’t last long as it was a big transition – from getting a secured paycheck monthly to not having anything and living day by day.
“When push comes to shove, I got headhunted. Louis Vuitton came along and I was pleasantly surprised. I joined them full-time and became their training manager for a while.
But then one day it struck me that teaching people to sell S$10,000 bags really have no meaning, so I told myself perhaps there’s something more meaningful to do. So I went to branch out again. This time, still in training but I was a little bit more secure about myself.”
The most disruptive kid in class who loved talking
He shares with me that he was never an academic type of kid.
His report card has remarks that “Mark is the most disruptive kid in class. He is very talkative”.
In an Asian society, we are taught to be obedient in class and to respect the teacher by keeping our mouths zipped when lesson is ongoing.
But Mark doesn’t see it the same way.
Being talkative is a natural strength that sadly, most teachers do not recognise especially in traditional class settings.
His earliest recollection of performing, acting and being on stage was when his parents sent him to speech and drama class at five or six years old.
“I hated primary and secondary school – anything that dealt with academics that I wasn’t good at. Going to that earliest memory, I kind of knew I always had it in me, I enjoyed it, looked forward to it. Sadly, you never got a chance to do it until much later in life.”
Mark is 41 this year and he wants to see if he can relive his childhood dream.
“The lesson for me is, you’re never too old.”
He has only acted for two to three years and just had his first play as “Towkay Tan” in “Sikhs of Serangoon” in 2016.
“All of sudden, I became the director of a theatre company. We had our first performance in June last year – it was a mind-blowing learning curve which I never had.”
Freelancers struggle with cashflow
Mark tells me that many people in the creative industry actually do more than one thing.
“It’s too hard to survive solely based on one profession. You find actors doubling as music or drama teachers. The sensing I get is, it’s tough. We adapt accordingly. The first adaptation that we learn as freelancers is how to live on very little. So if life gives you S$600, you live with S$500.”
Right now, there’s no such thing as mandatory CPF contributions for freelancers or self-employed. And while they may seem cash rich for now, it leaves me worried about their retirement adequacy.
I asked Mark if it’s a good idea for freelancers to make CPF contributions.
He thinks it’s a good idea depending on how it’s structured but it might not be ideal if it’s forced savings.
“They earn $10,000 but next month they are back to zero. The system has to be dynamic in a such a way where it allows for very flexible contributions.”
He tells me that perhaps the union can help to push for legislation to protect freelancers or recognises freelancers as a “legit” occupation.
This includes workplace insurance as the Work Injury Compensation Act (WICA) does not cover this group of workers.
“That is a very big gap in that particular industry. There is no workers’ compensation if anything happens. As long as you’re engaged whether on a contract basis or a gig or you’re there for two hours as an extra or calefare, I think you should be adequately covered by workers’ compensation or some form of insurance.”
Amongst all freelancers, Mark is probably the least worried about having sufficient savings. He has already fully paid out his HDB flat!
It’s more than an hour since I started talking to Mark but it doesn’t even feel half as long.
I am still amazed at how Mark stays so curious and hungry after staying alive for some 40 years. He reminds me to “find myself”.
“Humans were born to create. We were born with an amazing mind which we haven’t even fully discovered what the mind is capable of. We can build bridges, we can build buildings, structures etc. Over time, based on whatever conventional wisdom of how society should be like, we forgot to think and create, and use that part of our cognition which is so unique and beautiful.”
I hope to continue to draw inspiration from Mark the next time I meet him.
Now excuse me while I reflect on life and contemplate if I should also skip lunch.
Click here to find out more about the man who prides himself on educating and entertaining others through “revenue-generating interests” that give him meaning in life.