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."

Feeling encouraged, the group went a little further with their next "movement" on Christmas Day, mounted in response to online anger with China bus drivers who went on strike.

Volunteers boarded buses across the nation, but instead of just giving out fliers, they asked commuters to write little thank- you notes to their drivers for working on a public holiday.

The success of that event then emboldened the group's members even more, which is why - instead of going to the public - they asked the public to come to them for the infamous May Day picnic in Hong Lim Park. Both men say they really were not sure if people were going to turn up. But in the end, about 400 did - including many new faces.

Since then, StandUp has held two more events. In May last year, the More Than A Miracle picnic at the Asian Civilisations Museum focused on nothing more than just being thankful for what Singaporeans have.

"For some time now, there has been a growing sentiment that Singapore is not enough," said the event's explainer note.

"Whether they are issues of housing, transport or cost of living, it just seems that in focusing on what we do not have, we have forgotten what we do."

Mr Tham sums it up like this: "It's the opposite of the Lego song: Everything is not awesome. But we believe it is, and it is a choice to see it that way."

The following month, the group organised The Secret Bongga Picnic at the Botanic Gardens, in response to what it saw as rising online hostility towards foreign workers in Singapore. The word "bongga" is not easy to translate from Filipino Tagalog, but it means stylish, even (yes) awesome.

Now, there is nothing new in turning one's cause into a celebration peppered with smiling selfies and inspirational video messages, as the organisers of the annual Pink Dot event will tell you.

But what stands out in the case of StandUp seems to be the lack of a clearly defined cause. The Pink Dot movement lobbies for the decriminalisation of same-sex relations, but this group does not seem to be agitating for any specific change in legislation, public policy or the political leadership.

Yet Mr Tong maintains there is an underlying focus to the group's events, and slowly rattles off a series of declarative statements.

"Singapore is a miracle, it needs to be protected. We can be grateful for each other. Community is abundant," he says.

"There is all this talk about us being self-flagellating and we don't give ourselves enough credit. I think someone needs to start standing for that."

That is still a little too slippery for most cynics, which is why the group has been accused online of being secretly affiliated with the ruling People's Action Party (PAP). StandUp's critics say the link is obvious as the party also wants voters to be grateful for what they have.

This is especially since the Hong Lim Park party was held on the same day as a big anti-government rally on the same grounds protesting against the findings of the Government White Paper on Population. That document forecast, among other things, that the foreign worker population will have to grow further in order for Singapore to sustain economic development.

"It looked as if we were sabotaging their event, that we were bringing too many unicorns at a time where people wanted to be angry," says Mr Tham, recalling the online battering the group took.

"We attracted some of the keenest critics - Martin See, Alfian Sa'at, Joshua Chiang... everyone had an opinion about the picnic.

"They were saying that Hong Lim Park is a place for free speech and what we were doing was not free speech. What I was concluding was that free speech looks a certain way, and it doesn't include being grateful or appreciating each other."

For the record, StandUp says its political leanings are "very diverse within the core group". "Everyone voted every which way," claims Mr Tham.

The incident, however, made the group think harder about the optics of its events.

"We're very careful about the brand," says Mr Tong, adding that the group considers sponsorships carefully. "We have already said no to People's Association twice and NTUC once. Singapore Kindness Movement I think is okay. SG50 is okay and we have taken funding from them to run the next three events this year. Clearly in the public eye, some things come with an agenda and some things don't."

But surely not everything is within the group's control, I contend. What if politicians come to a StandUp event?

"I think it's part of our value that we don't want to live in fear of that," says Mr Tham. "We trust the people who come to be part of our community. So if the PAP and Workers' Party show up, we would probably put them on the same picnic blanket and have them talk."

Mr Tong adds: "We've never excluded anybody as that would be hypocritical on our part... Honestly if you took a conversation like 'what's your favourite memory of Singapore' and turned it into a political one, then that says something about you... you showing up and not being able to be anything else but a politician."

Of course, these issues of screening sponsors and agendas presuppose that a movement like StandUp has the potential to grow in the new Singapore of the future.

I tell the two men that I am optimistic, but they themselves seem much less sure.

"We are not in the realm of excitement or anger," notes Mr Tham. "It's hard for me to tell you about being grateful because immediately I become paternalistic. I can be angry about dolphins and whales, but I can't talk about gratitude easily and have it spread."

The self-professed Care Bear adds pensively: "Most folks attending the events don't even know why they are there until they are there... It's the worst kind of movement."

ignatius@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on February 9, 2015.
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