Labour Day: A Celebration of Collective Action

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This late afternoon, ‘family day’ is spent in the comfort of home. Beyond the windows that enclose my room, the environment exists as a paradox – the cloudless sky inviting us to play outdoors but the familiar whiff of humidity keeping us in. Memories from yesterday’s Augmentum Dance Showcase 2016 remain fresh. The collaboration amongst Raffles Institution’s Indian Dance, Modern Dance and Street Dance CCAs brought together a refreshing fusion of the different genres on stage to the audience who were engaged in awe. Comfortable in the red cushioned seats of the Performing Arts Centre, I am reminded of the Raffles Runway Rproject Showcase that I had been heavily involved in just a year before this. Similarly, we had braved through collaborations with guest designers, the Film Society and Photographic Society to put together a fashion show, hopefully feast to our audience’s senses. In both cases, it was collaboration for a common cause that had resulted in an adventure for fresh perspectives, creative nuances to a single product.

Labour Day also known as May Day is celebrated on the 1st of May each year as a mark of solidarity amongst workers. It serves to remind us what collective strength has achieved for workers. In light of the occasion, this one is about collective action and the value of working together (rather than apart).

An Economist article, titled Team Spirit, is one of the most memorable for me in my 12-week subscription since the year began. The criticized businesses for promoting group-work excessively. It asserted that (here I quote) “teams are not always the answer—teams may provide insight, creativity and knowledge in a way that a person working independently cannot; but teamwork may also lead to confusion, delay and poor decision-making.” It makes good economic sense, then, to avoid group-work (possibly associated with groupthink, “dead weights” and disproportionate contributions) unless truly appropriate. My favourite read, The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli, quotes numerous irrational outcomes as a result of action done collectively – these amplify the danger of having many people join hands in making decisions and having their stakes in an outcome intertwined.

Even with these potential pitfalls introduced by collective action, today we celebrate that “many hands make light work”. I have seen over and over from my Odyssey of the Mind team building experience and Youth Corps Singapore volunteering opportunities, how teammates can easily ride on one another’s enthusiasm to swim against currents of challenges. And the power of collective action have been amplified with every General Paper lesson that advocated for the importance of the ‘Public’, ‘People’ and ‘Private’ to be aligned in their hopes for society. All these that amplify the case for collective action is old news. Our continuous search to be part of something larger than ourselves – a community cause, an organization or a faith, is acknowledgement of the value in collective action.

And yet, there remains many other facets of life where we continue to adopt a monolithic view of a zero-sum game in play. We continue to shun cooperation in some areas where collective action is the most critical.  Bringing forth our economy or protecting our environment, just to name examples, remain areas we believe strongly in “every man for himself”; our selfishness triumphs. (Perhaps, it is our defense mechanism acting up… there is something we think we are protecting.) Where we can, though, let’s fight this intuitive defense and look harder for the case for collective action for maybe there is more reason to believe in the possibility of a positive outcome in our cooperation compared to our division. There may be greater strength in our unity.

On this note, I echo the Uruguay President’s dream that in face of our countless global challenges, we one day learn to think “as a species” rather than “as people and countries”. Happy Labour Day! And for the collective action that has earned us this public holiday, may we continue to become more adept at working collectively.

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