Singapore’s Really Really Free Market: The Value of a Priceless Space
Photographs by Tay Yong Kang. View more here!
Note: This is a paper written for SC3206: Urban Sociology, a module with the Department of Sociology, National University of Singapore.
Social centres, or autonomous spaces for community organizing, are a vital part of the infrastructure of social movements within cities. These spaces, which range from cafes and bookshops to hostels and incubation centres, give social activists a place to breathe, take action and experiment with managing their ‘activist’ lives collectively. In Singapore, Post-Museum, an independent cultural and social space, which was founded in 2007 as an open platform for “examining contemporary life, promoting the arts and connecting people”, has come to serve as such a node within networks of activist navigations and interactions in Singapore. One of the core events started and run by Post- Museum is The Singapore Really Really Free Market, the Singapore chapter of the Really Really Free Market (RRFM) movementii, which represents “a non-hierarchical collective of individuals who form a temporary market based on an alternative gift economy”. At this event, nothing is for sale and everything – be it ‘stuff’ or ‘skills’ – is shared free. The Really Really Free Market, which is also a common element of many social centres throughout the world, holds as its major goal to build a community based on sharing resources, caring for others in the community and improving the collective lives of all.
This paper aims to contribute to current scholarship on place-based collective action in Singapore by providing a sociological perspective on the role of The Really Really Free Market as a ‘priceless’ space for collective action and meaning-making in the context of Post-Museum and the surrounding Little India neighbourhood, as well as the wider context of Singapore civil society. This paper draws from existing literature on markets, place-making, collective action, and knowledge- practices to provide insight into the nature and importance of connections and networks of solidarity that have been made possible by, and continue to sustain, this distinct space.
This paper is based on primary and secondary research conducted in 2009. The Singapore Really Really Free Market, which was started by Post-Museum in 2009, has been organized six times: on January 18th, March 22nd, May 21st, July 12th, August 2nd and October 4th. I have personally experienced the SRRFM in its July, August and October sessions, participating in the Market all three times by bringing items for giving away, helping to set up the venue for the Market, and chatting with other Market participants during the event, many of whom are regulars at the RRFM and Post- Museum. Following the October session of the SRRFM, I launched “The Really Really Free Market Survey” (accessible online at: http://bit.ly/3SPU4a) which was sent to the SRRFM Facebook groupiii and garnered 13 in-depth responses. Perspectives on the SRRFM are drawn both from direct experience at the Market, as well as the insights provided through the survey. All photographs were taken by Mr. Tay Yong Kang, to whom I am very grateful.
For What It’s Worth: Three Analytical Frameworks
The Really Really Free Market (RRFM) is a richly-layered social movement that brings together many diverse and interconnected fields of contemporary social inquiry, serving as an instructive case study for understanding and analyzing the social role of markets, the dialectical processes of place- and meaning-making, and the community basis for social action. These three lenses, from which the paper draws its main arguments, are further elaborated below:
Social role of markets: The Really Really Free Market is situated within the “alternative economy”, which can be broadly defined as “spaces of exchange and circulation (…) set up as alternatives to conventional and mainstream economies” (Hughes, 2005). Within the alternative economy, the RRFM fills a unique niche by completely breaking from the capitalistic system through abolishing monetary valuation, and hence all incentive and ability for market actors to demand, compete and supply. As a “temporary market”, the RRFM occupies a physical setting similar to conventional informal markets, with significant conceptual and operational differences. In the RRFM, there is, strictly speaking, no exchange: all participants are free to offer items and services and/or take items and services that are on offer, regardless of any actual or perceived economic value. In addition, with clear divisions between ‘buyers’ and ‘sellers’ removed, what results is a non-intuitive ‘exchange’ environment that challenges market participants to redefine their conception of the ‘market’, their role within it, as well as their relationship with other market participants. As will be argued, such reflexive and critical thinking processes, facilitated by RRFM, can contribute significantly to meaning-making for market participants, further enhancing their social experience of the market, and potentially forming the basis for further collective action.
Place- and meaning-making: The philosophy of the Really Really Free Market centers on sharing and participating in a collective experience. Although the RRFM is intended as a ‘placeless’ movement that can happen anywhere and everywhere with “neither hierarchy nor central coordination”iv, more often than not the Market is organized at a specific location and time. This has two implications for place- and meaning-making. First, the market serves as the spatial and temporal manifestation of an ideology of community support and sharing and hence serves as a symbolic space for market participants, new and regular, who are supportive of this ideology. Consequently, the very existence of the market contributes to a collective sense of participating in a common cause that itself generates meaning and community attachment. Second, following Lefebvre (1974), the RRFM can be understood essentially as a “lived space” and “space of representation”, produced and performed by market participants, that facilitates the creation and sustenance of social and community ties, as well as the mutual exchange of ideas and goodwill. The non-hierarchical nature of the RRFM means that conventional barriers to participation are largely absent, increasing the opportunity for independent and collective place- making, as well as the dynamic generation, modification and mobilization of ‘knowledge-practices” by diverse actors (Casas-Cortes et al., 2008), which can also enhance their social experience.
Community basis for social action: The Really Really Free Market is borne out of the anarchic tradition of decentralized, autonomous action. Building on the social role of markets, as well as the unique role that the RRFM can play in facilitating place-making and meaning-making processes among market actors, the RRFM often emerges as a setting and catalyst for collective action. Indeed, a preliminary survey of RRFMs in the United Kingdom (Social Centres Network, 2007) reveals that successful markets are frequently those that are embedded within existing local structures and environments, whether these be activist networks, neighbourhood organizations or established community spaces. Indeed, the frequent overlap of these settings suggests that the RRFM may be uniquely positioned to build bridges between different social movements, as well as between social movements and other segments of society who do not consider themselves ‘ideological’ or ‘radical’ – potentially forming a community basis for greater social cohesion.
An point of tension inherent in the RRFM model, common to many anarchic organizations, is that between intentionally and explicitly creating a radical space, and that of allowing an ‘inherently’ radical space to evolve its own meaning and character through the place- and meaning-making strategies of market actors. Veteran RRFM organizers CrimethInc Ex-Workers’ Collective recognizes that the RRFM model only works because its content is “inherently radical” and that “emphasizing form over content can only distract and alienate”. I argue that the process is dialectical; “place- marketing” efforts of the SRRFM organizers through publicity and explicitly communicating their ideology are interpreted and internalized by market participants in a variety of ways, contributing to richness in the meaning and practice of radicalism in the movement itself.
Lastly, I wish to make a number of additional commentaries, interwoven into the main arguments, about the value of the Really Really Free Market as a space for autonomous action in the political context of Singapore. In many ways, Post-Museum has come to serve as an important space for independent and creative social action in Singapore, and the SRRFM must be understood within the context of a diverse, and multi-polar civil society movement seeking genuine autonomy in an authoritarian country that has largely monopolized urban social spaces. A related aspect to be considered is the relationship between Post-Museum and its immediate environment – the neighbourhood of Little India. The character and demographic of the ethnic enclave has contributed an interesting dynamic to the SRRFM, with many of the market participants being South Asian migrant workers from the surrounding areas. In addition, the significance of the Little India neighbourhood as a space for civil society activism has also contributed to an appreciation of, and support for, the SRRFM from other activists, and activist networks, in Little India and beyond.
Another final dimension that is interesting to consider is the multiple “oppositional” positions of the RRFM, which defines itself as a counter-capitalistic alternative economy, non-hierarchical and yet non-reactional (Starr and Adams, 2003). These positions, despite articulating the philosophy and ideology of the RRFM transparently, nevertheless frame the RRFM as an “additional set of (non?) economic possibilities (…) rather than a broad-reaching resistance to global capitalism” (Hughes, 2005), wherein the latter is still adopted as the conventional benchmark. This tension, which is also found in other ‘alternative organizational economies’ such as time-banking and local currency schemes discussed by Hughes (2005), can have significant effects on the social constitution and dynamics of the market, and the way it is contextualized in wider urban society. These issues, however, are beyond the scope of this paper.
Who’s Free?: Sociological perspectives on the RRFM
The social and anthropological value of markets has been highlighted in previous research on urban economic organization. From an anthropological perspective, markets have been studied as “nodes of complex social processes and generators of cultural activity, as well as realms for economic exchange (…) organized around complex, multithreaded relationships that intertwine gender, ethnicity, class and kinship, as well as economic role” (Vanberg, 2001). The Really Really Free Market, which is founded on non-hierarchical and non-discriminating principles, attempts to transcend established and entrenched modes of market organization in order to provide an opportunity for people excluded from, or marginalized in, conventional market structures to share their items and skills without the pressure of having to put an exchange value on their items or themselves.
The value of the RRFM as an enabling space for people who wish to experiment without having too much attention and pressure placed on them is expressed by Mr. Tan Shao Han, 25, a regular Singapore FFRM participant and storyteller:
“You meet so many talented people who want to do something good and beautiful and help others, and who are all so shy and struggling to do something to nurture their own talents and they don’t have any place they think they can come to, and so they come here, and they give, and give, and they learn how to value themselves and their lives.”
Ms. Tay Shi Ying, 19, is one such market participant who has benefited from the low barriers to entry in the RRFM, as well as from the informal exchanges between market participant facilitated by the open, accessible and explicitly ‘non-economic’ setting of the market. Says Ms. Tay:
“I once gave free massages at RRFM and my skills became more refined when I was taught by another stall holder who has learnt massaging before (…) and I would like to continue doing it. It seems that at the RRFM, people tend to be less guarded towards each other and are very much friendlier, probably because the spirit of giving makes us more willing to share without seeking anything in return, hence we will not fear being on the ‘losing end’ in an economic exchange. Because of the diversity of the ‘stalls’, it gives us opportunities to pick up new skills from someone else, plan future collaborations with people we meet at the RRFM and also meet people with similar skills and interests.”
Mr. Quek Ser Ming, 26, another SRRFM regular and a professional tarot card reader, also reflects on how the FFRM gives those who work in the formal economy as opportunity to offer services to those who would not usually be able to afford them. Says Mr. Quek:
“Fees for tarot reading can be a bit steep in Singapore, so for me (what’s enjoyable) is being able to provide insight to aid people who are seeking. (…) If you charge cheaper, in our line, people may think you’re half-past-six.”
Says Ms Elaine Lim, 21, a participant at the October run of the SRRFM: “People are also more willing to try things like yoga or spiritual healing since it’s free!”
In this light, the RRFM creates an opportunity both for ‘buyers’ to benefit from luxury services, as well as ‘sellers’ to benefit by providing these services sincerely and altruistically, thus creating market ‘exchanges’ that would not have existed in the formal economy, and encouraging these market ‘exchanges’ to take on a meaningful and enjoyable social dimension. Storr (2008) describes how social relationships that are not necessarily linked to the market are often “enriched by the proliferation of new and diverse market spaces”, highlighting mom and pop stores that people “know and trust” and are thus “willing to pay a premium for”. In the case of the SRRFM, these social relationships are central to participants’ experience and enjoyment of the RRFM, with survey respondents indicating ‘meeting new people that you can learn from’, ‘making new friends’, ‘meeting different people’, ‘sharing with others’, ‘the people I meet’ and ‘interesting personalities’ as aspects of the market they found most memorable.
Due to the absence of formal governance structures that dictate who can ‘sell’ and what can be ‘sold’ at the RRFM, what results in a rich, diverse, heterogeneous mix of products and services. In the Carrboro, North Carolina Really Really Free Market, there are “goods, services, skills, performances, stories, crafts, food, games, music, clothing, furniture, plants, and a wide range of used and recycled items” (Casas-Cortés et al., 2008). Similarly, in the SRRFM (See Fig. 1 in Appendix), there is also a wide range of goods for giveaway including art materials, books, comics, stationery, artwork, jewelry, bags, clothes, and toys, as well as free services such as storytelling, letter writing, yoga, tarot card reading, caricature, IT repair and, once, philosophical counseling!
Says Ms. Ong Xiao Yun, another regular SRRFM market participant:
“(What’s most memorable about the RRFM is) enjoying a variety of different services and learning new things in a span of few hours! Have not found the most memorable yet, but Bala’s (another market participant’s) reading of ‘the giving tree’ was a wonderful moment!”
This diversity of products and services not only makes available to market participants a wide range of social experiences, but frequently introduces a ‘surprise’ element to the RRFM as well, as participants never know what to expect with each event.
Another important observation from the previous runs of the RRFM is that the bulk of market participants are not those who intentionally come for the RRFM, but South Asian workers from the surrounding Little India neighbourhood who happen to walk past Post-Museum and are curious about the items on display. These migrant workers, many of whom are low-income construction workers in Singapore, often take items for their own use as well as to send to their families back home. (See Fig. 2 in Appendix). As shopping is a common denominator of most social activity in Singapore, the RRFM model is accessible to almost everyone and creates a unique opportunity for people of different ages and diverse economic, social and national backgrounds to partake in a common experience.
Says Mr. Sudév Suth, 21, a RRFM October participant:
“Because the event was held in Little India, lots of migrant workers came to take a look at the items being given away. This, for me, was really important. Singapore has and is heavily dependent on the work of migrant workers yet they are often, I believe, exploited by their employers. It seems to me that they are a marginalized segment of our society. RRFM is an example of how bridges can be built between migrant workers and Singaporeans.”
Other market participants felt that the inclusion of these migrant workers in the non-economic setting of the RRFM had made the event even more meaningful, and that the RRFM could be extended to other areas with low-income and marginalized communities.
Says Mr. Yi Zheng, 19, another RRFM October participant:
“Yes (the RRFM should be held in Post-Museum) because Little India is where most of the foreign workers are and they are sometimes less fortunate than the locals. (…) Chinatown could also be an idea, because the Chinese foreign workers mainly gather there.”
A final aspect of social significance I wish to highlight is the way in which ‘non-intuitive’ forms of social control occur in the informal market setting of the SRRFM. As Ms. Natalia Tan, 18, a RRFM October participant observes:
“(What’s most amazing about the RRFM is) that everything is free, yet I find people showing consideration for others by not taking all the nice 2nd hand clothes or hogging all the tarot-reading time.”
This phenomenon was also observed in the Carrboro, North Carolina Really Really Free Market in which “some newcomers were timid—wrangling with their (initial) expectations that in order to take an item, they first had to give an item. Picking up books, kitchen items, and winter coats, without being required to provide something in direct exchange, people behaved with a different kind of economic sensibility.” The space created by the RRFM for this ‘different kind of economic sensibility’, in which market participants behave cooperatively, rather than competitively, and actively consider the needs of other participants has the potential both to encourage the building of mutual trust and respect between market participants, and the creation of informal forms of social ordering based, based on collective, rather than individualistic, norms.
Whose Market? Place- and meaning-making in the SRRFM
As the spatial and temporal manifestation of an ideology, the SRRFM at Post-Museum is both an important symbol for market participants, as well as an actual ‘lived place’ made by participants through spatial practice, and from which they derive meaning – collectively constituting ‘knowledge- practices’ which can inform further thought and action (Kurzman, 2008).
The symbolic value of the RRFM as an alternative to the capitalist system is evident as its ‘non- economic’ setting contrasts significantly with the highly competitive ‘economic’ settings ubiquitous in Singapore society. As noted by a number of RRFM participants, the RRFM…
“…symbolically, it’s a form of protest against the materialism that undergirds Singaporeans’ ways of life.” – Mr. Sudév Suth “…reminds us that things cannot be measured in purely economical terms and tells us to appreciate the intangibles. This is especially important for Singapore which is so economically driven that we tend to apply economic concepts on everything, even on things like relationships with people – making friends only when they promise benefits.” – Ms. Tay Shi Ying
” …can be used as a medium to cultivate the spirit of giving and sharing; recycle and reuse. I find that these values may be lacking and many skills are overly commercialized and tagged with high price.” – Mr. Quek Ser Ming
The symbolic value of RRFM as an alternative to the conventional economic system is enhanced precisely because the RRFM provides a physical setting wherein those who believe in, and wish to partake in, the collective experience of (temporarily) living a ‘non-economic’ life, can do so. As articulated by Mr. Seelan Palay, 25,
” Our government tells us to be ‘gracious’ but does not set an example itself. So the RRFM is an example of people getting together and being ‘gracious’ on their own accord, without the need for silly ads featuring an outdated comedian with yellow boots.”
The spatial practices performed by RRFM participants, including, but not limited to, bringing items for giving away, engaging the services of and chatting with other market participants, or simply taking things away, are processes that both inspire a sense of collective participation in a common cause and encourage participants to reflect further about the economic systems and social conditions that structure their lives. The physical setting of the RRFM enables participants to simultaneously practice and critically reflect on the viability of alternative means of exchange. Mr. Tan Shao Han encapsulates this sentiment beautifully in his reflection below:
“It’s not that RRFM is important in itself, but rather that its presence and the possibility for it to exist in the first place allows people in Singapore access to a cultural model of reference to make sense of the exchange of goods and services in a non-commercial manner.”
The place- and meaning-making processes that occur when market participants collectively produce the space of the SRRFM through experimenting within the space, learning from each other, and reflecting on their experience can generate many rich ‘knowledge-practices’ such as methods of communication with a diverse target audience, spontaneous organization – whereby market stall holders adjust their programmes or services slightly to complement rather than compete with each other, and interdisciplinary learning and collaboration – whereby market stall holders and participants exchange knowledges and built upon them to achieve common goals either within the RRFM setting or beyond it. Through an intertwining of personal and place identity with the collective experience of creating ‘knowledge-practices’, the SRRFM can further contribute to a sense of belonging and attachment to place amongst market participants.
The embeddedness of the RRFM in the context of Singapore civil society is also instructive. As highlighted by Lacey (2005) in her study on networked communities and social centres in Britain, places (whether physical or online) wherein activists can operate autonomously, learn from each other, collaborate, disseminate information or simply come together to feel part of a larger movement, are essential to creating and sustaining shared understandings and visions. The SRRFM exhibits many of these features, as previously discussed. The location of the SRRFM at Post-Museum is both symbolic and practical as the social centre is well-known amongst local social movements for supporting ethical and sustainable alternative to living1 and, hence, has been able draw support from activists who frequent Post-Museum to participate in the market, as well as spread the word to their individual networks. In addition, Post-Museum is situated within the wider ‘activist neighbourhood’ of Little India, home also to migrant rights organizations such as the Migrant Voices and H.O.M.E, and socially-inclined cultural establishments such as Your Mother Gallery, spell #7 and Good Books. This has enabled Post-Museum to benefit from publicity and support from other social and cultural centres in the district, and also makes Post-Museum’s location highly accessible to those communities likely to be supportive of the SRRFM’s counter-capitalist ideology. The symbolic and practical location of SRRFM at Post Museum thus can thus help inculcate in market participants from the neighbourhood a strong sense of belonging to the neighbourhood (Forrest and Kearns, 2001). However, as Post- Museum also publicizes the SRRFM on its online mailing list and its 763-member strong Facebook group, the reach of the SRRFM extends well beyond the neighbourhood, as well as local activist and civil society circuits.
(No) Debt to Pleasure: Some Concluding Remarks
Taking together perspectives on the social role of the Really Really Free Market, as well as place- and meaning-making processes facilitated by its unique market setting and situation suggest that the SRRFM may be a viable ‘third space’ within the context of Singapore society, providing temporary relief from the trappings of the ‘competitive, economic’ everyday life through creating a neutral, egalitarian environment whereby social interaction is centrestage and the processes of collective learning and play are encouraged and facilitated. Following from the reflections of market participants, as well as my personal experiences of the SRRFM, it is clear that one the fundamental dynamics sustaining the SFFRM is the indeed the enjoyment of “being ‘apart together’ in an exceptional situation, of sharing something important, (and) mutually withdrawing from the rest of the world and rejecting the usual norms” (Oldenburg, 1991) – characteristics of a genuine ‘third space’. The experiences at the SFFRM are made more meaningful and socially significant because the market itself is produced and sustained by market participants bringing items and skills, and participating in the camaraderie generated by market activities. The liminal, reflexive space created by the SRRFM consequently facilitates processes of place- and meaning-making and the generation of knowledge- practices that both enrich the space, as well as the social experiences of those participating in it.