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Choosing The Freelance Life

By Joie Goh

Tung Pham

As more are opting to leave traditional full-time work in favour of more flexible arrangements, freelancing is no longer the refuge of the unemployed trying to make ends meet between jobs. Four individuals share more about their decision to eschew the established path. 

Tung PhamOn top of performing on stage, screen, singing, voice acting, and hosting, Erwin Shah Ismail also crafts leather, writes plays, and will soon be a trained stuntman for live shows.
On top of performing on stage, screen, singing, voice acting, and hosting, Erwin Shah Ismail also crafts leather, writes plays, and will soon be a trained stuntman for live shows.

Erwin Shah Ismail

For this multifaceted performer, playwright and leather crafter, who, at 31 years old, will soon be adding “stuntman” to his list of hustles, the decision to work as a freelancer was a no-brainer. The first male Singaporean to graduate with honours from Lasalle College of the Arts’ acting degree programme, Erwin’s closest experience to a conventional full-time office job was a 2006 stint as an intern conducting training lessons for Microsoft Outlook to clients at their respective workplaces. 

The gig convinced Erwin that full-time employment was not for him, but it also unlocked his passion for public speaking and performance. Despite being labelled primarily as an actor, he notes that acting in itself is a multiple hustle: apart from acting on stage and screen, Erwin’s roles also include voice-overs, singing and hosting — often in multiple languages like Mandarin Chinese and Malay. 

“As soon as I graduated I started living the freelance life, living pay cheque to pay cheque,” he says. “There isn’t a repertory theatre environment where a theatre company hires an actor full-time on monthly wages.” 

Besides, he adds, he didn’t want to be bound to one company, preferring the liberty to do more screen work, perform onstage in different genres and have free time as and when he desires. 

Leather crafting, on the other hand, was something he fell into quite by chance three years ago. “I had some free time and decided to pick up a new hobby with the intention to make it a continuous couple activity with my then girlfriend (now fiancée) Tiffany Tallon,” he says. “We both started on a leather crafting workshop to make our own passport holders.” 

Unfortunately, Tallon was hired as a dancer on a cruise ship a few days later, and had to leave without completing the workshop. Erwin ended up finishing both their passport holders on his own and discovered that he had a knack for it. Requests and commissions started coming in, and Erwin, who sources his leather and materials from Australia and locally, now creates his bespoke leather items out of his home workshop in between performing gigs. 

Leather crafting also led to the more recent venture of play-writing, when he was commissioned by experimental arts company Teater Ekamatra to create a one-man show in 2016. The resultant piece, “Kulit on the Go”, incorporated “a lot about the heart and art of leather crafting”, according to Erwin, and has since toured Singapore five times with plans to tour abroad. 

While being a freelancer was “perfect for (him)”, Erwin also acknowledges that it’s not without its drawbacks. Lack of a consistent income is his biggest challenge, and he notes that “freelancers need to have a stomach for rejection”. “I’ve been lucky to be constantly employed for the past six years doing all kinds of work, and it’s not something you earn overnight,” he says. “I was open to anything that came my way. Maintaining a reputation of quality work delivery keeps you employable, as does reaching out to new contacts and upgrading yourself to make opportunities roll in.” 

A freelance performer-artisan-playwright’s days are also as inconsistent as his income, although Erwin considers his varied schedule a benefit, not a disadvantage. From rehearsals, early set call-times to gym workouts and voice-over jobs, his days can “end as early as 1 PM or as late as 1 AM the next morning — never a dull day, and never the same.” 

Tung PhamA passion for throwing punches and throwing parties led former muay thai champ Kim Khan Zaki A.K.A Zach's current gigs as a trainer, DJ and party event organiser.
A passion for throwing punches and throwing parties led former muay thai champ Kim Khan Zaki A.K.A Zach's current gigs as a trainer, DJ and party event organiser.

Zig Zach

While Erwin made the conscious decision to permanently freelance, for Kim Khan Zaki, who goes by the moniker Zig Zach or Zach for short, it happened organically. Formerly a professional muay thai boxer in his youth, 35-year-old Zach is now a boxing trainer, DJ and event organiser.

“I knew I always wanted to fight professionally, that was for sure,” he says. “The DJ’ing and events were more of an accident and me seeing an opportunity to do things differently, better and really stand out from the usual stuff that was happening here.” 

The self-proclaimed “kid that always got into a lot of fights at school”, Zach had always enjoyed fighting and began training initially as a way to lose weight and to learn how to defend himself from the older kids who used to pick on him. At 14, he had his heart set on becoming a professional muay thai fighting, and immersed himself fully in the sport, going so far as to sleep on the floor because he had to throw out his bed in order to make room for a punching bag. 

By the time he retired at 30 years old, he had 35 pro fights (“25 wins, 12 by knockout,” he notes) under his belt and had fought across the world, was the first Singaporean to win at the legendary Lumpinee Boxing Stadium in Bangkok and had appeared on “The Contender Asia”, a muay thai-themed reality TV show. 

Ironically, he cites the “uncertainty” of a full-time boxer’s career as the reason why he quit the sport and decided to go into the freelance business. “I would train and fights would get cancelled at the last minute, and I would’ve had wasted my time cutting weight and training,” he explains. “Plus, watching friends travel the world and enjoy their lives, while I was starving from cutting weight, running in a sweat suit at 6 AM to make weight before a fight and living in a boxing camp in Thailand — I just got tired of that whole thing.” 

Instead, he fell into DJ’ing, a passion of his that he never had the opportunity to explore during his fighting days. “I love partying and I love music,” he says. “When I went out, I would be just there, stone cold sober, listening to the music because I enjoyed it.” 

A chance encounter with a bar owner in Bali, who suggested that Zach play a set one night, led to a monthly residency and an uptick in gigs locally and in Bali. That in turn led to organising parties and events. “I’ve been partying all around the world, and every time I come back, I’d wonder why we couldn’t have that here,” he says. So, he began to coordinate pop-up parties, renting out warehouses, rooftops and Chinese junk boats, and in one particularly “crazy” instance, took over the sleepy St John’s Island on the southern coast of Singapore and “partied from sunset to sunrise”. 

These days, when Zach isn’t travelling overseas to DJ or organise events, he splits his time between training private clients in the morning and evenings, checking his emails and working on upcoming events, and testing out new music for DJ sets. His current lifestyle agrees with him very well, although, he adds, more income would definitely be welcome. 

“I did one full-time job in some office and got fired from that,” he says. “I’ve always known that I don’t belong in this rigid nine-to- five, boring corporate nonsense. I want to do what I love, even if it means not making a tonne of money. 

“Of course, there are days when even I question what I do, and I wonder if I should’ve listened to my parents, studied harder, worked in a good office job, make some money, save it and then do what I want,” he continues. “But then I look back and I think of the life I’ve had and I wouldn’t have done it any other way. I’ve achieved more than most ‘normal’ people would have done and I’m very proud of it. After all, there’s a saying: ‘If you don’t want to work nine to five, be ready to hustle 24/7.’”

Tung PhamFor Lydia Lok, giving up comfortable employment to freelance as a teacher, writer and business consultant in order to fund a social enterprise is worth it if it helps the disenfranchised.
For Lydia Lok, giving up comfortable employment to freelance as a teacher, writer and business consultant in order to fund a social enterprise is worth it if it helps the disenfranchised.

Lydia Lok

Perhaps no one else has hustled harder than 33-year-old Lok, a former policy officer with the Ministry of Community Development who helped draft the International Child Abduction Act, which was passed in Parliament eight years ago. She gave up her stable government job and even rejected a job offer for a position she was headhunted for, in order to run a social enterprise with her husband, and in order to fund the latter, has turned to teaching phonics, writing children’s books, illustrating greeting cards and running a boutique business consultancy firm focusing on productivity diagnosis and branding. 

The social enterprise, Curious Thoughts Academy, is the result of Lok’s childhood ambition to help women and children facing abuse, and the trajectory of her education in political science and career working on legislation related to women’s rights and issues. It was set up in 2016 to up-skill female survivors of abuse to learn phonics in order to teach their children how to read as well as for abused children to learn to read, with the intention to break the poverty cycle with training and education. 

“I left in my third year (as a policy officer) because I realised that in reality, legislation was not as effective as I had dreamt it to be,” Lok says. “What we could do with legislation was limited in its capacity to change lives, as laws are always reactive, put in place to punish an act that has already happened. I wanted to do something that would change lives directly; hence, I knew I had to look at upstream measures that would tackle social issues at its roots.” 

Working with a higher cause in mind helped temper any doubt or regret that Lok might have in giving up full-time employment in order to run Curious Thoughts Academy. “I didn’t choose this path because it eschewed the conventional route, I chose it because I was passionate about addressing social issue to help women and children in need,” she declares. “I feel very excited every time I see a beneficiary learn to read, or seeing their eyes light up when they hold Play-Doh, or scissors, or a crayon for the first time in their hands.” 

It also helps that she is not alone. Lok’s husband gave up his own job as a teacher with the Ministry of Education to run Curious Thoughts with her, giving private tuition to assist with the operational costs of the social enterprise as well as volunteering as an English teacher at the latter. “We’ve grown rather immune to this ‘unconventional’ choice,” she adds. “Also, over time, we’ve aligned with like-minded people; hence the people around us are usually of a similar nature — entrepreneurial, open-minded, passionate and also always hustling to solve a business or social issue.” 

Still, Lok admits that she has moments of doubt, especially whenever she hears of her peers being more financially successful and being able to own property. However, she is resolute, and sees returning to full-time employment as a last resort if she and her husband are unable to fiscally sustain Curious Thoughts in spite of her efforts from her consultancy business (which brings in the main bulk of the revenue needed to run the former) and her merchandise. 

“The good thing about running my own hustles is that I get to manage my schedule and timeline,” says Lok, who is impeccably organised and applies the productivity framework, which she advises to her clients, to her own life. Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays are allocated to deal with consultancy issues, while Tuesdays and weekends are devoted to her social enterprise. Weekday nights and public holidays are used to write her books and to work on her sewing hobby, and right before bed- time, she researches teaching methodologies to apply to her students at Curious Thoughts Academy. 

It’s a punishing schedule for sure, and Lok acknowledges that the struggle is real, but like Erwin and Zach, she wouldn’t give it up. “I knew I wanted to establish a social enterprise, and everything else that I did, the multiple hustles and avenues, was for the sake of sustaining it and keeping it alive,” she says. “These days, we extend phonics classes as a scholarship to all children from less-privileged backgrounds referred to us from shelters, and our goal is that for every three paying students, we can teach one beneficiary to read through our scholarship.” 

Tung PhamWith the intention of eventually going into art therapy, Shermane Chua moonlights (and daylights) as a pet accessory designer, musician and a studio manager to learn more about society.
With the intention of eventually going into art therapy, Shermane Chua moonlights (and daylights) as a pet accessory designer, musician and a studio manager to learn more about society.

Shermane Chua

While the general picture of modern freelancers tend to be people who have already established a repertoire of work, usually from earlier full-time employment, a 2017 survey polling over 10,000 recent graduates from the three main universities in Singapore has shown that a higher proportion of the demographic are shifting towards freelance work as well. In a Straits Time article, Foo See Yang, the managing director of recruitment company Kelly Services Singapore cites the increased desirability for freelance arrangements as “an increasing preference for flexibility, and a desire for a greater sense of control in managing one’s own career development”. 

This is the case for 27-year-old Shermaine Chua, a 2017 fine arts graduate from Lasalle College of the Arts who is opting to pursue multiple freelance opportunities as a fashion designer for dogs, a musician and a part-time studio manager for WeBarre, a boutique barre studio, instead of immediately embarking on her desired post-graduate programme in art therapy. “My family urged me to explore while I still can and try to find other things I love, as I can study the masters course at any time,” she says. 

Sewing and textiles was a medium she was most drawn to during the time she was studying for her degree, and thus she started Bow Waow, an online boutique selling handmade bespoke and originally designed pet accessories (“Before a series is launched, it’s first tested out by our quality assurance manager, Mr Gom,” she says proudly, referring to her beloved Pomeranian). In addition to Bow Waow, Chua also sings and plays the guitar and ukulele, performing for paid gigs with her band (“We haven’t settled for a name yet,” she admits), supplementing her income through busking and playing in bars, restaurants and parties. 

“I enjoy being an unconventional worker because working on many small projects and jobs offers me the opportunity to pick up new skills and meet a lot of people of different interest, background and goals in a shorter amount of time,” Chua says. “It’s not something I believe I can get from working a full-time job specialising in one particular area, and if I want to be a successful art therapist in the future, I need these experiences!” 

However, she adds that it does bother her when “aunties and uncles start conversations insinuating (she is) wasting (her) time” with freelancing across industries instead of getting a stable job or going to school. “I did figure that a full-time job would’ve brought in a stable income, but it would also stunt my growth as I’d be fighting with time to make everything work,” she says. Her latest job at WeBarre is a compromise: “It’ll help me stay active, positive, and because the work hours are also not as fixed daily, it works great!” 

Like the previous three, Chua worries about financial stability, in particular, the lack of CPF contribution from ad hoc employment. “I’m already 27 and I do want to get my own place by 35, so that’s an evident issue for this job choice,” she says. 

For the others, though, CPF isn’t as important. Zach admits he doesn’t think or worry about it too much, while Erwin self-contributes to his CPF account from his earnings, acknowledging that it’s much harder to do so as a freelancer and that he “feels the pinch”. What’s more pertinent to everyone is actually medical insurance: Lok and her husband had purchased their policies at a very young age so they are heavily covered while being able to afford the premiums, and Erwin stresses that having good insurance is vital for performers. 

“A freelancer needs to be a prudent money manager,” Erwin notes. “On top of that, it’s important to regard yourself as your best business product even though you may be dispensable.” 

While Chua does intend to return to conventional employment “only when there’s a deep purpose”, the others are perfectly content with having their fingers in multiple pies despite, in Zach’s words, the “24/7 hustle”. And even though Erwin, who is currently in training to become a stuntman with Action Horizons, a stunt company, and is in talks to start a full-time contract as a stunt performer at Universal Studios Singapore’s Waterworld live show, he is quick to point out that the hours there are “far more flexible compared to conventional work,” and will still continue to pick up freelance acting work and leather commissions.

“I truly love being an unconventional worker,” he declares. “Time and time again, I have friends from secondary school or army mates who would clearly express how envious they are of my position, not bound to one job. I would in turn be envious of their ‘stability’. But then, this begs the next question: am I happy? Well, I’m extremely happy waking up every day because I look forward to going to work. 

“You know you got it right when working is more fun than not working.”