The foldable plastic chair stood out like a sore thumb, extending just outside the rows of regular seats in the MRT train cabin in Singapore. Above it was a cardboard placard with a familiar-looking “Reserved Seating” sign on it. But on closer inspection, we realise that the seat was not meant for the elderly or the disabled.
It was for NS men.
And on that lazy Friday afternoon, the chair attracted many curious stares, but no one sat on it. Not even the boys donned in those familiar pixilated green army uniforms.
When an onsite representative of the team interviewed the army boys whom the chair was meant for, they spoke of a general reluctance to sit down on MRT seats. They would rather endure the temporary discomfort of standing on public transport, instead of making it seem as if they were depriving ‘civilians’ of their seats.
“Our duty is for us to protect the country,” one NSF was quoted saying, “that means we actually want the citizens to rest.” (Awww.)
The social experiment was in light of the flak that National Servicemen have received through the years, especially on popular citizen journalism website STOMP, for depriving citizens of their seats, even though sometimes through no fault of theirs.
It was precisely for this reason that co-founders Rovik Jeremiah Robert and Leon Heng set up the social movement, The Hidden Good. With word of the movement now even travelling across borders to Indonesia and Malaysia, it’s hard to believe that the visionary duo started the movement just a little over a year ago.
Since then, they have established themselves as a team of change-makers with a huge youth following both online and off. The team is known for their guerilla-style “attacks” recorded on hidden cameras. They set up everyday situations hoping to see unsuspecting Singaporeans step up to lend a helping hand to someone in need. Their videos, posted on their YouTube channel, showcase these little heartwarming moments that show “the better side” of Singaporeans.
We spoke to Rovik and Executive Director Wu Jie Zhen to duck behind the scenes of The Hidden Good movement.
The Hidden Good started out in early 2013 when its co-founders Rovik and Leon were serving their National Service and looking for something meaningful to do in their spare time. It was also this period of time when results of national surveys branded Singaporeans as a “cold” and “ungracious” population.
“They were thinking about the whole concept of National Service,” said Jie Zhen, “which was not just about them being in the army, but asking themselves how they can really serve the country and its people.”
Inspired by a similar movement by SoulPancakes in the USA, the duo came up with the idea of conducting, filming and showcasing these social experiments on YouTube. The rest was history.
The Hidden Good is now a team of 10 active core team members, and over 40 active members that meet up on a regular basis. They also have a board of advisors who provide key mentorship advice to the team, as well as volunteers and people on their mailing list that join them for ad hoc events, the majority of which are still serving their National Service or in university. They even have a pet name for everyone involved in their activities in one way or another- they call themselves “The Hoodies”.
The team strongly believes in the inherent good among Singaporeans. “Most of the time Singaporeans want to do good,” said Jie Zhen, “But do not have the opportunities to do so. So we create those opportunities, we create social experiences, to force you to think of an alternative reality and not to accept the everyday for what it is.”
The aforementioned “NS Seat” social experiment was one of the many social experiments that the team has done so far. Others include the Singapore Rags vs Riches, the Train of Dreams series, and the ever-popular MP3 experiments.
The Rags vs Riches
The Train of Dreams: Christmas Edition 2014
The MP3 Experiment 2013
On top of their YouTube channel with a constant feed of their latest social exploits, the team also holds monthly “Hoodie hangout” sessions where they come together to just talk, have a meal together, and brainstorm ideas for future videos and projects.
The team also organises local trails for its members, with recent visits to the Toa Payoh HDB estate, social enterprise Ground Up Initiative, and Pulau Ubin.
For example, for the Pulau Ubin visit, Member of Parliament Desmond Lee arranged for The Hidden Good team to go on a conservation and heritage trail along lesser-known parts of the island. The 20 plus members who showed up got treated to breakfast at a kampong house, and a nature trail along Butterfly Hill and an abandoned stone quarry.
And Hoodies will be able to look forward to more of such events in the future.
“The big thing about next year is falling in love with Singapore again,” said Jie Zhen, “it’s about looking and remembering the little things that we often forget about each day, and appreciating them.”
On top of mass events like these, the team tries to meet up with members one on one, simply because “sometimes your voice gets lost in a big group,” said Jie Zhen. With their close-knit relationships and personal involvement in the lives of its members, The Hidden Good feels much less like an organisation, but simply like a group of like-minded people who share a common goal. It’s not hard to see why they have since become so popular among youths in search of making a difference.
In case you were wondering, the movement sees itself as a social enterprise, and does not take in general donations, but instead picks up sponsored projects that fit with their larger vision. One project they did pick up was, for example, when the Building and Construction Authority of Singapore was having a competition on universal design to make the cityscape more accessible for the handicapped, and needed help for a competition call for students.
“We are not out there to make money,” said Jie Zhen, “we just need to cover costs. We just want to create enough revenue to make ideas that youths dream up become a reality. For instance, if someone wants to do something, we want to have the ability to say yes to them, instead of rejecting them because we don’t have enough money. We use money as a resource, above all else.”
Instead, their motivations to create content lie in their faith in the ability of the media to evoke change. “There’s an asymmetry in the way information is shared online which is what keeps me motivated to uncover more truths,” said Rovik, “With knowledge, I believe more of our audience will shape their views and be more optimistic about our shared future.”
Despite their successes on social media however, the team has its fair share of challenges.
“Youth by nature are a very transient group, “said Jie Zhen, “and this is not a full time job for most people, but rather something that exists with the rest of their lives, like family, university, army trips, etc. And instead of resisting change, we have to move with it. But I believe that is also one of our biggest gifts, because youths on the ground have a very good understanding of what is going on in the youth community. And that is one of our biggest challenges, but also one of our biggest strengths.”
The Hidden Good has certainly come far since its founding days. Rovik, for one, could not be more proud of the success of the team which started out simply as an impromptu movement. “I encourage Singaporeans to challenge stereotypes and build a better future actively,” he said, “We started out as a dream and now we’re here. The adventure is yours to make.”
We asked the team to leave us with a Christmas message. “Spend this holiday season looking for the hidden good around you in the smallest things,” said Jie Zhen, “and don’t forget about the everyday magic.”