From ‘At Changi Airport’, 26 April 2011, My Point, ST Forum and ‘It’s uniquely Singaporean and very rude’, 26 April 2011, ST Forum
(MR JEREMY CHIAN): ‘I recently went to Changi Airport to pick up an overseas guest. While waiting at the arrival hall I cringed on seeing huge posters informing visitors that if they saw tissue packets placed on foodcourt dining tables, it meant the seats were already taken…How embarrassed I was when my guest inquired if this was the culture in Singapore. Publicising this practice gives our country a bad image.’
(Su Timmins): …At a well-known food chain, just as my husband and I were heading towards a table with our food, two girls walked in and headed straight for our table to place their tissue packs. I told them it was our table and they moved to ‘reserve’ another. We finished and left before they even got their food.
As we left, another two girls placed their tissue packs on our table and there were at least 15 people in the queue ahead of them.
When I complained to the owner, his reply shocked me. This was the custom and culture of Singapore, he said, adding that he did not think he should reject the traditions followed in the place he operated.
Since when and how has this practice become a Singaporean cultural tradition?
The humble, practically worthless tissue pack has the perfect size and visibility as an object to stake claim on a space, compared to say, a watch, a pen or anything that one is less willing to lose. By its function, it is understood that someone wants to eat there, and the very fact that it is so dispensable means patrons are aware of the tenuous hold that the tissue pack has on eating space, since no hearts would be broken if someone swiped it. Likewise there’s no authority or SOP on tissue chope-ing, and nothing illegal too if someone throws it away or assumes that it was left behind by a previous patron and sits down anyway, though you would earn some scowls throughout your meal as a consequence of your tactless flouting of the Singaporean ‘chope’ custom.
Singaporeans nonetheless have grown to accept this ‘unspoken rule’, just like how it’s accepted to slurp your ramen loudly in a Japanese noodle shop, waste water at a Songkran festival in Thailand, or run with the bulls risking a butt-gore in Spain. These customs aren’t pretty, even absurd, but our perceived ‘rudeness’ of seat chope-ing can’t possibly be worse than our reputation as ruthless vandal caners. What matters is that we have achieved a social equilibrium and mutual understanding of the gesture amicably without ending up in a brawl tossing chilli at each other. Some foreigners even claim that reserving seats (including using someone to ‘jaga’, a staple method for those who eschew the tissue-chope) is unheard of in their country (see below, Is anyone sitting here? 8 Feb 2001, Voices, Today). The science behind ideal turnaround times at hawker centre tables is as fuzzy as traffic prediction, so it’s hard to tell if a free for all no reservations system as the writer below suggests would ensure that everyone walks away satisfied and without a black eye. In fact, with prohibitions on reservations, you’d see people rushing for seats, clashing trays, spilling food all over the place and fighting because of the two predisposing factors to an ugly situation: Hungry. And being Singaporean.
In fact, some would even argue that tissue-choping is a time saver (Tissue system’s a time saver, 17 April 2007, Voices, Today), ensuring that tables are occupied for less time since the group would otherwise have been waiting for the ‘choper’ to finish his meal before giving up the table together. Which probably explains how this ‘system’ has evolved from the stress of a tight lunch hour, sometimes half-hour even, that most Singaporeans are allowed as a side effect of our obsession with productivity, unlike the leisurely hour and a half long lunches (power naps inclusive) which our complaining tourists are used to.
The problem really, is ENDORSING through posters as what Changi Airport does that tissue chope-ing is our de rigeur way of doing things here, alongside say getting the death penalty for drug trafficking. One might as well include it in the disembarkation form for tourists to check the acknowledgment box that says ‘I will not sit at tables with tissue packs on them while eating out’. This effectively tilts the delicate balance in favour of the tissue-chopers, who would otherwise be forced to compete with the likes of people who just throw their tissues away or ignore them. It also means that you can get away with the ‘phantom tissue’ argument, whereby you accuse an innocent random patron for stealing your tissue pack just so you can squeeze into his table at the expense of his lunch companions. In any case, there’s nothing anyone can do about such deeply entrenched behaviour (at least 10 years) short of imposing a fine for ‘littering’, if not for ‘reserving seats’. So other than just making do, we might as well make the tissue pack a national icon too. Hey, it’s uniquely Singaporean, what.