Sunday, December 12, 2004

To Chope or Not To Chope

In food / hawker centres in Singapore, there is this practice of placing ones personal possessions, normally of nominal value, like a packet of tissue paper, on a seat or table to “reserve” that seat or table. The owner(s) then shop around for the type of food they feel like eating, queue up to purchase and finally, bring the food back to their “pre-reserved” seating.

In the various other countries I have been to in Asia, I have not seen this similar practice. Nevertheless, I think this “system” is actually highly inefficient. Think about it. In the time that it takes for these people to look around for what they want to eat, queue up and finally buy the food and return to the table, another customer could have gobbled up their food and be on their way. I for one have observed customers who have completed their entire meal and walked off while a lonely packet of tissue still awaits its owner to return with lunch. Therefore, at any particular time, there is a significant portion of seating places “empty” awaiting its “owners”. If one were to make a random survey of a crowded hawker centre during lunchtime on a weekday, I am confident you would spot about 30% of the places “unutilised” but actually reserved. Is this not inefficient?

If everyone were to refrain from “reserving” their places, utilisation rates of the seats in a hawker centre would approach 100% and people who purchase their food should be able to find a seat because there would be a fairly constant flow of people who would be completing their meal and leaving, especially since utilisation rates for seats were higher. This would of course only work in the larger centres that have a dynamic flow of crowds to ensure that at any one time, there will be people who are finishing their meals.

However, there are 2 major factors that will prevent this system from ever operating well here. Firstly, any system that tries to ensure a high level of efficiency is bound to be easily open to abuse. For example, let’s say we start adopting a culture prohibiting the “reservation” of tables. All it takes is one chap to start “reserving” a table to upset the entire system. The person who rebels against the norm would immediately gain an advantage, in the sense he need not worry about finding a suitable seating place and everyone else would also perceive he has gained an advantage and immediately start to emulate the rebel.

The second factor is of course, the “kiasu” syndrome where everyone would prefer to purchase their food with the confidence they have a place to sit. Especially since they are so used to the current system.

I despair when I see such inefficiencies which I really feel work against all of us. But what to do? In the absence of a new law which prohibits such “reservations”, I guess we will have to live with it. Or do we? What’s to stop me from rebelliously chucking aside that loathsome tissue paper and say with nonchalance “Is there a law saying you can reserve seating?” Of course, then again, I may get the crap beaten out of me… Anyway, I refuse to follow a system that I do not agree with and I have not had a problem so far… although I must say that I do tend to patronise less crowded areas and I do go alone… single seating is easier to obtain. Wonder if I will ever see a change in my lifetime… sigh!


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