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The Pursuit Of Less
BEN LIU CAN TELL YOU exactly how much - or perhaps how many - clothes he has: "Five shirts, nine T-shirts, five pairs of jeans, two bermudas, seven pairs of underwear, 10 pairs of socks, one blazer, one cold weather jacket. That's all."
Mr Liu is not poor. As a property agent and part-time barista ("I do it only because I'm passionate about coffee"), he is comfortably middle class. He lives in a three-storey terrace house with his wife, son and in-laws. He eats out with family and friends frequently.
But Mr Liu has joined a small and growing movement in Singapore that embraces the minimalist lifestyle: consuming less so you can "live more". On the surface, this appears to be a paradox. But minimalists are convinced that our modern fast-paced lifestyles have overwhelmed our senses so much that we forget the things that really matter: human relationships. Our time, energy and spaces are being sapped by owning too many things we don't need, but which we have to use, store and maintain.
Minimalists argue that consumerism has made us competitive and anxious. They contend that we can all be happier if we buy things we truly need, and borrow or rent things we need temporarily. They are against "stuff-ocation", a term coined by James Wallman in his book of the same name.
To be clear, though, minimalism doesn't mean stinginess or deprivation - it just means spending more prudently on things that are necessary and things that last. For instance, don't buy that BBQ grill that you might use twice a year. But do buy that great, sturdy refrigerator that you'll need 24/7. Don't buy six T-shirts at the night market because they're "3 for S$10". But do buy that great well-fitting suit that makes a good impression at work.
"I realised that buying things excited me for just a short while. But after that, I would wonder why I bought some of them in the first place. The world is already choking with pollution. I don't want to be part of the problem," says 28-year-old Joan Chong.
Ms Chong, together with Mr Liu, Bai Yong Li and Fabian Kwa, are among the founders of Minimalism In Singapore, a Facebook group that is under a year old. Though all four have been practising minimalism individually for a few years, it was only last year that they got together to spread the gospel.
The closed Facebook group only has about 310 members now - one has to send a request to join the group - but it's an active and growing one with frequent posts containing philosophical musings on how to live, pictures of minimalist homes, and notices on recycling drives.
The founders estimate there are at least 5,000 Singaporeans practising minimalism, but not all are aware of or want to be part of the group. Some, says Mr Liu, "are shy about admitting they're minimalists because the first thing people ask them is: 'So you have only one pair of underwear?'"
A DIFFERENT 'WEALTH'
Regina Wong, the London-based founder of minimalist lifestyle website Live Well With Less, says: "Minimalism isn't about deprivation. I still buy that expensive Burberry trench coat that costs thousands of pounds because it's great-looking and great value... But I am more conscious of how I spend because I want to be free of physical, emotional and financial clutter. I'm paying attention to the ethos of buying products that are environmentally-friendly and made with fair trade practices. I'm careful about my purchases."
Ms Wong came to a recent meeting hosted by Minimalism In Singapore to lend support to the movement here. For years, she was a corporate high-flyer in the telecoms industry working around the world. According to the UK tax office, she says, her salary put her in the ranks of the highest earners in the country. "I had the money to buy the same tops in different colours if I couldn't decide."
But her "consumption-driven treadmill", as she describes it, gave her little joy. She felt the urge to live on less and live more consciously, and set about simplifying her life, routines and career goals. At home, she was guided by William Morris' quote: "Have nothing in your home that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful" - and removed anything that didn't give her joy. "I have fewer things now, but I feel richer than I've ever felt before," she says.
Ms Wong leads the Minimalists London Meet-Up Group which hundreds of Londoners regularly attend to exchange notes. The group started three years ago after famous American minimalists Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus (of theminimalist.com fame) came to the city to spread the word. The two along with Colin Wright, Joshua Becker, Courtney Carver and Leo Babauta are among the celebrated American figures helping to popularise the contemporary minimalist movement in the US and elsewhere.
In Asia, the most prominent "minimalist" is Japanese decluttering expert Marie Kondo, whose book The Life-Changing Magic Of Tidying Up sold millions of copies worldwide and inspired countless people to reorganise their homes and lives. Though Kondo focuses on tidiness, its psychological benefits overlap with the goals of minimalists. Japan has also produced the male version of Kondo, Fumio Sasaki, whose book Goodbye Things is also a hit.
Of course, the philosophy of minimalism isn't new in human history: Mahatma Gandhi, Confucius, Lao Tzu, Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, among many others, famously preached the simple life. As far back as 450 BC, Socrates declared: "The secret of happiness, you see, is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less." And some of the world's wealthiest simplify parts of their lives to properly focus on others: Mark Zuckerberg wears the same grey T-shirt every day; Warren Buffett lives in the same modest house purchased in 1958.
Ms Wong says: "Minimalism is about prioritising the things that bring value to your life. At the same time, it's also organic in that the objects that are important to you now could be completely unimportant five years from now. That's when you give them away to someone else who needs them."
In Singapore, a handful of blogs have sprouted in recent years. Among the most popular is Minimalist In The City (minimalistinthecity.com) run by Kate and Dave, a white-collar couple in their 30s who work in the legal and financial industry respectively. Though they decline to reveal their surnames, they willingly blog the breakdowns of their monthly expenses, reasons why they don't own a car even though they can afford one, Kate's "minimalist pregnancy" and other confessions.
Kate says: "When we started the blog in Sept 2016, most of our visitors were from the US, Australia and Canada. But today, we get about a 100 visitors a day and 70 per cent of them are from Singapore, while the rest are from Malaysia, Hong Kong and elsewhere."
According to Google Trends, Singapore ranks fourth worldwide for the number of times the word "minimalism" is searched. The service measures the popularity of a search term relative to the total search volume of each country. "It's definitely a movement that has gained traction among millennials like us who, among other reasons, want to leave the world a better place for future generations," Kate adds.
The founders of Minimalism In Singapore confirm that more than three-quarters of their members are in their 20s and 30s. Many embrace minimalism as a reaction to excessive consumerism, with not a few reacting specifically to having parents who are hoarders. Beyond that, technology has also made the minimal lifestyle more feasible. Important documents, treasured photos and videos, and entertainment media can all be digitised and stored efficiently in computers and cloud storage drives.
Meanwhile, at least one interior design company has capitalised on many millennials' penchant for minimalist aesthetics. The Minimalist Society was started by wife-and-husband team Soon Yi Ling and Keith Ng in 2014 and has seen steady growth in client numbers. The five-man firm now handles an average of 40 projects a year.
Ms Soon says: "A lot of our clients have read Marie Kondo, so the discussions often revolve around how to categorise things, maximise storage, reduce clutter, and allow plenty of breathing space in every room."
One of their clients is couple Nat Liew and Jinny Tan, both nurses. Mr Liew explains: "As we encounter life and death everyday, we realised how important it is to prioritise human interactions over possessions. Accumulating stuff just adds to the distraction. So we wanted to keep our home as simple and clean as possible."
Many minimalists are religious about the 3Rs - recycling, reusing and reducing - in a bid to cut down on pollution. They try not to discard things that can still be used, donating them to organisations such as the Salvation Army or Sgfreecycle Facebook group. They also use phone apps such as Freegood to give away or request for second-hand things for free.
But while most minimalists are young people striving for a cleaner, greener, more responsible earth, the lifestyle has also gained traction among some older Singaporeans. Retirees Sen Chung and Melina Wee, for instance, used to work as a corporate consultant and private banker respectively. Both in their 60s, the husband and wife started practising minimalism after reading Marie Kondo's book a few years ago.
Ms Wee says: "In some sense, I'm tired of being told to buy something while the world is suffocating in trash. It comes down to asking myself: do I really need to acquire this? Is this how I'm building my self-esteem - through things? I came from the banking industry and I've lived well. But I wasn't necessarily happy with the things I bought. And I've come to realise that less is more. I've given away many things and I don't miss them at all."
Mr Chung chimes in: "We come from a generation where we're told to study hard, get a good job, acquire things as symbols of our success, and give things to our kids. But now we know that excessive consumption leads to environmental damage. And we've lived long enough to experience global warming, watch sea levels rise and see ice caps melt. And we've decided, enough is enough."
SOME RESOURCES ON MINIMALIST LIVING
MINIMALISTS IN THE CITY
Singaporean couple Dave and Kate on how to practise minimalism in Singapore while raising two kids.
MINIMALISM IN SINGAPORE
Local millennial Joan Chong on how to "keep it simple".
Popular American figures Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus who have their own blog, podcast and book.
Well-curated American site with great articles on how to live simply.
THE LIFE-CHANGING MAGIC OF TIDYING UP
(2011) by Marie Kondo
This book by Japanese organising consultant Kondo that sparked a worldwide craze.
(2017) by Fumio Sasaki
Hailed as Japan's king of decluttering, Sasaki preaches the joy of living on less.
THE MORE OF LESS
(2016) by Joshua Becker
Influential American minimalist Becker's very readable book on the pursuit of less.
MINIMALISM: A DOCUMENTARY ABOUT THE IMPORTANT THINGS (2015)
An excellent introduction to the contemporary movement in the US. Available on Netflix.
THE TRUE COST (2015)
This documentary examines the social and environmental costs of fast fashion. Available on Netflix.
SERVICES & ORGANISATIONS
THE MINIMALIST SOCIETY
This local interior design firm has designed hundreds of homes according to the minimalist ethos and aesthetics.
MINIMALISM IN SINGAPORE FACEBOOK GROUP
Many minimalists congregate on this Facebook page to discuss how best to led the simple life here. It's a closed group so you have to send a request to join it.