Photo: Dine Inn
We’re living in the era of the sharing economy model – where people rent or share something they own in exchange for cash or services in return. More than ever in the last two years, we’ve been getting rides in other people’s cars, visiting their homes for a meal, swopping books, and gardening alongside them. But do the proliferation of all these services actually work, and how does it better our lives? I decided to try them all out for a week to see for myself.
Day 1: Electric Car Sharing
It’s a fairly simple model: 105 electric cars spread out over 42 stations around the island are available for anyone with a registered BlueSG account to drive. Cars and parking spaces can be reserved via the app. To use the car, you’ll need an EZ-Link or Nets card to tap in (both work like a car key), or you can choose to have a BlueSG Badge mailed to you. As you’ll be charged by the minute for usage (33 cents a minute on a one year plan, and 50 cents a minute for a weekly plan), don’t think of it as a rental car to drive around all day.
So far, so good. However, the week I was due to test out a Bluecar, I got a text from a friend. “See lah! Singaporeans cannot share,” she proclaimed, attaching an article about a dented electric car that was circulating on the Internet. So, it was not without trepidation that I stepped into the two-door hatchback Bluecar a few days later. Aside from not being able to figure out how to use certain functions (I was confounded by the airconditioning, and drove the sweltering car around for 20 minutes), the floor mat below the driver’s seat was caked with dried mud (eww), and had dried leaves scattered about.
It was significantly better the second time round. I was more accustomed to the car (which was also a lot cleaner), and realised that I had missed some features the first time – like being able to rate the car’s cleanliness on a monitor as soon as you get in, and a hotline to report items left behind, as well as built-in safety measures such as an extremely responsive brake pedal to account for different drivers’ abilities. BlueSG does provide insurance coverage up to the minimum amount required by law (read their T&Cs for more details), but you’ll incur penalties for misdemeanours like drink driving.
Charging stations are scattered between housing estates and central locations like Tan Quee Lan Street. BlueSG intends to have 2,000 charging points by 2020, which would make things way more convenient. For now, I’d only use a Bluecar if there was a station in my vicinity.
The thing about car-sharing, though, is this – you have to step up and own the issue. Clean up your mess. Report lost and found items, or a massive scratch on the car. Keeping mum means you’re passing the problem on to the driver after you. And that’s not cool.
It‘s a good option if you don’t own a car and want to skip public transport, but you’ll have to do your homework and find the car closest to you.
Addendum: In March, BlueSG reported that the Bluecars have been rented more than 20,000 times in its first three months of operation, with more than 9,000 users.
Day 2: Bike-sharing
Photo: The Straits Times
The mechanics are easy enough: Get an account with your chosen bike-sharing service provider, and use the app to locate a bike, unlock it, and go for a ride. Personally, I had zero problems with the bikes I tried out (they were easy to find, using them was disaster-free, and they’re a lifesaver for short-distance travel – like getting to an MRT station). However, a colleague told me that of the 21 bikes she’s encountered, 12 had a reported fault (which you’ll be alerted to when you unlock the bike on the app). That means the bike can’t be used, and you’ll have to move on to the next one. Overall though, it seems that bike-sharing is catching on, as evidenced by the number of active users – Obike alone claims to have close to one million of them.
The problem comes when you get to your destination. You’ve seen it – bikes in the drain, bikes carelessly piled on top of one another, even bikes hanging off a tree(!). Guess you could say we aren’t great at taking care of stuff we don’t own. In a move to cut back on bikes parked irresponsibly (such as those tossed onto the grass or in the middle of the pavement), the Land Transport Authority has set up more bicycle parking zones, while companies such as Ofo have initiated a geofencing feature that indicates acceptable parking areas, as well as a point system that rewards riders who make the effort.
Still, I’m optimistic that things will get better. After all, it’s only been a year since we’ve taken bikes out of the park and started using them regularly for day-to-day travel, so it’ll definitely take some time for problems to be ironed out.
This would get a higher rating if we didn’t have to pick the fallen bikes off the grass or the pavement.
Addendum: It was reported this March that bicycle sharing operators will have to apply for a new LTA license to regulate fleet sizes and reduce indiscriminate parking.
Day 3: Ride-sharing
Within two months of launching, Grabshare rides numbered two million.
Photo: The Straits Times
Before this, I flatly refused to use Grabhitch – the ridesharing service that pairs you up with a regular driver who’s heading the same way you are. I like to use my time in a taxi to zone out, so the idea of Grabhitch made me baulk, especially when etiquette advises that you should sit up front with the driver.
As luck would have it, my first Grabhitch driver was a chatty salesman who’s frequently on the road, and easily chalks up 60 rides a week. I found out he was doing this to help cover petrol costs, since he drives a lot for work. While I did feel pressured to make small talk, he reassured me that “many times, passengers sit up front and are quiet”, which doesn’t bother him. By the time I got out of the car, I was pleasantly surprised to realise that the conversation hadn’t just run smoothly, but helped ease the tedium of a long ride.
However, I think the option that suits me best is Grabshare (where you carpool with up to four passengers), which I’ve been using for well over a year. The rides usually consist of me and another passenger in the back seat, with both of us silent and fiddling with our mobile phones. On the rare occasions I’ve attempted conversation, I get monosyllabic answers – which is fine by me. Most people take Grabshare or Grabhitch for the cheaper rates (up to 30 per cent lower for the former, and 20-40 per cent lower for the latter), so obviously, making friends is low on the priority list. Honestly, this is a business model that gives car owners a platform to share their resources – friendly conversation is a bonus, and not a requirement.
No need to flag down a taxi, and it’s relatively easy to procure a car, plus it costs less – need we say more?
Day 4: Public bookshelves
You’ll find these in neighbourhoods, and they’re a fun alternative to going to the library, because of the novelty of not knowing what you’ll get there. I visited three such bookshelves: one along Wolskel Road in Serangoon, another at Clover Way Playground in Bishan, and a third outside the Nee Soon Town Council office in Yishun. It works on an honour system: Pick up a book that catches your eye, and replace it with a pre-loved one you’d like other people to read – but it’s really up to you.
The bookworm in me loved the idea. It was a kitschy way of discovering new reads, at least in principle. So I paid a visit to the shelf in Yishun, which was started in April 2016 by the area’s Member of Parliament and the town council, with the aim of helping residents bond over shared reading experiences.
On my first visit, the books were stacked in an organised manner, and the titles were relatively interesting. On a return visit a few days later, I noticed there were new titles to replace those that had been “borrowed”.
Unfortunately, not all shelves were as popular. I took a trip to Clover Way, where I found creaky shelves haphazardly packed with dusty books ranging from fiction bestsellers to economics textbooks, and niche titles like The Photographer’s Handbook. Given their condition, I wasn’t tempted to adopt any titles. A resident who was dropping off books told me that it was his first time using the public bookshelf. I asked if he had taken any books. “No,” he said sheepishly. “I have too many books at home, so I thought I’d bring them here.”
Clearly, the success of the Yishun shelf is down to its visibility and constant maintenance by the town council – because no one wants to take home a grubby book.
This will never replace libraries, but it’s an easy way to pick up a book if you’re desperate for something to read.
Day 5: Umbrella-sharing
I scoffed when I first heard of a student initiated umbrellasharing stand called Sharella, which was set up in Sembawang in July 2017. It was set up at a pedestrian crossing with no sheltered walkway. On rainy days, people could pick up an umbrella from the stand, cross the road, and drop it off at another stand on the other side of the road. Surely people would just take the umbrellas home?
However, the idea took root. Now there are 17 umbrella deposit stands situated around Sembawang.
Popping by the stands several times, I noticed that the number of umbrellas fluctuates – there are usually between one and five umbrellas in the stands, even during the rainy period. Missing umbrellas don’t necessarily mean they’ve been stolen – some residents take them home on rainy days and return them later. Still, it’s a welcome option when you’re stranded in a downpour, and I’m pretty sure many of the residents feel the same way.
In a crisis, this is a system you can definitely rely on.
Day 6: Hosted dinner parties
A briyani meal eaten at our host’s house.
If there’s one thing that Singaporeans love to share, it’s food. Local food app Dine Inn has tapped into this, creating a community of home cooks who want to share their dishes and their homes with hungry people. Two colleagues and I decided on the option of dining at a host’s house, with a vegetarian South Indian banana leaf feast on the menu.
Our host and his wife welcomed us to their Woodlands flat. As they ushered us in, they said: “When you come to our home as guests, it’s our culture to treat you like gods.” The meal for three cost us close to $60, and the spread of vegetarian curry dishes was definitely food for the gods. What I liked about the experience was that our hosts even took the effort to elaborate on certain aspects of South Indian culture – such as the purpose of serving food on banana leaves (one theory is that it’s more respectful, as the leaves, unlike plates, have not been touched by other guests). It was the first time that I had eaten at a complete stranger’s house, and I was surprised at the complete lack of awkwardness. It was clear that on top of their love for cooking (our host also does catering for large parties and events), they enjoyed sharing more about their culture and littleknown customs. All in, it felt like a cosy meal in a friendly relative’s home.
A heads-up: There’s a possibility that other people might book a meal on the same date with the same host – which means you’ll have to share with strangers. If that happens, it’s down to the host to ask if everyone’s fine with the arrangement.
Currently, there are 450 hosts registered with the app. There are multiple services, including having a private chef come to your home and cook, and having a meal delivered to your house. While meal delivery is currently the most popular, bookings to dine at a host’s place are increasing at an average of 30 per cent a month since this option was introduced in July 2017. I guess this takes hospitality to another level – the host opens his home and cooks, while you eat, drink and make merry with people you barely know. That thing you do at the kopitiam, where you focus on your food and avoid eye contact and conversation with the stranger sharing your table? Not gonna happen here.
Home-cooked food, lively conversation, and new friends. If this doesn’t convince you that sharing is great, we don’t know what will.
Day 7: Community Gardens
We visited the Goodview Community Garden one wet morning.
When I said goodbye to the enthusiastic gardeners of Goodview Community Garden (located within an HDB estate in Bukit Panjang), I was laden with six potted plants, homemade herb butter, butterfly pea flower tea, and pages of gardening notes. During my visit, they pottered around their planter beds, proudly showing me prized crops. These women had never met before signing up separately for the community garden (the garden was initiated by the estate’s Residents’ Committee), but group excursions to buy plants and tending sessions soon made them fast friends.
The community garden trend began in 2005 with a garden at Mayfair estate, but the National Parks Board (NParks) says that number has spiked, and now stands at 1,300. “It’s very much a groundup approach”, says Kay Pungkothai, NParks’ director of Horticulture and Community Gardening.
Starting a community garden is a relatively fussfree process. One way is to approach your Residents’ or Neighbourhood Committee and get a group of like-minded neighbours together. Then, contact NParks to select a suitable location for the garden, as well to get some basics, like ideas on what plants you can put in the garden. Once that’s set up, the gardeners run the show.
The appeal of a community garden, Kay says, is the collective sense of ownership these gardeners have over the crops. Plus, it’s a great way for neighbours to bond.
Aside from looking after their own plots, they share a roster to tend to an open public garden that grows edibles such as chilli padi, basil and curry leaves for any resident in the estate to use.
I asked the gardeners if plant pilfering was rampant. It’s not unheard of, they said, but most gardeners are pretty zen about it. To them, the process of growing a plant is just as, if not more, important than yielding something that can be eaten.
For those with green fingers (or an interest in plants), this is the best way to find your tribe.
So the question is, can Singaporeans share?
Social media might suggest that the answer is no, but given that this influx of sharing economy models happened within the last couple of years, it’s too quick to call it. What’s happening now, suggests Assistant Professor of Sociology, Ijlal Naqvi, from the Singapore Management University, is that society is in a transitional period where we are adjusting to a new normal of what is deemed appropriate behaviour.
“With time, people can work things out on their own, but they have to do this socially, through human contact,” says Prof Ijlal. It’s why community gardens and initiatives like Dine Inn have been successful – there’s greater interaction and the opportunity to make friends. Plus, Dine Inn has a model that draws on well-established behaviour, which is respectful, says Prof Ijlal. “We all know how to behave at a dinner party, so the same rules apply, even if you don’t know your host.”
However, we’re still learning how to behave in a car with people we don’t know. And with something as foreign as electric car-sharing, it’s little wonder that there’s confusion over what is appropriate. So, think about how your actions impact fellow users. Maybe that’ll stop you from ditching your shared bike in the middle of the pavement.
This article was first published in the March 2018 issue of Her World magazine. Additional reporting by Shannon Ang.