Clarence Chua

Cultivating social graces at the lunch table must start from the base, not by covering up the cracks.

Measuring just four-by-two inches, the rather flat tissue packet rises larger than life. Loved by some who use it to claim tables at packed food centres, it is reviled by others who brand it symptomatic of Singaporeans’ anti-social nature.

In the cacophonic relentlessness of the Central Business District (CBD), the informal ‘chope’ system symbolises efficiency over social congeniality. It is borne of necessity. But a Singapore Management University (SMU) undergraduate group is discouraging it for more “gracious” behaviour – by beseeching patrons to personally reject hopeful bidders of the empty seats. Verdict: rather flat.

The Singapore Kindness Movement (SKM), in endorsing the Tissue Parody, forms a true two-ply mockery of addressing the long-time problem of lunch-time social ungraciousness. Couple 10,000 tissue packets exhorting “This seat is not taken, it’s yours!” with Singa the Courtesy Lion prancing to the tune, and the parody is complete.

Removing the ‘chope’ system adds a host of new problems that will overwhelm the perceived benefits of their version of social graciousness. Instead, systemically addressing the problem of crowded food centres deserves more attention.

No tissue packet chope: Just wiping the surface

The biggest loophole undermining the ‘people for packets’ policy is simply, a crunching lack of time. Lunch hour in the CBD is exactly that: 60 minutes; less, given walking times to and from the kopitiam. If Tissue Parody had its way, the combined man-minutes wasted by table-waiting workers would run into the hundreds-of-thousands. In a country predicated on economic efficiency, time is money – the dollar losses would be huge.

Even by ignoring its commercial non-viability and giving human contact precedence instead, the no-tissue movement will fall short of achieving its end. The SMU students fail to consider the irritation generated by having to verbally reject others asking, “Excuse me, can I sit here?” ten times over. And the inevitable reply, “Sorry, seat taken!” or a curt, “No” is hardly kindly either.

And that is assuming everybody lunches in groups. Solo-diners will struggle to secure a seat sans a reservation system. Nimble-brained as CBD workers may be, maze-like food courts threaten utter mess. Laksa-stained shirt anyone?

Necessity is the mother of invention. In the remarkably-dense CBD, the tissue-packet-chope system boasts utter efficiency: one packet in the centre of the table signifies that every seat is taken; if not, one packet per reserved seat. It exacts a clear solution to a peculiar environment. It has, and will, continue to work – eradicating the tissue issue will be quixotic and certainly chaotic.

Addressing it systemically

Instead of advocating dress changes, the SMU students and SKM should tackle the spectre of over-filled food centres. This would in turn help address the graciousness problem. Witness the groups chatting at the table long after gratifying their stomachs, or the hawks who stare down diners only halfway through their meals.

To purge this evident ugliness, streamlining the smooth flow of the hungry crowd, rather than discouraging an informal system of reserving tables, is key.

A ‘number vacant’ system, akin to what we see at carpark entrances, will nip the problem of roving crowds in the bud. Comfortably-populated food courts would counterpoint hassled office spaces. Paired with ceiling-mounted green/red indicators indicating the presence of free tables, people can make a safe beeline for them, even with tray in hand. This automation allows a more relaxed lunch environment, and can build a base from which better social graces can spring.

A simpler, cheaper idea is a manual reservation system, where diners can indicate ‘Occupied/Not Occupied’ on an in-built slider or flipper device. If the tissue system is frowned upon for its cursory nature, this formal arrangement adds a degree of accepted permanence.

The peak hour table overstayers, to me, impede graciousness the most. Restaurants offer longer post-meal chill out time, but it should not happen at packed hawker centres. A small roving team, assigned to discreetly request them to make space for new diners, would help. A campaign targeting this group would be truly effective, enhancing both social awareness and human traffic flow.

Even in the soaring glass and concrete hardware of our city centre, space abounds for heartware. But it will require our famed brand of rigorous research and practical solutions, not three-by-two inch campaigns, to create lunch environments that can foster both laughter and graciousness.


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