While reserved seats were no doubt conceived with good intentions, they have not yielded the best results on MRT trains. Reserved seats are an artificial means of promoting graciousness that may be doing more harm than good for Singapore’s MRT culture.
Stigma surrounding reserved seats
Nowadays, many commuters hesitate to occupy a reserved seat on an MRT train. This is in part due to the prevalence of internet shaming on social media sites such as Facebook and Stomp, which has caused sitting on reserved seats to be stigmatised.
Earlier this year, a man tried to publicly shame a woman who had no visible disabilities but was occupying a reserved seat on the MRT train. He asked his friend to record him on video and proceeded to confront the lady in an arrogant manner, possibly for the sake of gaining online attention.
In another incident, a pregnant woman who tried to sit on a reserved seat was questioned by another commuter, who demanded “proof” of her pregnancy.
Unwell passengers who are not visibly disabled may also be shamed into giving up their reserved seats. Such is the tricky nature of reserved seats – how do you ascertain if someone is “deserving” of a reserved seat? How old is old enough? And how “injured” must one be to rightfully occupy a reserved seat without having to endure disapproving glances from fellow commuters?
In cases of internet shaming, internet users only get to see one side of the story. The truth behind seemingly ungracious acts on MRT trains could be more nuanced than what is portrayed online. However, internet users are often quick to criticise commuters based on one photo. This creates a culture of distrust and apprehension when it comes to occupying reserved seats.
The fear of internet shaming among Singaporeans who hesitate to occupy reserved seats is exemplified in this satirical article on newnation.sg.
The Blame Game
Besides being objects of stigmatisation, designated reserved seats also send a dubious signal to the rest of the commuters: only those occupying reserved seats are obliged to give up their seats.
While commuters who occupy reserved seats are constantly faced with the pressure to give up their seats, fellow commuters who occupy non-reserved seats are absolved of this same pressure. Aren’t they equally obliged to give up their seats to those who need it too? Why does the responsibility of giving up seats seem to fall solely on the shoulders of those occupying reserved seats?
Case in point: a whole row of commuters blatantly ignoring the pregnant woman standing in front of them, possibly because they were expecting that one commuter occupying the reserved seat to give up his seat.
Rather than cultivating a gracious public transportation culture, reserved seats seem to have encouraged a sense of unemotional passivity. We have become robots, programmed with the mindset that reserved seats (and reserved seats only) are to be occupied by the needy (and the needy only).
Will we regress to a situation where a 60 year old has to give up their reserved seat to a 70 year old, while passive youngsters sitting on non-reserved seats turn a blind eye to what’s happening?
A glimpse into the future
A train cabin in Sapporo
With the stigmatisation of reserved seats as it is, our MRT culture may be headed towards that of Japan. In some parts of Japan, such as Sapporo, people generally do not sit on reserved seats unless they really need to. To some, this appears to be a commendable show of public courtesy. To others, it represents an insidious social pressure to avoid reserved seats. According to a local interviewee, injured or handicapped individuals may hesitate to take up reserved seats because of the social pressure.
Instead of an awkward stigmatisation of reserved seats, simple acts of graciousness among commuters are sufficient to help needy people get seats on trains. Do we really aspire to live in a society where people have to “prove” if they are deserving of reserved seats? Do Singaporeans really need blatant stickers that read “reserved seat” to acknowledge that they should give up their seats to the needy?
Faith in Singaporeans?
Perhaps we should have more faith in the graciousness of Singaporeans. In a survey conducted by LTA which collated responses from 1000 commuters, 94% of the commuters said that they would give up their seats to those who need it more. Even without reserved seats, we should trust fellow Singaporeans to be considerate enough to give up their seats to those who truly need them.
Where public graciousness is lacking, education is a more sustainable solution. Instead of using unnatural means like priority seats to oblige commuters to act graciously, we should perhaps cultivate a habit of giving up seats through education both in schools and mass media.
Commuters who are not visibly disabled or vulnerable may have trouble getting seat offers on MRT trains, because other commuters are unaware of their conditions. Instead of furtive internet shaming, why not practice direct communication? In such cases, a polite request for a seat would most likely work in securing a seat.
Rather than encouraging graciousness on MRT trains, reserved seats have ironically become hotspots for tension and conflict. They also perpetuate a culture of passivity and blame-shifting. This seems like the time for some serious reflection: Do we really need reserved seats on MRT trains?
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