Stand up for what matters

Stand up for what matters
Mr Tong Yee (left) and Mr Wally Tham are the frontmen of StandUpFor.SG. They met when Mr Tham walked into Mr Tong's restaurant one day and told him how he could improve his companies' social media presence.

It is the morning of Labour Day in 2013 and, in Hong Lim Park, there are beginnings of a little picnic carnival. There are ice cream carts and machines making popcorn and cotton candy. Musicians are playing ukeleles, and people are holding cupcakes and balloons.

But there is no money changing hands here. Instead, the organisers have invented a currency.

One point if you tell a stranger your favourite story of the youngest person you know. Another if you share food with someone. Yet another if you make a "pinky promise" pledge that "no matter how bad things get, I will still..."

Each picnicker can get only a maximum of six points, so it is going to take an awful lot of positivity to access the big bouncy castle that can be "unlocked" only with an eye-watering 400 points. Normally bashful adults rush around and start talking. Eventually, with a loud shudder of its motor, the slumbering giant comes to life.

"The big idea was really about building capital," says 41-year- old Tong Yee, one of the event's organisers. "The more conversations you have, the more capital you have; and somewhere there is a tipping point where the abundance starts to flow. That's what everyone got in the experience."

Singapore turns 50 this year, and when I was asked to start an interview series featuring people that might redefine the next 50, I could not think of a better place to start than StandUpFor.SG, the architects of this madcap hippie- gamification mashup.

There are apparently 11 core members in this mysterious collective, but it is its two frontmen I meet early one Monday morning at DBS' trendy new "social hub" in Marina Bay Financial Centre. Mr Tong runs a well-known clutch of social enterprises known as The Thought Collective, while the younger, Mr Wally Tham, 38, operates his own business - a production company named Big Red Button. The two met when Mr Tham randomly walked into Mr Tong's Food for Thought restaurant one day and told him how he could improve his companies' social media presence.

Perhaps because of his business experience, Mr Tham is the man in charge of communications, but today he says he would be the first to admit that there is no clear explanation as to exactly what the group is trying to do.

"I think we come across like Care Bears, so it's very hard to craft a story for the papers," the plump, baby-faced entrepreneur says sheepishly.

But I persist and it is through the story of the group's formation that a picture starts to form in my head.

It was some time in June 2012 when a friend six months into her pregnancy burst into a Christian cell group meeting that both men were attending. She was 40 minutes late and felt angry and upset, having just been on a crowded train where no one would give up their seat for her.

The group decided there and then to do something about it. About a dozen people passed the hat around, raising about $20,000. With the money, they produced social media videos and printed T-shirts and fliers, plotting what they called a "movement". They named themselves after a famous national song that was a clever tie-in to the cause.

"We thought the best time to launch would be Aug 9, and we've since decided that each time we run a movement, it has to be on a public holiday," says Mr Tong.

That National Day, about 400 volunteers fanned out across the nation's train network, giving out fliers and talking to strangers about graciousness on public transport. The message on the fliers would become something of a hallmark of StandUp - trying to communicate that everyone on the train was somehow connected to everyone else, that a commuter could very well be your grandmother or someone you know.

The response was mixed.

"I think we knew that - that Singaporeans don't really like to talk to strangers," says Mr Tham.

"So even in our videos, we tell people that if you want to make a stand, you've got to stand out. You must be willing to take that risk, talk to a stranger and get a 'no', a 'go-away' response.

"But we did see a lot of folks responding, too. It's very hard to be angry with a young person who wants to be friendly."

Mr Tong adds that the big takeaway from that first event was not about the public becoming more gracious on trains. What was instructive was the reaction of the volunteers, who were mostly young people.

"At the end of the day, the whole feeling was: When's the next event?" says Mr Tham. "There was a momentum that we caught and we asked ourselves, where was this coming from."

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