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When sitting is subversive

  • 10 March 2010

It'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