The reality of a freelancer in Singapore – not quite as “exciting” as it sounds

TL;DR – Freedom always comes with a price.

The tide has changed – more millennials dream of being a freelancer these days. They seek adventure, control and freedom. But as we all know, freedom always comes with a price.

For some, this price costs too much.

46-year-old Laurence Wong who runs his own event management company shared with me that he attended the wake of an audiovisual crew.

Laurence Wong is also a professional emcee.

The crew member had worked for three days consecutively at an international festival and passed away at work, leaving his mother distraught as she has lost her only son.

The worker knew that if he was hospitalised, he would have lost all of his income which he would have earned from the seven day long event. This included the three days which he had spent working on the event setup.

“The family has some financial challenges and he was the only son. We went to his wake at the HDB void deck, cried and gave his mother some money. But my heart broke even more when I saw how much the mum wanted to have her son back.”

The worker was already unwell but he did not stop working. He merely popped panadols as he couldn’t afford the medication.

This tragedy spurred Wong and his friends to do something for the freelancers.

Together with a group of industry veterans in the events and entertainment industry, they formed the Singapore Talents, Artiste and Resources Association (STAR) association in 2015.

Members include emcees, deejays, audiovisual crew and performing artists.

Wong dropped one of the ministers an email about the formation of this association and the minister pointed them to the right direction as it wasn’t under his purview.

The team then approached the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC).

When they first met Labour MP Ang Hin Kee who advocates on freelancer issues, they weren’t aware that they were going to meet an MP.

“We thought he’s just a director in NTUC. Turns out he’s also an MP so we thought we had to be politically right. When we told him our plans and all, he said we have good plans but questioned us how’s it all going to work. That was when we knew he meant business. He doesn’t just shake hands and kiss babies.”

Workplace injuries are common in the events and entertainment industry

The passing of the audio-visual crew was a wake-up call. At that point in time, there was no such thing as workplace injury insurance for freelancers.

Backstage of a theatre in Esplanade (via)

“9 out of 10 of us are performers. You either perform a setup or you go on stage. You’re using your body. What happens if you fall and hurt yourself? You can’t perform at the next show and you lose your income.”

Wong is thankful that the tripartite workgroup for freelancers is recommending offering a standalone insurance product that pays a daily cash benefit for injured freelancers.

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But there’s something else occupying Wong’s mind. Wong tells me that he is very worried about the safety for audiovisual crew working at heights.

“The Government issues work-at-height license for the construction industry but what has that got to do with us? Do you know how many people die when the scaffolding collapse? We build scaffolds for shows in concert theatres and our crew has to climb all the way up. The safety officer with the work-at-height license is standing below, watching us at work. There’s nothing we can do if anyone falls.”

The Executive Committee of STAR association is in talks with Ministry of Manpower to review the safety regulations for the events and entertainment industry.

All prepared to counter terrorism

Apart from addressing the workplace safety issues, STAR association has also proactively trained its members in counter-terrorism.

As they are not frontline security officers, there is technically no urgent need for them to be trained in this aspect. But Wong thinks otherwise.

“Mr Ang kept inviting us to all kinds of talks. Then we met Minister Chan Chun Sing and he mentioned that more people are visiting Singapore so we have to be more vigilant. I said, hang on. There’re more reasons for people to bomb us so people in the events and entertainment industry should be more wary. Why can’t we prepare ourselves?”

Wong said STAR association was initially firing away in the dark but NTUC gave them a couple of lifelines.

“We spoke to Mr Ang and he said he’ll link us with Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA). We had one meeting with them and it was all done. The head of SGSecure gave us all the training materials and even provided the trainers.”

More than 60 members from STAR association including magicians and dancers attended the Community Emergency Preparedness Programme (CEPP) conducted by the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF).

Community emergency preparedness programme conducted by SCDF (via)

That means if anything happens, they can now step up to help with crowd management, fire fighting and administering of first aid. They can also help detect potential terrorist threats.

“If NTUC didn’t link us up with MHA, we would have required many emails. But with the help of NTUC, it’s just one phone call away.”

At this point of our conversation, I was getting increasingly impressed by the association that seems to be 10 steps ahead, paving the way for budding performers.

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You know how they say there are two kinds of people in this world? The thinkers and the doers. Wong obviously belongs to the latter.

His “just do it” attitude has finally nudged me to seriously reconsider applying for annual leave and use my SkillsFuture credits to attend a first aid course so I can transform into a superhero when the need arises.

At this point in writing, I am waiting for NTUC Learning Hub to get back to me on my enquiry.

Training, training, training

Speaking of training, STAR association is determined to train the working people in the audio-visual industry.

Wong tells me that these guys are the first to arrive at the set but last to go. According to him, they are also paid the lowest and are often subject to verbal and physical abuse.

“We want to subsidise their education. 7 out of 10 learn on-site. Is that proper training? No. We want to make sure that their cert is equivalent to the WSQ ones. We’re talking to NTUC Learning Hub.”

Laurence shares that his 6-year-old son is interested in what he does at work.

For a membership size of more than 100, the association has ambitious plans. I asked Wong if he has a target for the membership size but that’s the least of his concerns.

“I don’t care. We don’t have figure. If we have a target, we become sales. If you’re thinking about what you can do for the industry, please join us.”

Mutually beneficial relationship

I asked Wong how he would describe the relationship between STAR association and NTUC since it’s not officially associated to the Labour Movement yet.

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He gave me two words.

“Mutually beneficial.”

Wong said that their members are very grounded and the Labour Movement (LM) needs to connect with people on the ground to know if their initiatives are relevant.

“What you (LM) have in mind, let me (STAR association) know. This is what I want, I let you know. Just tell me how can we marry each other. What’s the marriage like. From there, you gain, I gain. It’s a very open relationship”.

Wong who has a 6-year-old son is reconsidering on whether he would allow his son to become a freelancer in future.

He used to be against it but he has since changed his mind.

“I tell myself if my son is a freelancer and I’m a parent, I don’t want to see my son suffer like that. I want him to be in an environment where if he needs help, the help is there. Things are moving now so I will consider.”

Wong’s passion and enthusiasm in wanting to protect, listen and be the voice for freelancers is infectious. We really need more leaders like him.



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Joey Wee

Author Joey Wee

I am nice, most of the time!

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