Once again, the phenomenon of “chopeing” (reserving) seats at public eating places is in the spotlight. The practice, which is peculiar to Singapore in some ways, has been around for some time. And if you are a Singaporean or one who has lived here long enough, you would have come to accept it as part of our life, a quirk certainly, but one which many of us deem necessary (for reasons which I will expand on below).
Now, another attempt to stop the practice has been launched. A group of “anti-chope” campaigners is trying a new method to get their message across – by leaving reminder cards on tables in eating outlets, to discourage patrons from “chopeing” seats by placing tissue packs, namecards, or other inexpensive items on the tables or seats.
The founder behind the new one-year old campaign is Katelin Teo, an associate “general secretary of partnerships” at the Singapore Kindness Movement (SKM).
“Just because it has been done for years doesn’t make it right,” she told the press, referring to the “chopeing” quirk.
Each time she sees a pack of tissue paper or some other item left to reserve a table, she would leave a card to remind the person responsible not to “chope” seats.
Her campaign has received both support and ridicule so far.
What should one make of it?
First, let us remember that “chopeing” came about because of necessity. Those of us who frequent hawker centers or coffeeshops (or other food outlets), especially during lunch or dinner time, know the stress and frustration of having to look for an available seat or table while holding on to a bowl of hot soupy noodles on a food tray; while at the same time negotiating our way around an invariably crowded place.
How then do we overcome this? Well, simple. Get there a bit earlier, “chope” one of those tables before we go looking for our food. When we have done that, we are assured of a seat. We can then eat in peace, be quick about it, and return to work (or wherever else), all in good time.
Second, “chopeing” seats is practical. It is a pragmatic solution born out of a situation which we cannot ourselves control – overcrowdedness. And when we cannot control the wider issue, we innovate and be creative about how we ourselves deal with it at the ground level. And what is more practical than coming up with a solution which cost basically $0, and which is effective virtually 100% of the time?
So, instead of lamenting the practice, we should recognise the genius behind it. (Ok, so other countries – including crowded ones like Hong Kong – do not adopt such practices. So what? Perhap they will adopt it if they come to realise how effective it is!)
Third, “chopeing” seats is good for some. Examples would be young children, pregnant women and elderly folk. It saves them from having to compete for seats.
Fourth, “chopeing” allows others (those who come later) the option to go somewhere else for their food, instead of having to wait around, with food tray in hand, for a seat which may only be available much later. They could also decide to “tahpao” (buy take-away) if they see all the tables and seats have been “choped”.
Fifth, most people accept this system, devised by the people themselves. And it has worked relatively well. Complaints, despite the new campaign, about the practice have not really gained traction, simply because many find it a fair enough system.
As this person wrote on his website, “such a reservation system actually provides a fair mechanism for the public space to be shared by all.”
“It is through such a system that people who play by the rules are able to share the common public space.”
He explained further:
“In fact, it is because of the reservations system that prevent quarrels from occurring. One can have their lunch in less than half an hour (from queueing to finish up the meal) in the jam pack foodcourt. Everyone is willing to share their tables. Nobody reserve more than they need. Very often in a table, you could end up having all strangers sitting together although all had chopped their seats. Without the chope system, you can be sure of riots over there.”
Now, having said all that, we should also consider if this system can be improved, and I would argue that it can, but not by banning it, or by going around leaving reminder cards for people to stop the practice.
Instead, here are some practical improvements which any campaign should focus on.
One, the reminders should be for people not to hog tables or seats, especially during peak hours such as lunch and dinner times. Patrons should finish their food promptly and leave the food establishment, so that others too can use the table and have their meals.
Two, we should encourage a sharing culture. If you see someone looking for a seat, make space for the person if you can. A simple, kind few words do wonders – “Looking for a seat? Here, you can sit here.”
Three, if you are going to buy food from a stall with a long queue, which should let you know how long you may have to wait in the queue, try not to “chope” any seats. If you have to wait 15 mins in the queue, for example, you would be reserving a seat for that same amount of time, time in which someone could use the seat in the meanwhile. So, a little common sense and civic-mindedness will go a long way.
Fourth, don’t reserve more space than you need. If you are eating alone, don’t reserve space meant for more than one person. This is basic courtesy.
Fifth, if you see children, pregnant women or elderly folk looking for a seat to have their meals, do consider sharing with them. Do not be like this couple 2 years ago in a Toa Payoh hawker center, who scolded an older man when he asked to sit at a table which the couple was reserving.
This is the sort of behaviour which we do not want.
Seventh, please do not take more than 10-15 minutes to finish your meal during lunch time. A higher turnover rate means more people can get to use the tables and seats.
And lastly, do return your food tray after you have finished, and leave the table clean as well. (Yes, some people eat like pigs, leaving a horrible mess behind which prevents others from using the table.)
While the anti-chope campaign may have good intentions, it fails in one vital point – it sees those who “chope” seats as “undesirables”, or at least sees the practice as such.
This is unfortunate because the practice is borne out of a practical need, given the constraints of time (we all have only a limited number of minutes for lunch during the work week, for example), and having to deal with overcrowdedness. (10m population, anyone?)
There are no laws against “chopeing” seats. But we all can do with a little common sense and civic-mindedness. As the National Environment Agency (NEA) said, when asked for its response to the issue 2 years ago:
“[Patrons] should always exercise consideration for others when dining at the hawker centres and sharing the facilities.”
Chope your seats, but think of others too.
That is a better campaign message which all of us can accept.