SINGAPORE: If your home catches fire, do you have a collapsible ladder to help your family climb into your neighbour’s home?
As a prepper, 50-year-old Samuel is ready for anything, including the possibility that his family would be unable to escape through their main door.
In this case, his wife, two sons and mother-in-law would have to don safety harnesses, hook their ladder onto the window ledge and clamber to the unit below their fifth-storey flat.
Known as “doomsday preppers” in popular culture, this group of survivalists are infamous for some of their extreme tendencies, such as building underground bunkers to prepare for a zombie apocalypse. There is even a National Geographic reality series on them.
In Singapore, however, preppers like Samuel pride themselves on being ready for other sorts of crises, such as accidents, haze, fires, blackouts and pandemics. To caricature preppers is to misconceive his methodical mindset.
For example, when he learned in February that COVID-19 was a respiratory disease, he bought two oxygen tanks to prevent a situation where his family test positive and need oxygen while waiting for a doctor.
Many preppers are also trained in first aid. And those whom CNA Insider spoke to are involved in some degree of humanitarian work, not least because a prepper’s skills and inventory come in handy during disasters.
It is a community that generally keeps their prepping secret, however.
This desire to keep a low profile or remain anonymous, as Samuel requested, is the preppers’ “grey man” concept — a form of self-preservation so other people do not flock to them when, in prepping terms, Shit Hits The Fan (SHTF).
METHOD IN THE MADNESS
Samuel turned to prepping during the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars) outbreak in 2003, which he felt unprepared for as he became a father.
“I felt helpless. I started to order stuff online, stocking up on personal protective equipment (PPE). It made me realise I needed to be prepared next time, not only for this but for anything that comes along,” he says.
“Because of my two sons, now I have to be serious about (prepping). It’s not only about me.”
The financial analyst cites “the 10th man” rule from the film World War Z as his North Star. Preppers are the 10th person who would prepare for the worst-case scenario that nine other people do not believe could happen.
This readiness is reflected throughout his three-bedroom condominium. You just need to know where to look.
His pantry is stocked with canned food and other non-perishables that can last up to two months, as well as about S$600 worth of PPE such as gloves, goggles, masks and at least 500 face shields.
One bottom shelf is lined with empty petrol cans, which he plans to fill with about 10 litres of petrol in case there is restricted access to petrol stations during an emergency.
Behind every door in the house hangs a mini fire extinguisher.
Along the corridor leading to the bedrooms, a smoke detector is stuck to the ceiling with duct tape. This tape also secures the wires of a panel that controls the solar-powered lights in his bathroom, in case of a blackout.
In preparation for the annual haze, every room in the house has a device measuring the level of particulate matter. Anytime the number rises, Samuel closes the windows and room doors, and switches on the air purifier.
As he resides in a red zone for dengue, he has portable mosquito repellent lights throughout the house.
Nestled in his son’s cupboard is one bug-out bag per family member, regularly restocked by Dad.
In an emergency, preppers would grab only their bug-out bag, which contains items to help one survive for about 72 hours: Medication and bandages, ready-to-eat food, collapsible water bottles, a raincoat, personal identification documents and a solar-powered radio-cum-torch-cum-reading light.
Samuel’s bag includes a GPS phone, which his son brought once on an overseas school trip. The phone relies on satellite location to activate the tracking device.
In a crisis where his family need to be separated, he and his wife would split up, each taking a son and their respective bug-out bags.
One might think that constantly guarding against emergencies makes Samuel highly strung, but prepping allays his anxiety by allowing him to take care of risks.
“When I travel, I bring along a particular mask that’s like a hood, which allows you to breathe through smoke ... It gives me a high level of comfort,” he says. And it costs “little money, like S$50”.
The ability to afford these items, however, is not crucial. Basic prepping, he says, can start with buying an “additional one to two weeks’ worth of food” or immediately replacing a used item on the next grocery run.
Going by his logic, many people are preppers to an extent.
WATCH: Prepping For The End Of The World (And Other Emergencies) (8:24)
SKILLS AS IMPORTANT AS TOOLS
For others, prepping is more than having a strict inventory or fancy tools.
Ashton Law sees survivalist skills as part of being a prepper. He reckons many Singaporeans become complacent about safety in Singapore and therefore may get into trouble when they go overseas.
Formerly in private security operations, the 34-year-old bushcraft instructor now teaches varied groups — from adults to children as young as five years old — how to use a knife and fire steel to start a fire and how to build a shelter from branches and leaves, among other jungle survival skills.
The freelancer also teaches self-defence skills and parkour, even to his seven-year-old son.
For instance, he has taught his son an “anti-kidnapping” skill, which his son has thankfully never had to use: The child would wrap his legs around one of the kidnapper’s legs to prevent the person from running.
The child can then scream for help. Not wanting to draw the attention of others, the kidnapper would be likely to release the child.
Self-reliance underscores the skills Ashton teaches, but he acknowledges that this trait can fall within a “grey area”.
“Being a prepper is almost like being a borderline vigilante. Authorities still believe that if something were to happen, then you should seek help or call a number,” he says.
“As a prepper, we’re supposed to be self-reliant. We’re supposed to have the skills, tools and knowledge to do certain things, so we may not see eye to eye with authorities. We have the mindset: I don’t need your help.”
This psychological aspect of prepping or survivalism is something Forest School advocates through its “alternative education” methods such as unstructured learning, although the school does not consider itself as prepper-centric in nature.
Independence, self-initiated learning and curiosity are what is more important, which overlap with a prepper’s mentality.
“We don’t consider ourselves preppers because preppers prepare for (an event that) may or may not come. For us, it’s about the way of life,” says Forest School volunteer instructor Ben Yang, 32.
“Say a tsunami covers Singapore and you have no access to food. Would you be able to ... live off the land? If you (did) your own personal learning journey facilitated by Forest School, I can confidently tell you that ... you’d live.”
READY TO LEND A HAND
The roughly 150 members of the preppers’ Meetup community often have complementary specialisations, like knife skills, bushcraft expertise and even financial planning skills.
Michael Lim and his wife, Debbie, are trained in first aid. The couple volunteer with the Singapore Red Cross, where Michael works as a programme development manager.
The bulk of his work lies in disaster risk reduction, but he is well-prepared for everyday crises with his Every Day Carry — a daily version of the bug-out bag.
“My mentor taught us to expect the unexpected (with this analogy): An emergency can happen when it’s 3am, and it’s raining,” he shares.
That means a prepper would pack accordingly for everyday life by remembering that emergencies can happen in the dark, in the rain and when everyone is asleep.
Being ready to respond at a moment’s notice has allowed Michael to render first aid to a cyclist who got into an accident. He also carries around an emergency blanket for those with hypothermia.
As frequent users of the myResponder app, Michael and Debbie attended to an incident involving someone with cardiac arrest a few years ago.
“I accepted the call, then informed Debbie, who was with our friends at home. When we arrived at the scene, just a block away, we knew that we needed to do CPR. There were seven of us,” recalls Michael.
Being preppers meant the volunteers were able to remain focused; some provided psychological first aid for the family, while others reminded the family about important documents to take to hospital.
For Samuel, help does not stop at home. He participates regularly in overseas humanitarian aid trips.
He keeps items for these trips in a storage unit away from home. Among his stash are portable water filtration systems, tents, solar-powered torches of various sizes and several MRE (meal ready to eat) packs stored in tubs.
Then there is a box of about 10 body bags, which he bought online after returning from Palu, Indonesia, where he helped victims of the 2018 earthquake. The scene of dead bodies prompted him to consider a possible disaster where he would need to bury his family members.
As an independent prepper ready with items for disaster relief, he bypasses the bureaucracy bigger organisations face. He need not wait, say, a week for approval; he can hop on a flight to a disaster zone within a day.
“I’d establish a line of communication and find out what they need first. Normally, with an extensive network of friends, you link up with someone, whether it’s an individual or an NGO. Then I start to coordinate things,” he says.
“I want to be the guy who fills the gap. So I can’t wait for a crisis to happen, then start getting what I need. By the time I gather enough funds to buy everything, it would probably be three to four weeks late.”
Doing humanitarian work is his reminder that disaster can hit anytime — and that his preparedness will come in handy.
“When I see the earthquakes that happened in Lombok and in Palu, many times — psychologically having experienced this thing — people don’t go back to their homes that quickly. I think bug-out bags would help in that situation,” he says.
“None of the people (in disaster zones) thought they’d be in that situation. That made me realise the importance of preparing and not taking things for granted. It’s naive to think we’d never be in their situation.”
PREPARING FOR NOTHING
Even so, is there really a need to go to such lengths to prepare for the worst?
A quick scan around Samuel’s home and storage unit might make the average Singaporean question why preppers buy items they would most likely never use and whether such preparedness is a waste of money.
But his 16-year-old son, Hanson, who also wants to remain anonymous, does not think his father’s actions are illogical. “He’s doing this for our own good,” he says.
“He just buys a lot of stuff in the storeroom, and sometimes he may go overboard, but I usually let it slide because he’s expecting the unexpected. It’s a very good mindset to have.”
Importantly, no matter how many hundreds of dollars Samuel has spent on prepping for various crises, the hope is that these items amount into nothing in the end.
“People say it’s wasted money and stuff like that, but again, that’s the work of a prepper,” he says. “In fact, I hope I don’t have to use them.”