Here’s a question. Imagine you were at the airport, the train station or even a bus stop and you needed to hold a seat. Would you leave an umbrella or bag there to ‘reserve’ it? The answer is no, because either the cleaning staff would throw it away or security would be called in. You’ve heard the Tannoy announcements over and over again. “Unattended objects will be removed and destroyed.” There’s even a charming video by the police force and train operators to remind people not to do so.
So why are we fine with leaving bits of random things around at a public food centre to ‘reserve’ it, or to use a Singlish term, ‘chope’?
The whole idea of ‘holding the table’ may have started out for convenience’s sake, but it has turned into inconvenience for others and now, physical abuse, in the case of the infamous Toa Payoh Lorong 8 hawker centre dispute. Two young white-collar persons, ordering takeaway, staked their claim over a table with a purple umbrella and when an elder man was looking for a spot to have his lunch, started a violent and verbally abusive altercation. The duo are unidentifiable from the video but perhaps Google’s new technology will assist with that.
Let’s not go into whether the behaviour was outrageous or not. Instead, we want to ask the more relevant question: how does middle-class affluenza occur?
You’re probably thinking of Ethan Couch, the Texas teen who killed four pedestrians while drunk driving in 2013. Couch’s lawyers argued that he suffered from affluenza and could not understand the consequences of his actions because of his privilege. And last year in Rio, US medallist Ryan Lochte, Gunnar Bentz, Jack Conger and James Feigen claimed they were robbed but had in fact vandalised a petrol station bathroom and stopped by armed guards for their behaviour. The Rio 2016 spokesperson, Mario Andrada said, “These kids tried to have fun, they tried to represent their country to the best of their abilities. They competed under gigantic pressure. Let’s give these kids a break. Sometime you take actions that you later regret. They had fun, they made a mistake, life goes on.”
Couch’s example might be extreme, but it’s behaviour that’s learned, whether from society or family. We learn from our elders through unconscious or conscious mimicry, and assimilate it in our behaviour. Likewise for the duo’s behaviour towards the elder gent. We’re responsible (not fully, and this isn’t an attempt to absolve them or assign blame to someone else) and it’s important to ask ourselves: when did Singapore’s social caste system become real, and the promises of our pledge fade?
The promises of our pledge didn’t fade. It just failed to mention the invisible but very real wealth caste, which really exists around the world. But in a country that measures just 277 square km, it has the potential to turn into daily social conflict. It’s Keeping Up with the Kardashians and Black Mirror’s Nosedive episode, turned into reality.
The wealth caste system is as follows: at the top are the über-rich and famous, then the famous who are yet to be über-rich, the rich but not famous, the HENRYs (High Earners, Not Rich Yet), the average middle-class with aspirations of climbing higher up the caste, the poor and I’ll group the rest as those who have ‘downshifted‘, also more commonly known as hipsters or yuccies, but the real ones. Those higher up live in their own echo chambers and ivory towers and many are kind, friendly, even greatly charitable. Those who are poorer off ignore the system because they are too busy trying to make ends meet. It’s the ones in the middle who, in their attempt to climb this social and wealth caste, are often the bullies.
Racial privilege is something we’ve spoken on and something that can be actively fixed – don’t be prejudiced against people of other races. But how do you distinguish wealth privilege? It’s not like there’s some augmented reality indicating the running bank account total of every person hovering over them. It’s simply an issue of perception: how people dress or groom themselves, do for work… a hundred little things that form some assumption that said person must belong on this level in the wealth caste. And they can treat the ones below them with disdain or ignore them. And that bullying habit is developed from parenting methods today, where pandering to their kids, obliging them on every single thing and over-emphasising material value over communal kindness.
Because that’s it. Community is why the tables at public food centres are round, in seats of six and meant for anyone and everyone to use, regardless of who you are and what status you possess in life. It’s not a restaurant. There isn’t a number you can call to ‘chope’ a table or a seat, regardless whether you place a packet of tissues, an umbrella, a name card, your wallet, phone or a ring on it. And no one, whether you are an old man or young lady, should have the right to question why someone’s settling down in an empty seat. Or hurt. If you’d like to demand such services, there are these places called restaurants where people can set aside a table for you, cook and bring you food and charge you a fee for it. If you’re going to a place where the hoi polloi go to dine, then be a regular Joe and leave your social pretensions behind.
It’s something to reflect upon and think about, and it applies to everyone, myself included. If you’re only looking upwards and constantly trying to climb higher, you’d better make sure you never fall down the system. Because when you do, it’s gonna hit you hard and fast. That’s Newton’s third law at work: every action has an equal and opposite reaction.
Cover image by The Little Drom Store.