Thursday 22 September 2016

Reserved Seating

We hear horror stories of fights on public transport on the right to a seat. After all it was paid for. The fact is this: no one can force anyone, needy or not, to give up their seat, even the ‘Reserve Seats’. With that thought, are we as a nation socially developed enough to automatically give up our seats to those in need of them.

Singapore is a very small country with a population of 5.31 million residing in an area of 712km square. Sixty-two percent are Singapore citizens, 10% permanent residents and 28% non-residents.

In 17 years, its population is projected to increase to 6.9 million. According to the Singapore department of statistics, we now have a population density of over 7500 inside a square kilometre.

In that, more than 50% use public transport. That translates to over 7 million passenger trips daily. In human terms, this means being in extreme proximity with strangers for sometimes over an hour, often standing with the seats taken up. If you are very lucky, you get a seat.

With the population living longer, you will get more senior citizens. With the population increasing, you will see more children on the trains, and there will be more pregnant women, disabled, injured or unwell taking the public transport.

In July 2008, the Singapore Mass Rapid Transit (SMRT) introduced ‘Priority Seats’ to remind passengers to be gracious and give up the said seats to people in need. Eleven months later, SMRT changed the ‘Priority Seats’ to ‘Reserved Seats’ in a bid to make the “voluntary” relinquishing of the seats more authoritative and forceful.

The bottom line is this: No one can force any fit, strong or able-bodied person sitting on the reserved seats to give it up. There is no law to enforce it. In the future, if not now, the ‘Reserved Seats’ will not be enough to accommodate those in need during peak time.
What we have in place is a transitional measure to ensure that those in need to have a fighting chance to get a seat.

So begs the question: should we drop the concept of ‘Reserved Seats’ and grant our Singapore public the independence to make the socially responsible choice?
Mrs. Marian De Souza, 46, an early education teacher, now based in New Zealand, shares her thoughts.

“I don’t think the idea will work. The Singapore culture of ‘me, myself and I’ are too deeply embedded in the country’s psyche, right from early childhood to the golden years. There is no time or space for the milk of human kindness to flow from one person to the next. Even if you wanted to, you see so many people, even army personnel faking sleep or just closing their eyes to avoid seeing anyone. In New Zealand people generally give up their seats. A lot of this has got to do with the inculcation of the value of human respect in the school teaching system right from early childhood. Also, it’s a lot to do with the space and time people have to behave and act humanely.”

Chandran Chinniah, 56, a professional sports coach, echoes similar sentiments.
“With decades of emphasis on paper chase, productivity, economic priority and self-centredness, the very idea of being socially responsible has been given a back-seat or a miss in most societies and present-day culture. As one that uses public transport everyday at odd hours, indeed ‘Reserved Seats’ should be clearly indicated in buses, trains and in other public places where possible.”

Ng Yoke Meng, a 14-year old student thinks otherwise.

“I think it’s our duty to get off the ‘Reserve Seats’ or any seat if we see anyone who seems to need it more. These people are basically pregnant women, senior citizens, disabled and anyone who seems to have trouble standing up in the moving train or bus. It’s more about their safety and being aware of the challenging world they live in. One day we will be like that. I think every seat should be regarded as the reserve seat once they come aboard.”
In the world of public transport, reserved seats are a common concept. Austria had it since the 70’s. Germany has priority seating arrangements, as Japan and the U.S. India is on the verge of adding more reserved seats for women. All these measures are put in place to protect the needs of the disadvantaged and those in need. Communications in the way of announcements, posters and banners shout out to the able-bodied to be socially responsible.

So when we hear of quarrels on public transport like the one on the SBS bus service 235 on July 14, 2012, between a young lady and an elderly woman, uploaded on YouTube a few days later, it speaks of a society losing its grace.

But this is not unlike other nations who also have reserved seating for the same reason – to reduce the level of conflict.

Very soon, with a burgeoning population ahead in Singapore, conflicts like the one on SBS service 235 could very well become routine.

It’s clear a mindset change is necessary to make daily commuting not unlike a nightmare in broad daylight for those in need.

Does the change occur from outside in, like through authoritative measures, or inside out, where we all accept the responsibility to change ourselves?

Society as a majority has a knack of pulling others towards the trend. So if most of us give up our seats, then it becomes a social norm, with the outliers feeling out of place if they do not conform. The question is: where do we begin?


Population Trends 2012 - Department of Statistics
Singapore Land Transport Statistics in Brief

Singapore in Brief 2012 - Ministry of Trade and Industry
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