Singaporeans, who have been divided for years over the informal reserving of seats at foodcourts, were turned off recently by the offensive way a couple "choped" a table at a Toa Payoh hawker centre. Once tolerated as an efficient way to keep a seat vacant while ordering and fetching food, this social practice at busy foodcourts and hawker centres turns them almost into a "war zone", in the eyes of detractors, especially when taken to extremes.
Those who look indulgently at the act of placing tissue packs, umbrellas and water bottles to mark one's territory say "it adds colour to our culture" and is harmless as "it's just like calling a restaurant to reserve a table". But a hawker centre is a far cry from a full-service eatery. First and foremost, it constitutes public space that is for all to share. A hawker centre table can no more be reserved than a park bench or a section of the pavement.
Reasonable use of social space should not be interfered with, but the hogging of amenities must not be allowed. When demand is great, a reasonable person would limit usage to allow others a chance to use public facilities. And one would share a space so someone with greater need is accommodated - like seniors, the disabled, or parents with young children. Such reflexive behaviour would add a better glow to local culture than insistent acts of choping.
This would be less of an issue if hawker centres have more room, improved table configurations and stand-up eating counters for those in a hurry. Should choping persist, it's better to view a tissue pack as a mere request for space rather than an entitlement. If others with food arrive at a table in the interim, it's fair to let them use it first. And if someone clearly has a greater need to be seated, all should yield some space. Instead of turning to the law to enforce rules, common sense and graciousness should serve as arbiters.