No ‘prisoner’ to their cells: Dumbphones over smartphones for some in Singapore

No ‘prisoner’ to their cells: Dumbphones over smartphones for some in Singapore

Feature phone - or dumbphone - users tell Channel NewsAsia how they do without WhatsApp, Instagram or Uber in their daily lives.

nokia 8250 1

SINGAPORE: You may know someone who owns three iPhones, but what about someone who owns - and still uses - three Nokia 8250s? In 2001, Singapore Permanent Resident Andrew Hill forked out around S$600 for a now-discontinued candybar phone which he continues to rely on today. The 42-year-old then procured two more secondhand “spares” over the years for fear of his original purchase malfunctioning.

“Everyone who sees it is like ‘Oh my God, you’re still using that? I had one of those; it was so cool back in the day; I wish I'd kept it’,” said Hill. “If this phone wasn’t so old and so fun to have then I’d probably upgrade.”

The freelance software developer, who is married to a local, will not have a choice. Come April 2017, Singapore will turn off the 2G (second-generation) network which services mobile phones like his Nokia 8250. And as of June this year, there remains some 167,700 customers in Singapore who have yet to switch to 3G-enabled phones, according to statistics on the Infocomm Development Authority (IDA) website.

Hill said he would “cave in” by April and get a new phone, but one sans the advanced capabilities of a smartphone - otherwise known as a feature phone or dumbphone - and for the same reasons he has used the Nokia 8250 for 15 years now.

“It’s so much nicer to make phone calls with this,” said Hill, praising the ergonomics of what was Nokia’s smallest and lightest model when it was released in 1999. “I use it mainly for calls and texting. It doesn’t do GPRS, Internet, not even MMS… It’s pretty basic.”

“This phone also has no headphone jack - before that was cool,” he quipped, referencing the much-maligned feature of Apple’s latest iPhone 7. Hill’s alternative solution to music is an MP3 player - just as his substitute for the Google Maps app is a physical street guide in his bag.

Like Hill, Jason Koh (who uses a Nokia 105) and Brendan Poh (who uses a Nokia C1-02) are individuals who have made the choice to reject using smartphones. While they similarly believe the only major needs of any phone are that of calling and texting, all three also acknowledged their absence from the messaging service WhatsApp was proving “difficult”. According to a study by research firm Blackbox earlier this month, 97 per cent of Singapore residents are WhatsApp users.

“SMS is just not as convenient as WhatsApp. That’s going to weigh heavily in favour of me eventually upgrading to a modern phone,” Hill conceded.

But Koh, 40, was ultimately adamant. “Having Internet access and applications like WhatsApp would be useful sometimes, but it’s a drawback that also has many advantages,” he noted. “Such as the obvious one of not being a prisoner to my phone.”

nokia 8250 2

Hill thinks his Nokia 8250's generation of phones are "nicer" to make calls with than today's smartphones.


Admitting he was “averse to most brands of smartphones”, Koh, a media producer, explained: “I don't want to pay more for something I don't necessarily need. And I'm wary of new technologies that make us more alienated from our environment and from the people around us.”

Poh agreed. “Smartphones seem like a distraction,” said the 25-year-old, who works at an art gallery.

It is the privacy aspects of smartphones which bother Hill, who joked that the only time he regretted not having a smartphone was when the Pokemon Go mobile app was released earlier this year.

“Firstly, personally I don’t really do anything that is of much interest to anyone,” he said. “If I did have a smartphone, I’d probably be very wary about doing online shopping. Especially Android phones - it seems like every single day there is some new security upgrade for a new bug that affects a few million phones.”

Added Hill: “What I notice with all the apps on smartphones too is that nine out of 10 want your full contact list; and they want to activate the camera any time. I’m quite a private person so that rubs me the wrong way.”

“One other thing I don’t like about all these modern phones is that you’re on a treadmill,” he pointed out. “Every year or two you seem to have to upgrade, because with new versions of an OS (operating system) your old phone is too slow to run it; or there are security problems with the old version.”

“Replacing batteries has also become more expensive and new phones are using their batteries all the time, making them age a lot quicker,” said Hill, who dubbed his stance on mobile phones as “maybe a bit of a ‘get off my lawn’ type of Ludditism”.

nokia 8250 3

Hill however admits to struggling with the inbox limit of 30 SMSes for his phone.


Sociologists Channel NewsAsia spoke with cautioned against the assumption there was something wrong with using dumbphones in a country like Singapore, which topped a 2015 Deloitte global survey for smartphone penetration.

“The term ‘dumbphone’ is pejorative and implies that there is something lacking in those phones, which it turn implies that people need or are expected to use the technologies afforded by ‘smartphones’,” said Associate Professor Patrick Williams of Nanyang Technological University (NTU).

“How about they simply don’t believe that they need any of the things that a smartphone offers? Maybe they see smartphones as invasive or bothersome.”

Echoed Dr Nilanjan Raghunath of the Singapore University of Technology and Design: “Why are we calling this a ‘dumbphone’? For some, owning a smartphone is not a necessary accessory to their lifestyle. Some do not want to be contactable all the time… They feel it is a distraction to making real conversations with others, reading books etc.”

“Being always available does have some downside,” NTU Assistant Professor Sam Han noted. “The kind of ‘telepressure’, as researchers have called it, places a huge strain not only on those of us having to answer messages but also for those who send them. Now that messaging apps let you know when the recipient has read the message or not, there is the added anxiety of wondering why the recipient has not replied our message.”

“Many employers expect their employees to be available via WhatsApp and email all the time. This is extremely unhealthy and unproductive. With recent statistics showing how low Singapore’s productivity levels are and how poor the work-life balance seems to be here, something’s got to change,” he said.

Both Drs Han and Raghunath also pointed to the “cultural expectation of owning a smartphone” in tech-savvy Singapore. “For many, it is a sign of a lifestyle upgrade, of owning and using something that is progressive, integrated, cool and fun,” said Dr Raghunath.

And Dr Han added: “For young people, how many would want to be the one person in their peer group with a dumbphone? This would amount to self-ostracisation.”

“Some friends have said they wished that they could revert to an older phone,” said Koh. “But I've not seen them do it. It's like a desire they never dare to fulfil.”

Source: CNA/jo