There were two people seated at a table for four. But when church worker C.G. Tan, 50, approached carrying a tray of food, she was rudely chased away. The man told her surlily: "The table is ours."
Recounting her recent experience at a foodcourt, Ms Tan said: "I think choping is okay but people shouldn't chope more seats than they need. If they want a whole table, they should go to a restaurant."
Ms Tan's brush with the hoggish diners indicates that the sense of entitlement when it comes to choping tables is hardly isolated to the now infamous couple who got into an altercation with an older man at a Toa Payoh hawker centre.
In a video uploaded last Sunday, the woman refuses to let the older man sit, saying the table for six was "reserved". Her male companion then shoves him from behind.
Underscoring the intense public interest roused, the couple were later arrested by the police for causing public nuisance. Arrests for such offences are uncommon.
Can chope or not?
•When choping is okay, according to some diners:
• When a mother is buying food with her young child and cannot leave him or her at the table alone.
• When elderly folk with health difficulties are having a meal alone.
• When the patron is not away from the seat for more than 15 minutes.
• When the hawker centre is crowded. Choping should not be allowed during off-peak hours.
Meanwhile, Dr William Wan of the Singapore Kindness Movement suggests the following:
••No choping, period. It should be "first come with food, first have the seats".
•• If you go as a group, have someone sit at a table, but you still should yield to whoever comes with food. It is only gracious to share the table.
••He or she should also eat quickly as you are waiting for the seats.
The Toa Payoh episode has "escalated" the debate on the uniquely Singapore practice of choping seats, as Dr William Wan, general secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement, put it.
Three weeks ago, The Sunday Times reported on the custom of choping tables with all manner of objects - tissues, name cards, umbrellas, lanyards and water bottles.
This followed a spate of letters from readers asking for something to be done. Choping has, they said, led to quarrels and elderly patrons being deprived of seats.
The National Environment Agency said it has no restrictions on reserving seats in hawker centres but urged patrons to exercise "consideration".
Two polls last week indicated Singaporeans, by and large, are divided over whether choping is kosher.
An online poll by The Sunday Times drew nearly 2,000 respondents, of whom 60 per cent said it should not be allowed.
But a separate poll at two hawker centres last Friday found that the majority said it was okay to reserve seats, especially if someone was at the table. But some drew the line at choping more seats than needed and said they would share their table if seats were available.
"Choping is an efficient way of ensuring we have time to buy food and get seats, as our lunch breaks are only an hour long," said Ms Mel Tan, 28, who works in compliance.
NO RIGHT TO RESERVE
The public space is for all and there should be no right to make reservations. If there is any priority at all, it should be 'first come with food, first have the seats'.
DR WILLIAM WAN, general secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement.
Ms Sunita Sharma, 48, a vice-president at a media company, said it is flawed to argue that this one incident highlights that reserving seats needs to be stopped. "Hundreds of thousands of seats are reserved across Singapore every day, without incident," she added.
On whether more should be done to encourage Singaporeans to stop choping, Dr Wan noted that in any society, there will always be people who act ungraciously. "If you have anti-social elements, they will misconduct themselves anyway, anywhere, given half an excuse."
That said, he hopes "we can all come to a consensus for the sake of building a more gracious society".
"The public space is for all and there should be no right to make reservations. If there is any priority at all, it should be 'first come with food, first have the seats'."