Thursday, June 30, 2005

Travelling Light II.

T minus 6.

Why do you need to get rid of everything? Can't you just store it temporarily in Singapore till you're ready to move it all over?
- from comment by Tym in previous post SG Sitrep 10.

The short answer: Because it is not who I am.

The long answer takes up the rest of this post. I mean no disrespect to Tym in this post. I am just sharing some of my beliefs in my approach to life.


The History

I am aware that my minimalist approach to life possessions (see entry Travelling Light) is hardly representative of the typical Singaporean approach.

One bit of advice that I came across was to ship (in container by sea) the entire contents of a HDB flat to the new location for families migrating. The rationale was that being surrounded by familiar possessions and belongings would aid in the transition process. For some this would be good advice, but it is just not who I am.

It goes back all the way to one of those temporary jobs I took on when I first started working almost a decade ago. There was this friendly mild-mannered young lady in her mid 20s I met who had an amazingly unflappable attitude to life. Many of my working-class colleagues attributed it to her family wealth, that after all she would never have to worry about paying the bills or affording luxuries in life. However she led a relatively simple life and I never saw her flaunt her wealth in a vulgar display common to the nouveau riche.

One of her sayings (in Mandarin) was

or literally translated into English,
nothing I need
nothing I desire
nothing I own

It is one thing for those of us struggling to pay the day-to-day bills to dismiss materialism. We dismiss those who say "money does not matter" with "of course money does not matter if you already have money!". However when somebody with abundant old wealth deliberately cranks down the personal material desires as part of a program of personal improvement, you take note. It is a very Taoist approach to simplicity in life.

"If it does not breathe, it does not matter."


The Process

Every year or couple years, I set aside a day or two - sometimes a weekend for the purpose of decluttering. I systematically go through everything I own. And I mean everything. Every single thing I own gets put into one of two piles, demarcated by the answer to the question "did I use it in the item in the last six months?". A "yes" answer goes into the stack to keep.

The "no" pile is usually pretty big for me as trinkets and doodads just seem to accumulate around me like iron fillings drawn to a magnet. So I get a box. A small box. For everything in the "not required for day-to-day living" stack, I decide to keep or to dispose. Items I wish to keep go into the box. Which typically fills up very quickly. The critical rule is that the box cannot be filled past capacity. Once at capacity, to add another item would require taking out something else. In this sense, I am forced to quickly prioritise what keepsakes are important to me versus what I consider fluff. At the end of the exercise, everything not in The Box gets given away or thrown away. No exceptions. And expectedly, The Box has been getting bigger and bigger over the years.

Just finished another quick round of partial decluttering. There are now two smaller boxes. One holding keepsakes from way back to my early teenage days. The other holding files and documents that should have long been digitised and reduced, if not for my procrastination and my sentimental preference for dust-covered age-yellowed clipbooks.

I think a good goal would be to reduce the total sum of what I intend to move to Australia to less than or equal my body weight. There is really not that much that a single person needs to live on for the short term anyway.


The Benefits

I am about the most unreligious person I know. God and I are not on even on speaking terms. My approach to what I term decluttering is more for the practical benefits.

From a very morbid sense, I would hate to have people have to paw through mountains of my belongings trying to decide what to do with them when I am gone. I have witnessed firsthand the process with the passing of grandparents and relatives. Having to deal with the greed of relatives and the grief of the survivors trying to sort through what they view as valuable in the estate. When I go, I would like to leave things as neatly wrapped up as possible for minimal fuss.

[ Oh, you mean the benefits to me when I am still alive? ]

To start with, there is a maintenance cost to every single possession even if you do not regularly use it. Stuff needs to be cleaned, repaired and stored. Granted the cost for any individual item may be small, but they quickly add up. I weigh the maintenance cost of owning any item versus the cost of re-acquiring the item at a later point should I have need for it. In the words of William Morris, "Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful."

More importantly, having too much clutter around makes it extremely distracting for me personally when I am trying to focus. I cannot really explain this as it is a predominantly mental phenomena. It is just so much easier for me to think and work when I am not surrounded by a thousand tiny distractions - each calling out for attention. Or perhaps it is merely a rejection of the value system of my parents who take more to the packrat approach of "saving" almost everything for "just in case". Keeping stuff to a minimum around me also helps me to focus on what is important. It is not unlike the "if you were stuck on a desert island.." mental exercise (mentioned by Martin) to clarify what is really important in my life.

Money is great invention. Money is portable. Stuff is not. Think about it - you can literally hold the resources to substain life for years (water, food, clothes, shelter, medicals, broadband internet access) in the form of a few pieces of paper currency. And in our world today, even holding resources in paper currency is no longer required. You could hold the same resources in the form of electronic money that can be teleported from one point of the globe to another in the form of invisible electrons moving across wires/fibres from financial institution to financial institution.

I value that portability. One reason my employers have sometimes been uncomfortable hiring me is that they find it hard to get a "hold" on me. Not married, no children to feed, no HDB flat to pay for, no car repayments, few luxury goods or expensive habits. How do you get a "hold" over an employee who retains the ability to "take a walk" should the working conditions turn bad? In a similiar vein, how do you persuade someone to think / vote in the "correct" way when HDB upgrading, COE rebates, tax rebates for newborns, etc are no longer effective weapons in your arsenal?

In the words of John Boyd, "The most important thing in life is to be free to do things. There are only two ways to insure that freedom - you can be rich or you can reduce your needs to zero. I will never be rich, so I have chosen to crank down my desires. The bureaucracy cannot take anything from me, because there is nothing to take."


Anonymous Oikono said...

I take a minimalist approach to possessions. However, I have consistently added 5 books a year since 10 years back and I am loathe to discard them.

June 30, 2005 10:47 AM  
Blogger Elia Diodati said...

I'm kind of feeling the same way. I have a growing desire to sell everything off on eBay so that I won't have much to move in August.

June 30, 2005 11:14 AM  
Blogger Cowboy Caleb said...

my posessions in Singapore can be packed into 2 suitcases and 3 boxes. This is in case I need to make a hasty exit.

June 30, 2005 11:19 AM  
Anonymous jt said...

I've tonnes of stuff - mostly books and bears.
Well, when that time comes, I will also travel light.

June 30, 2005 12:03 PM  
Blogger Mr Wang Says So said...

I am an intensive declutterer too and I know exactly what KnightPentacles means. It is a mental thing.

Years ago, when I lived with my parents, I used to drive them crazy because I always tried to throw away not only my own useless things, but also their useless things, heheh.

June 30, 2005 12:33 PM  
Blogger Tym said...

I am in awe at all your supreme decluttering abilities. Me? I'm totally of the packrat/"save it just in case" approach. I think I inherited it from my parents, who got it from growing up dirt-poor during the postwar years. Ah, heritage...

Admittedly, the only times I have ever successfully decluttered my life is when I moved house/country. So maybe I should migrate in order to declutter my life ;)

June 30, 2005 5:11 PM  
Anonymous mrs budak said...

When you go over to Australia with what you think is necessary, I bet that you will eventually realise that what you left behind is dispensible.

I have boxes of things in the office which I thought was essential. After 2 years, I stare at them and wonder why I don't even miss what's inside.

Save your trouble getting rid of things (unless you are selling them for funds). Go over there, settle down, and tell your family to dispose of them as they see fit.

June 30, 2005 7:19 PM  
Blogger Jeff! Lim said...

interesting perspective... Nice read!!

June 30, 2005 8:09 PM  
Blogger Heavenly Sword said...

Very nice post...Got me thinking...

Actually, the most immovable things are family relationships, not possessions. Even if I want to move overseas (e.g. to work for a few years), my aging parents can't go with me. They are enough to keep me in Singapore.

June 30, 2005 8:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Unlike you, I have this habit of carting 24000 things around, no matter where I go or how much I throw. I seem to accummulate way too many books, clothes, orginal reprints of journals and even the packaging for pillows that I buy etc.. You get the idea.

However, I don't think personal freedom is only achieved from having few material possessions. My personal freedom emanates from few emotional attachments that I have to single place. And unlike most overseas singaporeans, I don't miss the food, my friends or family and much less the culture.

And as mobile as you think you are, you still have D.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting that your approach is wrong or anything but I'm just offering my point of view. There are many other ways to "feel free" and how you perceive freedom originates from the values that are important to you.

It's an outstanding post I must add. Got me thinking as well!

June 30, 2005 9:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

5 years ago, I got my 5 room HDB flat. It is neat and clutter free. I enjoy living in it.

I still have a room in my parents home and is full of my things. Far from clutter free. I enjoy living in it too ! Love the feeling of staying in a room full of my things, a organised mess.

I can think and operate perfectly in both places.

June 30, 2005 10:02 PM  
Blogger KC said...

Years ago, when I arrived in Australia, I only had one suitcase, and one hand carry. They were mostly empty anyway. When I came back to Singapore, it was 2 suitcases, and a few boxes for books.

10 years after leaving Australia, and now in the US, those books are still in boxes, somewhere in my garage. Even though I haven't opened those boxes, or read any of those books again, I still have a difficult time trying to figure out whether to throw out/donate the books.

July 01, 2005 2:03 AM  
Blogger C said...

Yeah i'm like that too. When i left, i took everything i needed with me in one big suitcase. I told my mother she was free to do anything she wanted to whatever i had left (she wouldn't see me throw it away).

Now they're renovating my old room to make it into a guest room, she's pretty much thrown everything out.

I live pretty sparsely too, small house, pretyt much just the essentials. In 2 years, if everything else goes right, we will have left the small house, and everything we have in the world will be in the Patrol & a trailer.

I like living with as much of the bare minimum as i can. It keeps your perspective in check when you don't have the distractions and complications of ten thousand things you don't need.

July 01, 2005 5:34 AM  
Blogger C said...

Finally found some evidence relating to that crime rate thing:

New figures show Western Australia remains the burglary capital of the nation.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) statistics show that while the number of burglaries in WA dropped 25 per cent in 2004, the state still recorded more break-and-enters than any other state...

July 02, 2005 10:55 AM  
Blogger KnightofPentacles said...

An anonymous reader was kind enough to send these tips about Perth. Part of the informative email reproduced here with permission:


Winter can get miserable if one is cold and lonely... worse if one is sick. Big flu viral thing going around Perth, doctors are not giving out antibiotics.... bring your own from S'pore (eg. Amoxillyn).

When $$ was tight, I ate lots of instant noodles... if have the old metal cup plus heating iron like how was used to cook our maggi mee during NS... will be useful.

Have you sent your resume to the key head-hunters here, eg Micheal Page, Chandler Macleod, Gel, Hudson, Hays. Check out the ads in community papers too. (good for in-between jobs type of work)

The State Library of Western Australia is a good place to hang-out if not working. Free internet access, newspapers etc. Next to train station in the city. Free internet access at library does not allow yahoo email but blogger is ok.

King George Street in Victoria Park has got plenty of students (meaning affordable accomodation) staying there because of the direct bus service (to Curtin Unit) and city.

Northbridge (backpackers area) is happening but can be dangerous at night. YMCA is safe but out of the way.

Bankwest got a good account (meaning no transaction fee), plus many branches/ATMs.

Buy a pre-paid card for your mobile, suggest vodaphone (not sure if it's the best deal) caller pays here.

If you miss S'pore food/provisions, go to Emma's Yong Tau Foo shop at the junction of Newcastle and William Street in Northbridge.

Cheapest way from the airport is to use the shuttle bus service, it does go round and round a bit, but it is 80% savings (normal taxi expect about $50.) Call and make booking. (no deposit needed). Can even ask them to recommend accomodation (not sure if they do).

July 03, 2005 7:42 PM  

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