About two weeks ago, I came across two freegans on the internet: Mark Boyle and Daniel Suelo. They live in the U.S. and they live without money. Mark Boyle since 2008, and Daniel Suelo since 2000. Daniel Suelo has a comprehensive FAQ on his website which gives practical tips on how to live without money. In addition, I identified with many of his views on religion.
As I read through the website over the next few days, a thought popped into my head:
I wonder if it is possible to live without money in Singapore.
The thought stayed in my head for some time until I finished reading the FAQ. I then decided to conduct an experiment to test this out. My original plan was to take a 3D2N moneyless holiday. I shared this idea with a few friends, one of whom suggested I do 4D3N instead.
Why I went for a freegan holiday
I knew that this holiday could, at its worst, be physically and mentally challenging. So in my journal, I wrote out the reasons why I was conducting this experiment:
- To learn how to trust, to have faith that all will be well, without thinking or planning too far into the future. To learn how to live in the now and focus on the present.
- To get away from my daily life and do something different.
- To see what it is like to be homeless and live without money in Singapore.
I wanted to capture the inspiration ASAP, so without making too many preparations (reason #1), I blocked out the nearest 4 days I could spare and informed my family and a few friends of my intention.
The rules of the game
The entire experiment was up to me, so I laid down some ground rules for myself:
- Carry no money.
My original plan had an emergency kit containing one EZ-Link card, $50 cash, and my NRIC. After working out that it’s not practical to walk or cycle all over the island, I scrapped this plan. Instead, I took with me an EZ-Link card and my NRIC, and left the cash at home.
- You may use an EZ-Link card.
In the U.S., freegans can bus hop or train hop. This means holding on to the outside of a bus or train. They can also hitch a ride. Bus or train hopping would not only be unsafe but also illegal in Singapore, so I allowed myself the use of an EZ-Link card, but only for travelling on buses and trains. I didn’t try hitching a ride since public transport in Singapore is awesome!
- Carry no mobile phone.
In another version of the freegan holiday, I could use a mobile phone as charging points are easily found. However, this time round, I wanted to be totally off the grid and away from my daily life (reason #2).
These were the items I carried with me and used during my trip:
- 1 x small towel
- 2 x t-shirts
- 2 x underwear
- 1 x long-sleeved shirt
- 1 x shorts
- 1 x jeans
- 1 x journal and pen
- 1 x eye pad
- 1 x scissors
- 1 x house keys
- 1 x EZ-Link card
- 1 x NRIC
- 1 x large water bottle
- 1 x haversack
- 1 x shampoo and body wash
The watch in the photo was received free during the trip, which meant I no longer had to ask strangers for the time. I also found a small water bottle along the way for… other purposes. I discarded it on the way home.
Equipped with just these items, I set out for my trip with just a haversack:
Food & water
I’ve been eating free food since the first day of 2017. I wasn’t about to change this. I bet that I could find lots of leftovers at fast food restaurants and food courts. I could tell you all about the different meals I had, most of them were amazing. Here’s a list of what I ate:
- One-third chicken cutlet from food court
- 2 half-bowls of white rice from Yoshinoya
- 2 half-bowls of miso soup from Yoshinoya
- 2 ebi fry from Yoshinoya
- 2 half-bowls of white rice from food court
- Two-third large bowl of mala hot pot with noodles and beef from food court
- 2 spoonfuls of chicken rice from food court
- One-quarter Angus beef burger from McDonald’s
- One-third buttermilk crispy chicken burger from McDonald’s
- 4 helpings, equivalent to 2 large fries from McDonald’s
- One-third hot fudge sundae from Burger King
- Two-third bowl of soba noodles from hawker centre
- One-third bowl of noodles from hawker centre
- Two-third bowl of white rice from hawker centre
- 2 spoonfuls of white rice from food court
- One-third fish cutlet from food court
- Three-quarters bowl of bee hoon soup with hard boiled egg, vegetables, mushrooms from food court
- Half hot plate of Korean BBQ chicken from food court
- 3 fried beancurd skin snacks from HDB flat
- 1 pork floss pastry from HDB flat
- One-quarter bowl of noodles from hawker centre
- One-fifth plate of fried carrot cake from hawker centre
- Three-quarter plate of fried bee hoon with mutton curry from hawker centre
- 5 chunks of mutton from hawker centre
- One-third plate of economic rice with vegetables from hawker centre
- One-third bowl of wan ton noodles with char siew and vegetables from hawker centre
- One-third plate of fried kway teow from hawker centre
- 2 spoonfuls of nasi lemak from food court
- 1 helping of ikan bilis from food court
- 2 ketupat and some cucumber slices from food court
- Half helping of flavoured rice from Popeye’s
- One-third bowl of white rice with half large bowl of beef soup from food court
- One-third bowl of white rice with half bowl of fish soup from food court
- Two-third bowl of noodles with two-third bowl of hot pot from food court
- 3 mouthfuls of fried bee hoon from food court
- 1 quarter cup of kopi from food court
- Two-third bowl of bak chor mee from food court
You probably have a lot of questions. Here are some that I can think of:
Q: Is it safe to eat scraps from other people’s meals? You don’t know where it came from!
A: It came from the stall, bought by the person before me, and abandoned without being finished. Sometimes the food that I eat is still warm. If you would buy and eat from from that stall, why would you not eat the same food if it is free?
Q: It’s not hygienic, how can you eat it?
A: There are many levels of hygiene. Eating leftover food prepared by a stall that is graded A is probably more hygienic than buying freshly prepared food from a stall that is graded C.
Q: What if someone transmits their germs to you and you fall sick?
A: Do you breathe air? Do you spend time with other people? If yes, then these other people are already transmitting their germs to you. But you don’t always fall sick, do you?
That’s because your immune system is constantly working, killing the germs and protecting you from illnesses. My immune system does the same for me.
Q: Aren’t you embarrassed when people stare at you for eating leftovers?
A: Only once in my four days did someone pass a remark about me eating leftovers. Truth be told, no one really notices you. Between talking to their friends and using their mobile phones, no one even notices when you sit right beside them to finish off the meal that someone else left behind.
This can’t be said for peak hours though, because during peak hours, people pay much more attention to empty seats even if the food is still on the table. Normally, there’s already someone else waiting for the seat to be vacated, so I scoot over, grab the plate or bowl as I pass by, and bring it to another empty seat to consume it.
Q: Do people chase you away?
A: So far, no. I try to do my part by returning the trays to the tray collection area when I’m done eating. The cleaners are so busy that they have no time to notice that the same person has returned a tray four times. Usually no more than that because by the 4th tray, I’m full.
Q: What about drinks? What do you drink?
A: I’m already accustomed to drinking tap water. It’s healthier and easily accessible anywhere there’s a tap. I carry a large bottle of water wherever I go. Sometimes I drink leftover coffee too. Due to the prevalence of potable water in Singapore, drinking water and staying hydrated is very easy.
Shelter & the homeless
I underestimated the difficulty of finding shelter. I thought I could just sleep in the airport or in parks. But no, it’s not that simple.
My first night was at Changi Airport. I scouted Terminals 2 and 3. I spoke to cleaners and McDonald’s staff about spending a night at the airport. One of them, after hearing about my experiment, pointed me to a food court.
“Go there and see the homeless,” she said. “Just observe them.”
I did. The only people around the food court at night are the stall helpers, the cleaners, and the homeless.
And then my eyes were opened.
I never knew that there were so many homeless people in Singapore. I just never saw them before, and I bet you never have either. But they are there.
I settled for a viewing gallery in one of the terminals as my first resting place. Barely an hour after I had fallen asleep, I was awoken by security asking for my identification documents. They bade me a safe night and to look after my belongings. Not difficult since I slept on the only bag I had.
Some homeless folks have more than a haversack. They have a whole trolley of stuff with them.
But after the security check, I was unable to go back to sleep. There were other people in the viewing gallery. Kids and families who decided to stay the night and, for whatever reason, decided to make noise, play games and turn up the volume on their mobile phones.
I got up and went in search of a quieter place. The airport has many nooks and crannies that are perfect for someone looking for a place to crash. Clearly the homeless use these as there were cardboard sheets there.
I crashed in one secluded corner and after a while decided to drag the cardboard sheet over to lay on it. And then my eyes were opened again!
Now I understood why homeless people sleep on cardboard. It’s really hard to sleep on the floor. Literally. The floor is really hard. Even a single sheet of cardboard softens it and makes it easier to sleep.
But it was not easy to sleep. Every time someone walked past, I would awake at the noise. I would get alarmed and check to see if my NRIC is still in my wallet, and that my wallet had not fallen out of my pocket. Every time I turned in my sleep, I woke up because I had to find another comfortable position.
I barely got 2 hours of uninterrupted sleep that first night.
I spent the next day in a haze of sleepiness, searching for tables to just put my head down and sleep. It occurred to me why homeless people are often found sleeping — because it’s hard to get a good night’s sleep. This is something I need to work on for my future holidays. But for now, I have grown to appreciate the importance of having a safe place to stay and a clean soft mattress to sleep on.
Toilets, showers & laundry
Toilets are easy to find, and I also use these, along with water coolers to refill my water bottle. I went to only one place for a shower, and that is East Coast Park. There, the shower areas together with the toilet and changing rooms are washed every morning at 7am.
(I had a conversation with an uncle who cleans it. He lives in Jurong East and works at East Coast Park. His working hours are 7am to 4pm. He packs his own lunch to eat at the toilet. He wakes up at 3.30am to prepare his lunch and get to work on time. He’s used to it.)
As funny as it may seem, one of my biggest challenges was how to clean my butt after pooping. I didn’t want to carry toilet paper around with me as it doesn’t always do a clean job. That’s when I found the answer from Daniel Suelo’s website, so I carried a bottle of water with me into the toilet. The gymnastics involved gave me a cramp in the arm the first time, but I got used to it.
The other challenge was peeing in the night. As a guy, I have the benefit of being able to pee into a bottle, which I do when I need to go in the middle of the night. Yes, I could walk to the toilet, but I really don’t feel like walking all the way there — sometimes it’s not near — and all the way back. So I got a plastic bottle from a recycling bin, washed it out, and kept it handy.
At East Coast Park, you’re not allowed to bathe in the nude, so some underwear is bound to get soaked. At the same time, the towel I used also needed to be dried. I always wore one set of clothing and kept another in my bag. Whenever I was at East Coast Park, which was twice, I would wash my clothes and dry them in the sun afterwards.
I’m glad I did the laundry at the first time I was there, because at the second time I saw a storm rolling in, and was not able to dry clothes.
Drying clothes in the hot sun is quick and efficient. It takes about an hour or so. I’d lay the clothes out in the sun, and snooze on a bench in the shade. There, I got another security check by a couple of police officers who wanted to know if everything was alright, and why did I come all the way to East Coast Park to take a shower. I told them about my experiment and they wished me good luck.
On the second day, I was not able to dry my towel as there was no sun. So I hung it from my haversack all day. It wasn’t until evening that it finally dried.
Sleeping outdoors with patrols & security checks
It is very important to always carry your NRIC or passport with you when you do this. In 4 days, I was approached by security or police officers 3 times. They are really thorough in their patrols. At the third time, I was half impressed and half exasperated that they found me again even though I thought I was in a relative secluded and hidden spot. Not that I was hiding, I just wanted to sleep in peace.
This time, I asked how does checking my NRIC help improve security — I didn’t get a straight answer — and if it was alright for me to be sleeping outdoors. The officer replied that it was fine for me to sleep outdoors, so that clears up one of the mysteries I always wondered about.
I am grateful for the security checks. On the one hand, they interrupted my sleep, but on the other hand, they assured me that I’m less likely to get robbed. Not that I was carrying anything of value. Heck, I didn’t even have any money on me.
On my second and third nights, I slept outdoors. This was one of my favourite parts of the holiday — being able to see the whole night sky before I closed my eyes, feeling the cool evening breeze on my face, and watching the stars slowly move across the sky each time I woke up in the night. Waking up to the morning light at 6+ was also a wonderful experience. It’s like camping, without the tent and the mosquitoes.
The nights got rather chilly too, so I was glad I always slept in jeans and that I had brought a thick long-sleeved shirt with me. I’d rather sleep outdoors than in Changi Airport where I spent my first night. I woke up the next morning freezing and my teeth were chattering all the way to the MRT station.
Entertainment & socialising
Besides shelter, the other thing I need to work on for future holidays is finding things to do. I spent most of my time catching up on sleep and visiting the library. Because the days were hot, the library was great for the air-con and unlimited amount of reading I could do.
I also visited shopping malls closer to meal times, again for the air-con, and also for the food. I had a lot of time to read and write in my journal, which is why this post is so long. I’m incorporating the various reflections into a single post.
Just a souvenir from Changi Airport Terminal 3
One thing struck me was the loneliness. I did make conversation with some people, but what came across was how lonely I felt. I’m generally okay with being alone, but I still felt a little lonely. Four days was okay, but some of the homeless have been this way for four or more years.
The importance of having a community struck home. I am thinking, the next time I do this, how about I ask a friend to come along? Having a companion would make things better for both of us as we journey together.
Interested? There are some conditions though.
Freegan Guided Holiday
- You cannot be a picky eater.
You can love to eat, but you can’t be picky in what you eat. You will have loads to eat and you’ll get to sample food from almost all the stalls in a food court or hawker centre. You’ll have more than enough to eat, but most of the time, you can’t choose what to eat.
- You cannot be a picky sleeper.
I’m working on this. But until I’ve resolved it, you can’t choose to sleep on a mattress or soft ground. We sleep wherever we can find a secluded space to sleep. Sometimes it’s on the floor, sometimes it’s on a bench, sometimes it’s in a playground. If you’re a lady, I will make exceptions and find sleeping spots relatively near to toilets because you probably can’t use a bottle at night.
- You cannot be easily embarrassed.
Actually, you can be easily embarrassed, but you have to not care about it, not mind being embarrassed. But don’t worry, it’s mostly internal. Most Singaporeans don’t even notice that you’re there.
- You must be willing to try new things.
Such as the experience of living without money. It’s an experience that no holiday to other countries will give you. No other holiday is going to give you the experience of living moneyless in Singapore. You are more resourceful than you think, and because of that, you’re going to have a great time!
- You should be able to hold a conversation.
I’d like the company but not if my companion is mono-syllabic. We don’t have to talk all the time or for hours on end, but trust me, the company is really nice to have. And we can plan our days too, decide what we want to do together with all the time that we have.
- You should be able to leave your mobile phone at home.
Mobile phones are distracting. You miss out on a lot of good stuff when you’re glued to your phone. If you need to check the internet, there are options, but I highly encourage not bringing the mobile phone with you. Also because when it rains, you don’t have to worry about it getting wet. And when you sleep, you don’t have to worry about it getting stolen.
- You should not be picky about showering in cold water.
Don’t worry. The walk in the hot sun to the shower will make you feel glad for the rinse. There will be some grime and sweat built up after a day out, so that helps make the shower a relief too. But if you ‘die die need hot water to shower, again there are options.
- You should not be afraid to walk a lot.
Even though we do use an EZ-Link card to get around, there is going to be a lot of walking. The airport and shopping malls are pretty big, and we walk quite a bit when we explore places and look for secluded corners to sleep.
Still interested? Leave a comment. Or if you’re in the Facebook group, PM me.