Over the past two years, Lee Yuan Sheng (better known as HidingCat) has organised almost twenty-five meetups between complete strangers from the local sub-reddit, r/Singapore.
For the uninitiated, Reddit is a forum similar to HardwareZone or Stomp. The difference is that Reddit is used internationally, with many nations having their own country-specific pages, or sub-reddits, for locals to discuss local issues. Singapore’s is r/Singapore (or r/Sg as it’s known to natives), and browsers of the site are identified by their username, such as Yuan Sheng’s which is ‘u/HidingCat’.
In person, the thirty-nine-year-old appears unremarkable. Apart from an unusually clear and lucid manner of speech, he is a stock photo reproduction of a Singaporean Chinese male.
On r/Sg, however, he’s something of a cult celebrity, and slots for every meet-up session are usually snapped up in less than twelve hours.
Picture grainy photographs, coin-operated telephones, PM Goh Chok Tong. A young man (this is Yuan Sheng, though he’s more of a boy) sits alone in the school canteen.
“I would just eat my packed lunch alone, never buying anything, because that would mean actually having to talk to someone. I was painfully shy,” he shares.
“Then, in ‘97, I got access to the very early internet; I subscribed to a few UseNet bulletins. Think email, but instead of point-to-point, it’s shared with a group. Because of this, I became used to interacting online with people from all over the world. It helped me a lot.”
He began using HardwareZone in 2000, revealing that he was actually one of the founding members of the local photography forum, ClubSnap.
“I started using Reddit in 2012 for a gaming forum. r/Sg was around back then, but it was mostly expats.”
While Singapore has its own local-only forums, like HardwareZone’s Eat-Drink-Man-Woman (EDMW) and Stomp, younger Singaporeans are gravitating mostly towards r/Sg.
“We attract youth because … they [have] a certain mindset. Generally more comfortable in English, more progressive … These people do not feel welcome on EDMW, [who] have their own brand, their own language.”
Additionally, Reddit is a one-stop-shop for young people from all over the world to form communities around specific interests, from Greenland to gardening to gastroenterology (as of writing this article, r/gastro has 93 subscribers). This creates a positive environment for discussion on a specific topic by enthusiasts, hobbyists, and professionals alike.
This is why Yuan Sheng believes the internet is still a place for thoughtful dialogue, an idea that I myself gave up on a long time ago. When I bring this up, he laughs.
“I grew up when the internet was not as common, and I got on board fast. Nowadays, everyone’s online, but the early internet was frequented only by academics, graduates, et cetera. If you notice, I only post in full, complete sentences; that’s how everyone typed back then. It was a more thoughtful culture, and that rubbed off on me.”
At the turn of the millennium, the internet was also a much healthier environment; trolling and fake news didn’t exist, and people who met online often formed genuine, authentic, and meaningful relationships.
Yuan Sheng hopes that the internet can once more be a force for good—an optimism that I envy. I ask him whether modern online forums, like r/Sg, can be as beneficial for (lonely) individuals as UseNet was for him.
“It depends on the environment in the forum,” he replies, “Some toxic forums can breed negative personalities. It really depends on where you go.”
And as a moderator (think: forum cop) on r/Sg, HidingCat and his fellows are working to prevent it from becoming such a space.
“We are strict on doxxing, witch-hunting, et cetera. We want to allow a place for people to express ideas without a negative mentality. Sometimes, it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. Once [a forum user] crosses a certain line in terms of these rules, that’s it.”
Doxxing is essentially an online version of witch-hunting, where a user’s personal details are sourced and revealed, usually for malicious purposes; an incident involving a certain Go-Jek passenger and the subsequent harassment she suffered comes to mind.
“From 2017, r/Sg grew from fifty to a hundred thousand subscribers; in the last eight months, it has grown by another fifty thousand”
It’s also these youngsters that Yuan Sheng is most concerned about.
In early 2017, he noticed that there were a lot of people on r/Sg who were lonely, and needed some form of social activity. Most were under twenty, still in school, or serving National Service (NS). This was when he decided to initiate a real-life fraternising session, and it became the first ‘Sambal Stingray Meetup’. Since then, HidingCat’s monthly meetup posts have become a fixture of r/Sg.
“Once they know that there are people to talk to, they don’t feel so alone. They can learn that meeting people isn’t necessarily that hard,” he says.
“In a way, it’s a chicken and egg scenario. They’re alone, so they’re afraid to talk to people, so they’re alone … On and on.”
But why does he do it?
“I guess I’m on the … slightly idealistic side. Everyone deserves a chance at happiness, and the effort needed, on my part, to write such a post is fairly small.”
“You see, I’m quite a bit older than the usual redditor,” he continues, “And as I said, I myself used to be very shy. I have gone through all these trials and tribulations before.”
From experience, Yuan Sheng knows how painful the cycle of loneliness can be. But there is something far more important: “I have firsthand knowledge that the cycle can be broken.”
As the organiser of these meetups, Yuan Sheng is more than just an attendee. For much of the session, he carries the conversation, asking follow-up questions, telling stories, making jokes, until bit by aching bit the participants become more at ease and begin to engage with one another. The man is a walking icebreaker, which requires a fair helping of both trained charisma and deliberate effort.
A word bubbles to the surface of my mind: influencer. Not one who influences fashion, through curated images, but one who influences people, through thoughtful words and consideration.
It isn’t all hard work though, since Yuan Sheng enjoys getting to know people.
“I’ve met a diverse range of people [at the meetups], from all professions and walks of life; even some expats. We had an amateur Olympic wrestler who told us many of his stories.”
“In fact,” he recalls with a chuckle, “At the very first meetup, one of the guys got pissed drunk, and we had to bundle him into a cab. That was fun.”
Still, Yuan Sheng restricts the slots for each meetup to seven people; eight including himself. Initially, this struck me as a bit of a gimmick; as if to make the meetups more exclusive so people are motivated to attend. Obviously, I was wrong.
“With the meetup, I have a purpose in mind: to get people who are bored and lonely to mix and mingle. If [the group] gets too large, it begins to splinter, and people would be left out, defeating the original purpose. With eight, I can engage everybody.”
I’m taken aback: even the group size is supported by deeper considerations for human interaction. Yet this is the crux of it. If he can help, even a little bit, to assuage the loneliness and isolation experienced by many young people, a feeling all too prevalent in our office-cubicle world, it will be worth it.
“Some may need more help,” he muses, “Psychiatry, medicine … But if I can help one or two people, why not?”
“We are starting to enter into mainstream consciousness,” he says, pointing out how even the Straits Times has often used images or stories from r/Sg.
Hell, this entire story is about the forum.
Yuan Sheng adds that, as it gains followers, r/Sg is starting to attract attention from individuals and groups who view it as more than just a platform to idly air their views. Noticeably, invisible forces are attempting to covertly influence opinion on the forum, brought to light in a spate of recent astroturfing incidents
Astroturfing refers to the deceptive practice of orchestrating a public relations campaign in the guise of unsolicited comments from the public. In this case, various Reddit accounts were created for the express purpose of promoting certain political ideas or corporations, with these intentions being hidden beneath the guise of being the ‘average Singaporean’ opinion.
“People have come [into r/Sg]—it’s true—in an attempt to influence discourse,” Yuan Sheng says
“It will happen, it is present, it is a real danger. What makes an online space valuable is its authenticity; that’s why it’s important to keep an eye out, and make sure such people do minimal damage to the community.”
While the future is unknowable, at present, r/Sg’s impact is limited by its youthful demographic.
“As of right now, younger people are simply not interested [in politics]. Budget was just announced, but no post got more than 200 upvotes (think: Facebook Likes), and there wasn’t much discussion.”
That may be true now, I argue, but eventually, these kids are going to grow into adults; adults with significant perspectives on government, policy, and CPF. Yuan Sheng answers that it depends on what their mindset regarding r/Sg is. For many, the forum is a place to unwind and have a laugh or two.
If young people aren’t as politically conscious, or as interested in engaging critically with ideas that they see, it’s not just disingenuous public relations campaigns and astroturfing that threatens them. They could be vulnerable to crafted political narratives and poisonous mistruths that impact their perception of reality .
“Youngsters tend to post sunset photos, memes,” he says, “Will they ever use r/Sg as a platform for more serious discussions?”
We’ll have to wait and see.
True to his moniker, he is the man who tries, anonymously, to make a difference. The uninitiated may view internet-meetups as ridiculous or pathetic, but Yuan Sheng is someone who saw a problem and tried to do something about it. How many of us can ever say they did the same?