Are common market practices becoming the norm?

Jan 2014    

… I suggest that we at least do what common market practices inherently try to get us not to do – to think and take moral responsibility for our decisions however uncomfortable it may feel.

Common market practices are those practices that are accepted as normal and are generally useful to make complex situations simple for all. For example, it is common market practice in Singapore to reserve a seat in a hawker centre by placing a tissue pack on a seat – it provides patrons an effective and simple way to reserve a seat without conflict.

One feature of common market practices is that they allow us to indulge in convenient practices without thinking, and this can cause some unsavoury practices to go unnoticed.

For example, it is acceptable to many people to be “creative with the truth” in job interviews. While most people won’t lie about facts in interviews for fear of getting caught, deceptive behaviours like exaggerating facts, omitting failures, downplaying weaknesses and avoiding direct answers are often used to give interviewers a glowing impression. These behaviours are so pervasive that interviewers have to go through special training to find ways to get at the truth in job interviews.

Another common practice that seems acceptable in society is using bribes to get out of sticky situations when travelling in some foreign countries. I experienced this first-hand when I was held up at immigration in a foreign country without the correct papers. The officer said he would do me a favour and openly asked me how much I was willing to pay.

I paid up to escape the inconvenience of staying back in the country for a day or two. It was a wrong thing to do and on reflection, I realised to my shame that convenience played a big part in my moral decisions. I tried to blame the officer and to abdicate my responsibility by saying that this was a common practice but in reality, I alone was morally responsible for my behaviour – because I had a choice.

That is what some common market practices do if we don’t think clearly about our behaviour – they allow us to think we are not responsible because everybody else does it.

Another practice that many should deeply struggle with (but probably don’t) is refusing their maids a day off every week, when some adjustments would make it possible. It is common market practice for many to do so legally by compensating them for that day instead, as indicated in the article “No weekly day off for most new maids” (The Straits Times, Jan 26, 2013).

Even talking about this common practice has become taboo. I once asked a pastor about encouraging discussion on days off for maids among his church members. He replied that it was a sensitive topic and left it at that.

He is right: it is sensitive because good people whom we love – friends, close family, relatives, fellow church-goers, or even ourselves – support, either by action or silence, this common market practice without too much thought. It feels very uncomfortable.

It is so uncomfortable that we don’t talk about it and the profound impact it might have, such as the possibility and irony that many church activities might be supported directly or indirectly by the labour of over-worked maids.

Jesus knows about the ills of common market practices very well. He was crucified because those opposing Him had no qualms using a common market practice to have Him condemned to death legally even though He was innocent by Pilate’s own admission. Crucifixion itself was a cruel common market practice used to slowly execute the condemned while making them an example to others.

So what can we do in the face of some morally challenging common practices? I suggest that we at least do what common market practices inherently try to get us not to do – to think and take moral responsibility for our decisions however uncomfortable it may feel. What do you think?

Picture by Howard Klaaste/

Stephen Yong is a corporate trainer by profession, and is married with two young sons. He strives to be truthful and authentic in all that he does, and talk about things we don’t like to talk about. He is a member of Wesley Methodist Church.


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