“Choping is an individually rational act that is collectively irrational and inefficient for users as a whole”

We recently ran a story about a German exchange student from National University of Singapore (NUS) who noted that the ‘chope’ culture in Singapore is selfish, and shared their experience to confessional Facebook page NUSWhispers.

The student found Singaporeans “cold and unfriendly”, and the habit of reserving seats using bags and laptops also comes as a culture shock. The confessor witnessed this not only in canteens, but also in study areas where other students would “reserve” up to four seats and leave for lunch.

As such, Dr Donald Low, former Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy associate dean, penned his opinion regarding this matter on his Facebook page.

He revealed that he believes that the German student’s opinion of Singaporeans is right.

“What’s wrong with chopping seats in a shared space is not that it is ‘cold and unfriendly’; it’s that choping is an individually rational act that is collectively irrational and inefficient for users as a whole,” he noted.

He added, “The main defence for choping – that it saves us the hassle of looking for a seat after getting our food – only reinforces the first (and self-evident) point that choping makes sense for the individual. But just because something is individually reasonable does not make it collectively reasonable or efficient.”

Therefore, he said this practice is wrong because it deprives other users from getting a seat for their use. Hence, Singapore will be better off if there was a widely accepted and enforced norm against choping, he said.

He went on further to say that chopping is a very Singaporean example of the “tragedy of commons” that economists talked about and which Madam Ho Ching recently referred to in her St Gallen speech. It is important to note that what is individually rational may not always be collectively so.

“The tragedy arises from the fact that short of privatisation of the common resource OR some sort of government regulation against overuse, collective action problems are usually intractable,” he explained.

But when it comes to advising the German student, Mr Low said the best way to deal with this problem without getting into a fight with Singaporeans is to just get the food first and then sit anywhere, even if the seat is reserved. However, if the person who reserved the seat shows up before the student finish eating, just move to another empty seat even if it is reserved.

“This is what I do at hawker centres and I have never has problems finishing my meals in peace and in one piece. This practice can easily be applied to other public spaces, e.g. libraries, where seats are also reserved by absentee choppers,” he concluded.

Although Dr Low feels that choping culture has to go, but retired banker Chris Kuan has a different opinion on this issue.

Expressing his point on his Facebook page, Mr Kuan said that the German “student should go to work and on his first business trip from an airport in Germany, watch how his countrymen crowd around the departure gate. The he won’t be so shocked about Singaporeans”.

He added that the German student should also be aware of the famous towels on the deckchairs by the pool in the hotels around the Mediterranean. Germans have a habit of placing towels on deckchairs at hotels in order to ‘reserve’ them for their own personal use.

In addition to this, Mr Kuan also mentioned his points again on Mr Low’s Facebook comment, in which the latter said he still uses the same approach of sitting wherever he wants and when the person who reserves the seat shows up, he just moves to another deckchair.