When sitting is subversive


Park benches, Flickr image by incurable_hippieIt's surprising what you notice when travelling to other countries. I always notice the things that are missing. This was true during a recent trip to Singapore what I noticed was that there were virtually no seats.

In Singapore's vast monuments to international consumerism, the malls, you won't find those strategically placed seat clusters you might find in your average suburban Australian shopping centre; seats just to rest for a moment, to take a load off. Instead you have to go to a coffee shop or noodle emporium and spend money in order to sit down and rest your wearies.

Sometimes that is not what you want. You don't feel like a double mocha grande latte or a plate of black pepper prawns, with service charge plus GST. You just want to take five, regroup, sort your bags, and be on your way.

Apparently the Singaporean government doesn't like the idea of people congregating: they find it subversive. They have heavy fines for antisocial behaviour such as spitting and swearing. It works for them, and creates a pleasant and safe environment for tourists. But the lack of seats suggests something more: a form of social control. 

The lack of seats encourages people to be purposeful, to be either in a shop, or making their way to a shop. Spending money and filling coffers. Not just sitting there, daydreaming and being unproductive. This is probably economically sensible but struck me as a little mean-spirited.

I barely had time to notice the seatless platform on the MRT — Singapore's mega-efficient underground rail system. Trains appear as if by magic behind glass doors every three minutes. In order to keep to a tight schedule the doors snap shut with barely enough time to disgorge passengers, let alone board new ones.

I wondered what would happen if you had a stroller, or were old and frail. Strangely enough, everyone seemed young and unencumbered.

It makes sense — no need for seats on the platform, since you won't be waiting long. Still, after a long walk in the humidity, a seat would have been nice, if only for two minutes.

How different to Australia's train systems where the plethora of coffee and cake outlets acknowledge that no, we can't run an efficient train service, so you might as well have something to eat while you're waiting. A seven-course degustation menu could be consumed waiting for the 7.49 to Flinders Street, but that is another story.

On returning to Australia I observed how many benches, seats, stools and places to perch we have in our big cities. Even my local strip shop has a bench, just the one, in case the 50m journey from the newsagent to the gift shop becomes too much.

It's a lovely bench, with green wooden slats and cast iron trimming. Over the years vandals have tried to remove the wooden slats, and occasionally succeeded, but the slats have always been replaced. Now they leave it alone. It sits on a narrow footpath, facing the road. And yes, there is nearly always someone sitting on it, a mum with kids or an elderly gentleman, just watching the traffic go by.

I'm glad we have a generous smattering of seats and benches that have no real purpose, other than to say, have a rest, sit a while, reflect a moment. Enjoy the sun, shelter from the rain. Have a think, have a nap. Our park benches are used as beds by homeless people, as dining tables by those quaffing a quick takeaway, by couples, friends, strangers. People chat, eat their lunch, make phone calls, or just enjoy sitting. When the music stops you will always have a seat.

The provision of seats seems generous, imaginative, and hospitable. It also makes for a messy environment, with litter and loitering.

Singapore is impeccably clean, and I'm sure the citizens like it that way. I liked it too. But the missing seats bothered me. I only hope that our government never comes to view sitting as subversive.

Suzanne HemmingSuzanne Hemming is a librarian and occasional freelance writer who works at a Catholic Girls School in Melbourne. 

Topic tags: suzanne hemming, singapore, seats



submit a comment

Existing comments

Unfortunately, Suzanne, all is not as well as it seems with our public space benches. Many Local Councils now use benches designed to make lying on uncomfortable to prevent their use by e.g. homeless, or 'tipsy' persons.
louis van laar | 10 March 2010

What a lovely article! Thank you! It is great to appreciate the things we take for granted in this wonderful country!
Ancita D'Cunha | 10 March 2010

Interesting article but a form of social control? I think not. The dearth of benches in shopping malls is probably a tactic of mall owners to force people to spend more. You can find benches in Singapore parks and beneath housing estates. Though the heat and humidity is more often than not unbearable so people do not usually use them.
House Atreides | 10 March 2010

The article is well constructed, but honestly, it seems fairly contrived to portray Singapore in a certain light. The stereotypical view, of it being a subversive nation. I'd have to agree with House, that it really is just a good piece of business.
Byron | 10 March 2010

I'm a Singaporean, and I would like to say that there are seats on the MRT train platforms. But I agree there are lack of seats in shopping areas. My late dad used to complain there was no place to sit whilst waiting for us gals to shop. With our ageing population, I definitely think property developers and managers should include more seats.
Kritpruf | 10 March 2010

I must disagree and it's evidence and not opinion. For certain, one can find plenty of seating at MRT stations. EVERY station has them and they are not difficult to find. As such, one rarely gets to sit for more than 5 minutes before another train arrives.

As for the malls, almost all the newer malls have seats and benches though they are few and far between. This is to avoid loitering and it's effective. They are meant for a brief respite from the days shopping. Vivocity has some really funky ones while the Ion has some cushy ones. And heck, for us$0.70 I can sit down somewhere and have a nice cuppa if I wanted to without having to tip. Try to get that price at a Starbucks!

The writer is not misinformed, she is just not very observant and took that to be a subversive act. There are places to sit everywhere in SG. But I'd hate to sitting out in the blazing sun whenever it's out in Singapore. Heck the floors in malls and train stations are SO clean that I could just lie down on them!

BTW, I'm an American living in Singapore and really like it here.
Tat | 10 March 2010

As a Singaporean who graduated from UNSW many years ago, I can relate to all that Suzanne has written. I appreciate hit humorous presentation and have to agree that seats have disappeared from the shopping malls and even from our streets. Yes, while it is designed to force you into a coffee outlet, it is also because every space has been rented out to some outlet or other. It's all money, money, money. Even safety is sometimes overlooked. sad but true. That's our modern Singapore.
Abraham Saviour | 10 March 2010

I too have been to Singapore and could relate well to this article (interestingly enough, I notice so do the people who have a strong affliation with Sinagpore). I think I managed to pour a lot of money into the Singapore economy whilst I was there, simply because there was no where to stop and take a breath in between the multiple shopping complexes that Singapore has to offer (not that I complained too much whilst perusing my various purchases on my return to Australia).

I must admit on my visit to Singapore, I couldn't quite put my finger on what was missing, funny how you don't notice something, until it's pointed out to you.
Sarah De Sousa | 12 March 2010

I'm a few years late on this article, but wanted to say that I'm an Aussie who has lived in Singapore for 10 years and there are lots of public seats! Not in shopping malls, no, but those are private developments and are specifically designed to keep you spending, as you say. However there are many benches along sidewalks, in parks, on the waterfront and definitely in the MRT (we're required to have enough benches on each platform to accommodate 20 people sitting). There is also a lot of great urban design in Singapore and buildings are encouraged to have a public plaza in front where many people sit on steps, planters, etc. The government actually tries very hard to make sure there are plenty of places to sit along the street and in other public areas!
H | 05 February 2016


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up