Aiyah, learn to live with less, lah!

So, the single Singaporean, 35 years or older and earning $5,000 or less a month, will soon be able to join the queue buying HDB flats direct from the Government.

You would think this group of singletons would think themselves lucky. But no! Judging from what I’ve read in the SG newspapers, some potential beneficiaries are unhappy with the size of the homes they would be offered.

These quibble that the 375 sq to 485 sq ft units priced from as little as $100,000 — which incidentally isn’t enough nowadays to buy a brand new basic car!!! — are too small for them. Never mind that after a promised $15-K grant from an increasingly populist inclined G/PAP, the flat would cost less than a COE, muwahhaha!

The ungrateful comments remind me of that Cantonese saying: given a bed, would demand a blanket!

I’ve just visited a Singaporean friend who has lived in Hong Kong for two thirds of her life. Her home in the Sheung Wan area measures all of 400 sq ft but the useable area is some 10 to 15% less. It’s in fact a converted office unit with many offices in the 17-storey building having been similarly converted into homes.

I’ve not seen a cuter dwelling. Friend has a fully equipped kitchen complete with built-in electric oven, bathroom and toilet and a full-size washing machine. But she has no cupboard for her clothes or a bed. She sleeps on a futon on the floor while her clothes are hung in an alcove screened off by a discreet curtain.

She’s not my only Singaporean friend who lives in such a tiny flat. Another who moved to London a dozen years ago lives in the top-class district of Buckingham Gate. Her home — across the road from the New Scotland Yard building — is all of 180 sq ft.

As I’ve never visited her, I can’t vouch for how truly titchy it is but my friend tells me, her bed folds into the wall and she has a bathroom, toilet and all the other stuff that makes modern living comfortable in that space 🙄

Now if neither of these examples underline what a gr8 consolation prize our increasingly populist inclined G/PAP is offering Singaporean singletons of lesser means, then let me share an NYT article which my friend Bubur Hitam sent me about living with less.

For ease of reference, I’ve reproduced the whole article at the bottom of this post. For those who want the hundreds of comments the article has attracted, go here and here

After digesting the information, I hope that more Singaporeans, single or otherwise, would seriously consider doing more with less.

Here our increasingly populist inclined G/PAP — especially Minister Khaw Boon Wan — should take a new lead. Instead of doing war dances over shoe-box homes, G/PAP and Mr Khaw should preach the benefits and practicalities of doing with less space in exchange for more time, money and leisure: To live well with 7 million or more!

The New York Times

March 9, 2013

Living With Less. A Lot Less.


I LIVE in a 420-square-foot studio. I sleep in a bed that folds down from the wall. I have six dress shirts. I have 10 shallow bowls that I use for salads and main dishes. When people come over for dinner, I pull out my extendable dining room table. I don’t have a single CD or DVD and I have 10 percent of the books I once did.

I have come a long way from the life I had in the late ’90s, when, flush with cash from an Internet start-up sale, I had a giant house crammed with stuff — electronics and cars and appliances and gadgets.

Somehow this stuff ended up running my life, or a lot of it; the things I consumed ended up consuming me. My circumstances are unusual (not everyone gets an Internet windfall before turning 30), but my relationship with material things isn’t.

We live in a world of surfeit stuff, of big-box stores and 24-hour online shopping opportunities. Members of every socioeconomic bracket can and do deluge themselves with products.

There isn’t any indication that any of these things makes anyone any happier; in fact it seems the reverse may be true.

For me, it took 15 years, a great love and a lot of travel to get rid of all the inessential things I had collected and live a bigger, better, richer life with less.

It started in 1998 in Seattle, when my partner and I sold our Internet consultancy company, Sitewerks, for more money than I thought I’d earn in a lifetime.

To celebrate, I bought a four-story, 3,600-square-foot, turn-of-the-century house in Seattle’s happening Capitol Hill neighborhood and, in a frenzy of consumption, bought a brand-new sectional couch (my first ever), a pair of $300 sunglasses, a ton of gadgets, like an MobilePlayer (one of the first portable digital music players) and an audiophile-worthy five-disc CD player. And, of course, a black turbocharged Volvo. With a remote starter!

I was working hard for Sitewerks’ new parent company, Bowne, and didn’t have the time to finish getting everything I needed for my house. So I hired a guy named Seven, who said he had been Courtney Love’s assistant, to be my personal shopper. He went to furniture, appliance and electronics stores and took Polaroids of things he thought I might like to fill the house; I’d shuffle through the pictures and proceed on a virtual shopping spree.

My success and the things it bought quickly changed from novel to normal. Soon I was numb to it all. The new Nokia phone didn’t excite me or satisfy me. It didn’t take long before I started to wonder why my theoretically upgraded life didn’t feel any better and why I felt more anxious than before.

My life was unnecessarily complicated. There were lawns to mow, gutters to clear, floors to vacuum, roommates to manage (it seemed nuts to have such a big, empty house), a car to insure, wash, refuel, repair and register and tech to set up and keep working. To top it all off, I had to keep Seven busy. And really, a personal shopper? Who had I become? My house and my things were my new employers for a job I had never applied for.

It got worse. Soon after we sold our company, I moved east to work in Bowne’s office in New York, where I rented a 1,900-square-foot SoHo loft that befit my station as a tech entrepreneur. The new pad needed furniture, housewares, electronics, etc. — which took more time and energy to manage.

AND because the place was so big, I felt obliged to get roommates — who required more time, more energy, to manage. I still had the Seattle house, so I found myself worrying about two homes. When I decided to stay in New York, it cost a fortune and took months of cross-country trips — and big headaches — to close on the Seattle house and get rid of the all of the things inside.

I’m lucky, obviously; not everyone gets a windfall from a tech start-up sale. But I’m not the only one whose life is cluttered with excess belongings.

In a study published last year titled “Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century,” researchers at U.C.L.A. observed 32 middle-class Los Angeles families and found that all of the mothers’ stress hormones spiked during the time they spent dealing with their belongings. Seventy-five percent of the families involved in the study couldn’t park their cars in their garages because they were too jammed with things.

Our fondness for stuff affects almost every aspect of our lives. Housing size, for example, has ballooned in the last 60 years. The average size of a new American home in 1950 was 983 square feet; by 2011, the average new home was 2,480 square feet. And those figures don’t provide a full picture. In 1950, an average of 3.37 people lived in each American home; in 2011, that number had shrunk to 2.6 people. This means that we take up more than three times the amount of space per capita than we did 60 years ago.

Apparently our supersize homes don’t provide space enough for all our possessions, as is evidenced by our country’s $22 billion personal storage industry.

What exactly are we storing away in the boxes we cart from place to place? Much of what Americans consume doesn’t even find its way into boxes or storage spaces, but winds up in the garbage.

The Natural Resources Defense Council reports, for example, that 40 percent of the food Americans buy finds its way into the trash.

Enormous consumption has global, environmental and social consequences. For at least 335 consecutive months, the average temperature of the globe has exceeded the average for the 20th century. As a recent report for Congress explained, this temperature increase, as well as acidifying oceans, melting glaciers and Arctic Sea ice are “primarily driven by human activity.” Many experts believe consumerism and all that it entails — from the extraction of resources to manufacturing to waste disposal — plays a big part in pushing our planet to the brink. And as we saw with Foxconn and the recent Beijing smog scare, many of the affordable products we buy depend on cheap, often exploitive overseas labor and lax environmental regulations.

Does all this endless consumption result in measurably increased happiness?

In a recent study, the Northwestern University psychologist Galen V. Bodenhausen linked consumption with aberrant, antisocial behavior. Professor Bodenhausen found that “Irrespective of personality, in situations that activate a consumer mind-set, people show the same sorts of problematic patterns in well-being, including negative affect and social disengagement.” Though American consumer activity has increased substantially since the 1950s, happiness levels have flat-lined.

I DON’T know that the gadgets I was collecting in my loft were part of an aberrant or antisocial behavior plan during the first months I lived in SoHo. But I was just going along, starting some start-ups that never quite started up when I met Olga, an Andorran beauty, and fell hard. My relationship with stuff quickly came apart.

I followed her to Barcelona when her visa expired and we lived in a tiny flat, totally content and in love before we realized that nothing was holding us in Spain. We packed a few clothes, some toiletries and a couple of laptops and hit the road. We lived in Bangkok, Buenos Aires and Toronto with many stops in between.

A compulsive entrepreneur, I worked all the time and started new companies from an office that fit in my solar backpack. I created some do-gooder companies like We Are Happy to Serve You, which makes a reusable, ceramic version of the iconic New York City Anthora coffee cup and, an environmental design blog that I later sold to Discovery Communications. My life was full of love and adventure and work I cared about. I felt free and I didn’t miss the car and gadgets and house; instead I felt as if I had quit a dead-end job.

The relationship with Olga eventually ended, but my life never looked the same. I live smaller and travel lighter. I have more time and money. Aside from my travel habit — which I try to keep in check by minimizing trips, combining trips and purchasing carbon offsets — I feel better that my carbon footprint is significantly smaller than in my previous supersized life.

Intuitively, we know that the best stuff in life isn’t stuff at all, and that relationships, experiences and meaningful work are the staples of a happy life.

I like material things as much as anyone. I studied product design in school. I’m into gadgets, clothing and all kinds of things. But my experiences show that after a certain point, material objects have a tendency to crowd out the emotional needs they are meant to support.

I wouldn’t trade a second spent wandering the streets of Bangkok with Olga for anything I’ve owned. Often, material objects take up mental as well as physical space.

I’m still a serial entrepreneur, and my latest venture is to design thoughtfully constructed small homes that support our lives, not the other way around. Like the 420-square-foot space I live in, the houses I design contain less stuff and make it easier for owners to live within their means and to limit their environmental footprint. My apartment sleeps four people comfortably; I frequently have dinner parties for 12. My space is well-built, affordable and as functional as living spaces twice the size. As the guy who started, I sleep better knowing I’m not using more resources than I need. I have less — and enjoy more.

My space is small. My life is big.

Graham Hill is the founder of and

2 thoughts on “Aiyah, learn to live with less, lah!

  1. my dear…. I used to live in a tiny apartment in HK…. and never missed anything. It was less than 500sf – and actually has TWO bedrooms (dont ask me how, except that they are tiny rooms, with no proper big wardrobe). And I shared that tiny flat, because I was earning little so I have to make do.

    Looking back, I realised I was very happy then, even though I would think thrice about a HK$300 meal…. & at one time, gave English tuition for extra money!

    Im now back in Singapore. Live in a HDB (with two bedrooms)… The other bedroom remains empty. I really have not learnt how to clutter my life with stuff…& I survived!!

    Singaporeans can be so spoilt. They should get out there, see the world and realise that they do need to work for a living. come on!!

  2. Hiya fren, do I know U? If not, y are u so fresh as to address me as “my dear”? Just kidding lah!

    U know why it’s more liveable in a small flat in HK? It’s because everything is so compact. Food and facilities are within easy reach or if not, the transport to get to food and facilities is easy within reach.

    That’s y, there’s no need to stock up on food ingredients, cleaning ingredients even. If one chooses, one doesn’t even need to cook in order to eat well n inexpensively.

    In SG, some HDB estates are like HK but alas, the majority isn’t. Also, because the mind set here is to go for bigger n bigger homes as we go up the ladder of success, we end up by acquiring stuff to fill the space; and because we need to maintain the space and the stuff, we end up by having live-in help. And because we have live-in help, we crave for more space to maintain privacy and so on…

    Actually, some of my friends and I have started to de-clutter, a little but breaking up between oneself and one’s possession is so very hard to do 😆

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