How to get a seat at the food centre without shoving anyone

By now, most people here would have heard about what I like to call "the push felt around Singapore".

They would have seen the video of an old man being abused by a couple in a food centre, which went viral on social media last weekend.

The old man had bought his food and tried to sit at a table in a crowded Toa Payoh food centre, but a woman insisted that she had reserved it.

She raged at him with some choice words before calling for reinforcements in the form of a younger man who shoved the old man from behind, causing him to nearly fall.

The couple has already been arrested, but I think what should really be under interrogation is the "chope" culture.

The food centre is a public space. When you eat there, you do not own any part of it. Even if you manage to "chope" a table by placing a washing machine on it, someone else is still entitled to sit.

Yet I can also see the merit in having a system to allocate seats to diners.

Packets of tissues and umbrellas are some of the ugly signs of the “chope” culture prevalent in Singapore, but the best – and only justifiable – thing to do in a crowded food centre is to just share your table. ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM

Sometimes people dine out alone. I do that too. Yes, even people with no friends need to eat.

We want to ensure we have a seat before buying our meals, instead of carrying a tray walking around hopelessly like a cyclist looking for a missing bicycle.

So, perhaps, instead of futilely trying to get rid of the "chope" culture, we should just find more powerful ways to "chope" a table.

After much thought, I have put together a playbook of sorts, to help you secure that much-coveted last empty table in a crowded food centre.

1. The salesman

Leave some pamphlets and posters at the target table, preferably of insurance companies or a shop touting Dead Sea beauty products.

The idea here is to make the table seem like a booth selling those products, which will automatically make Singaporeans take a wide detour around it as though there were a force field.

Come on, admit it, we've all made that little swerve away from an insurance promoter while walking through an underpass.

2. The fisherman

Tie a string to the table, perhaps a fishing line or a kite string. Attach a fishing bell - you know, one of those small ones that rings when the string twitches after you get a bite. All you have to do is simply hold the other end of the string and go order your food, extending the line as you move farther and farther away.

If you feel tension or hear a bell ringing, it's likely that someone is moving in on your space, so it's time to rush back and reclaim your seat.

3. The all-seeing eye

Bring a "Reserved" sign and display it prominently on the table. Do remember to have it in all four languages, since we are in multiracial Singapore.

Include your mobile number on the sign too, and convince people at the surrounding tables to take and send you photos and videos of anyone who, somehow, still goes ahead and sits there.

To make it even more effective, organise an Instagram contest where the best surveillance photo of your "choped" seat gets a prize.

4. The babysitter

Make one, adopt one or borrow one - just take a child with you to the food centre.

Leave the child at the table while you go and order food. It's like leaving a packet of tissues, except it's a living, breathing human being, presumably more visible, and with a built-in alarm system (read: wails loudly).

This method is quite effective. Diners may barge into an old man, but they would never hurt an innocent little kid. Right?

5. The talk

If there are surplus empty seats at your "choped" table and someone else needs one, you could share.

But if, for some reason, you do not wish to - perhaps you really cherish privacy or maybe you're planning to rob a bank and do not want anyone to overhear - any such disagreements can be settled through proper communication.

As far as I know, that is best achieved when two people are facing each other, not shoving each other from behind.

Just bear in mind that an empty seat in a crowded food centre stands out like a lighthouse beacon on a stormy night. So, if you don't want to keep having to fend off people from the seats around your table, the best - and only justifiable - thing to do is to just share.

• #opinionoftheday is a column for younger writers in the newsroom to write about issues that matter to them and their peers.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 30, 2017, with the headline 'How to get a seat at the food centre without shoving anyone'. Print Edition | Subscribe