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I remember 3 years ago, I used to read this blog called Singapore Serf, of one man’s journey to find a better tomorrow. His writings were thought-provoking and sincere. Unfortunately, 3 years ago, this month, he suddenly passed away. No one seems to be quite sure his cause of death.

His blog still exists on the internet, and will remain there forever, as long as blogspot lives, his memories forever enthroned in cyberspace. Just thought I’ll share with you one of his articles that he wrote.

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.”

– 6 June 2005

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2 Responses to “Stuff”

  1. clancythepir8 Says:

    i have printed out this article so i can read it on break from work. it sounds very similar to the way i view my life and here i thought i was losing it. thanks for posting these thoughts and actions.

  2. Oldpilot Says:

    As it happens, I’m writing my dissertation on John Boyd–not on traveling light, but on applying his thoughts to counter-insurgency. See War in the Modern World. He was, by all accounts, a rewarding but exhausting gent to know. Blue skies! — Dan Ford

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