Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Neither Civil Nor Servant

Former EDB Chairman Philip Yeo’s latest biography sheds light on leadership pitfalls
A no-holds- barred biography on his contributions to Singapore’s economic growth post-independence

Philip Yeo played a pivotal role in Singapore’s development from Third World to First through his work in the military, economic and biomedical fields.

Known for making things happen at breakneck speed during his four decades in public service, he gained a reputation as an outspoken maverick who nevertheless got things done, from jump-starting industries to talent recruitment. He created Jurong Island for the energy and chemical industry by reclaiming seven islands; started MNC-sponsored EDB scholarships as an ongoing means to replace EDB officers; corralled the best brains of the country into A*star (Agency for Science, Technology and Research); and spearheaded biomedical research by attracting international pharmaceuticals to do their R&D in Singapore. The following edited excerpt from Neither Civil Nor Servant – The Philip Yeo Story sheds light on his leadership style:
  • What is the rationale behind your firing-squad approach to managers?
  • Who are the eunuchs in the Singapore context?
  • What is eunuch disease?
  • How did Singapore get to this stage? Is it because as society becomes more developed, it requires a more complex governance structure?
  • Is this a result of how talent is recruited?
  • How much of this increasing bureaucratisation is seen in Singapore today?
  • How does this contrast with the Old Guard leaders?
  • Do you think Singapore can remain exceptional?
  • How do you think you will be remembered in Singapore?

Monday, 16 October 2017

The Samsui women who built a city 三水妇女or 三水婆 or 紅頭巾

Sān shuǐ fùnǚ 三水妇女 Sān shuǐ pó 三水婆 Hóng tóujīn 紅頭巾
Woo Yan San, one of the few remaining Samsui women - a group of Chinese immigrants who helped to build Singapore

Samsui women were the heroines S’pore needed, but their struggles were real

Many of us might have never seen a samsui woman in the flesh, but these ladies were once the backbone of our developing infrastructure, just like the transient workers who build our country today.

The first wave of Chinese immigrants who arrived in Singapore in search of a new life were largely male.

Over the years, the sex ratio in Singapore became overwhelmingly skewed towards males, such that by 1928, the colonial government introduced immigration controls to limit the number of male Chinese immigrants into Singapore.

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Scaling the heights of construction
Exhibition panels featuring former Samsui woman, Mdm Ng Moey Chye, 81, who was actually the daughter of another Samsui woman.

Another once common sight at the construction site which has disappeared, is that of the women with their signature red cloth head-dresses, bearing loads their frail frames had seemed too tiny to support. A tribute to these women who came from Sanshui (Samsui) District of Guangdong Province in China to make a living here as menial workers at construction sites, is found across the road from the Airview Building at the side of the URA Centre.

The stories of these women who built Singapore –  most came over in the 1920s to the 1940s and were sworn to single-hood, and the resilience they demonstrated (many who by the time I saw them in the 1960s  and 1970s were in already well advanced in age), are well worth hearing.

The story of one, Madam Ng Moey Chye, can be found at an exhibition currently being held at the National Museum’s Stamford Gallery. The exhibition runs until the 23rd of June 2013 and features the stories of six pioneering tradesmen. More information on the exhibition, Trading Stories: Conversations with Six Tradesmen, is available at a previous post on it, “Trading stories with six tradesmen“.

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The real Iron Lady

The one-room rental flat she lives in may be a cluttered mess of cardboard & used items, but Madam Ng Moey Chye knows exactly where the navy-coloured samfoo top and its matching red headpiece is kept.

The outfit is a trademark of samsui women, who came from China to Singapore in search of a better life, & who worked as construction labourers

Says the 81-yr-old grey-haired woman, gesturing at the string red cloth, which is held in place by tiny silver pins: "My hands are too weak these days, so I can't fold the head-dress from scratch any more."

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The legacy of the Samsui Women is a big part of our history and early developments as a nation. It is believed that an influx of approximately 2,000 Samsui women came to Singapore from China between 1934 and 1938, and this continued until 1949 when emigration from China was declared illegal here. Today, there are less than 100 Samsui women left in Singapore, all of them in their 80s and 90s, with perhaps a few centenarians.
The name Samsui Woman was probably derived from the place where most of them came from – Sanshui of Guangdong (Canton) Province in China, besides Shunde and Dongguan. About 90% of the Samsui women are Cantonese and the remaining 10%, Hakkas. Samsui woman or 红头巾 in Mandarin which translates as “red bandana”, a reference to the trademark red cloth headgear that they wore.

Although there were exceptions, the majority of the Samsui women took vows to not marry before coming to Singapore as cheap labourers, working mainly in the construction industry and other manual labour jobs. Their contributions can be seen even to this day in the conserved pre-war houses built during the colonial days, right up to our nation building as an independent country in the earlier phases of HDB flats (public housing) and older commercial buildings.

*Some of the women from Sanshui also worked as lived in domestic servants for the rich families, commonly known as Ah Sum or Ah Ma Jie (aka the ‘white and black’ due to the white cotton jacket and black pair of pants they wore). These women with pigtails or with their hair fashioned into small buns usually have monikers beginning with an ‘Ah’ and their actual names remained unknown. But that’s another story, sorry I digressed. Samsui women also had a crusty reputation of rejecting jobs involving drugs (particularly opium) peddling, prostitution, or other vices, thus most of them had to live in poverty.

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Samsui women

The term Samsui women (三水妇女; 三水婦女; sān shuǐ fù nǚ) broadly refers to a group of Chinese immigrants who came to Malaya and Singapore between the 1920s and 1940s in search of construction and industrial jobs. Their hard work contributed to the development of the Straits Settlements, both as colonies and later as the new nations of Singapore and Malaysia. Samsui women did manual labour similar to coolies but were more independent. About 2,000 Samsui women were believed to have come to Singapore from China between 1934 and 1938, and this continued until 1949 when emigration from China was declared illegal. Samsui women came from mainly Sanshui (Samsui) in Guangdong (Canton) Province, as well as Shunde and Dongguan. About 90% of them were Cantonese while the rest were Hakka.

In Chinese, these women are referred to as Hong Tou Jin (红头巾; 紅頭巾; hóng tóu jīn), which means "red bandana", because of the red cloth hats they wore at work. Coming to Singapore as cheap labourers in the world, Samsui women worked mainly in the construction industry and other industries that required hard labour. They also worked as domestic servants. They had a reputation of rejecting jobs involving drug (particularly opium) peddling, prostitution, or other vices, even if that meant they sometimes had to live in poverty. They made a lot of contributions to Singapore's early development mostly by building houses and some of them worked at hawker centres manning the stalls there too. Samsui women came to Singapore to work as cheap labourers from 1920s to 1940s. They mainly worked as construction workers. Although they made a lot of contributions to Singapore's early development mostly by building houses, it was very tough. They were given very little. Living conditions were very poor

Before arriving in Singapore, most Samsui women took vows never to marry, although there have been known exceptions. They lived in cramped conditions with other Samsui women, helping out each other and forming tightly united cliques. Samsui women also remained in touch with their relatives back home in China, communicating with them frequently through letters. Occasionally, they would send money to them. There are fewer than a hundred Samsui women left in Singapore today, all of them in their 80s and 90s. Organisations exist to raise awareness of these women's achievements and contributions to Singapore's development, and their current state. Some of these organisations also strive to provide free travel for the women back to China to visit their relatives before they die. One such organisation was the Sam Shui Wai Kuan Association that took care of the needs of Samsui women.

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Samsui women

Samsui women, also known as hong tou jin (红头巾; Mandarin for “red headscarf”) after their trademark red headgear, were female immigrants mainly from the Sanshui (“Samsui” in Cantonese; meaning “three waters”) district of Canton (Guangdong today) province in southern China. Other areas where they came from include Shunde and Dongguan, also in Canton province, as well as places outside of Canton like Fujian and Chao’an, although samsui women from these regions were much fewer. Samsui women started arriving in Singapore in large numbers in the mid-1930s and many found work as general labourers in the construction industry. A large number of these women lived together in shared accommodations. There are few samsui women left in Singapore today, as most have either passed away or returned to China. They are often depicted in popular culture as thrifty and resilient individuals who helped to build up the country’s infrastructure.

Background - In 1928, the British colonial authorities introduced the Immigration Restriction Ordinance, with one of the aims being the improvement of the sex ratio in Singapore, as the Chinese population was overwhelmingly male at the time. Quotas were subsequently placed on the number of Chinese male immigrants allowed into Singapore. During the 1930s, the Great Depression hit Singapore, causing widespread unemployment. To control the unemployment level, the British introduced the Aliens Ordinance at the beginning of 1933. Under this law, further limits were placed on the number of male immigrants allowed entry into Singapore, but no such restrictions were placed on females. These immigration policies opened the door for female immigrants such as the samsui women to come to Singapore.

Conditions in the Samsui district and the nearby areas like Dongguan and Shunde were relatively poorer compared with other regions in China, and families living there were in desperate need of money. With restrictions placed on the number of males allowed to seek work in the British colonies, many samsui women left their hometown while in their teens to seek employment overseas. They relied on recruiters known as sui hak (literally “water guest” in Cantonese) to help them find work abroad and make travel arrangements. To pay these recruiters for their services, many samsui women took on debt that took around a year to pay off. As many as 2,000 samsui women – those who laboured in construction sites – were believed to have come to Singapore. They arrived mostly in the mid-1930s, though some came later, between the end of the Japanese Occupation in 1945 and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.6 Samsui women were part of the wave of Chinese female migrants, numbering about 200,000, who came to Singapore between 1934 and 1938

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Samsui Women: One Brick at a Time

Based on the lives of the Samsui women in Singapore, this puppetry performance is a moving story about friendship and perseverance.

Swee Leng, a young girl from China, makes the life-changing decision to run away from China to seek a better life in Nanyang. To earn a living, Swee Leng and her friends became Samsui women, toiling and working hard. Despite all the hardships, Swee Leng and her friends have each other for support. What happens when the friendship is threatened? Will Swee Leng lose her friends?

The performance will give students a peek into a slice of Singapore history, help them understand and appreciate the sacrifices of the Samsui women and reflect on the values that the women lived by.

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The samsui women of Singapore
Photo of samsui women working at a construction site dating back to 1938-1939. Image from National Archives of Singapore.

The samsui women were part of an initial group of some 2,000 women hailing mainly from the Sanshui district in Canton (Guangdong), arriving between 1934-1938 together with over 200,000 female Chinese immigrants in search of a better living. Most of these samsui women would go on to work as general labourers in the construction industry, and many would come to be characterised by the distinctive red headgear and blue or black samfoo they wore while taking on backbreaking work at construction sites across the island.

While the origins of samsui immigrants to Singapore dates back to as early as 1841, it was not until 1933 when the introduction of the Aliens Ordinance was introduced, that a distinct cap on Chinese Male Immigrants was enforced, paving the way for larger numbers of female immigrants to find work in Singapore.

Upon their arrival, most samsui women made their way to the Chinatown district between South Bridge Road and New Bridge Road where many fellow samsui migrants resided. They stayed in the many shophouses along the street, with at least four women sharing a single, often-spartan room.

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Remembering the Samsui Women: Migration and Social Memory in Singapore and China

Immediately recognisable by their hong tou jin or red headscarves, Singapore's Samsui women immigrants from the Samsui region of Guangdong, China have become icons of Singapore's twentieth century economic transformation. Working in construction, in factories and as domestics, the Samsui women have become celebrated in Singapore for their hard work and their resilience, and in China for the sacrifices they made for their families.

Kelvin Low explores the lives and legacy of the Samsui women, both through media and state representations and through the oral histories of the women themselves. His work sheds light on issues of their identity, both publicly constructed and self-defined, and explores why they undertook their difficult migration.

Remembering the Samsui Women is an illuminating study of the connection between memory and nation, including the politics of what is remembered and what is forgotten.

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Ng Moey Chye - Samsui Woman

At 81 years old, Ms. Ng does not allow her age to slow her down. She continues to support herself by collecting used cardboard, and once a week she will make her way to the Apex Club of Singapore’s food distribution point to receive a package that includes vegetable and bread. She prefers to see the silver linings in her life and is grateful for her health and the young volunteers for helping the elderly. “Society still has a heart,” she says.

It may be hard to imagine 85-year-old Ms. Ng Moey Chye carting bricks up a construction site. In her younger days, however, Ng would awake at dawn and walk from her quarters at Chinatown to Collyer Quay. There, she would carry out a multitude of tasks that is typically carried out by heavy machinery today at construction sites across Singapore. Born in Singapore in 1932, Ng was given up for adoption by her parents and never went to school. After witnessing the unhappy marriage of a childhood friend, Ng chose to become a Samsui woman, prizing her independence above everything else.

Samsui women were so-called as the movement originated from the county of Sanshui (Samsui in Cantonese) in Guangdong Province, where women dominated the workforce during a silk industry boom in the mid-19th century. Wearing a distinctive red headscarf or hong toujin (红头巾), the Samsui women were a sisterhood of mainly Cantonese or Hakka women who took a vow of chastity and supported themselves through manual labour.

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'The Samsui Women of Chinatown: Helping Hands from Our Past'
About 200,000 samsui women (known as 三水婆 or 紅頭巾), clad in blue and black samfoo and trademark red headgear/headscarf, were Chinese immigrants who flocked to then-Nanyang (literally 'south seas', 南洋, referring to Malaya) in the 1920s to pre-war years. They congregated in Chinatown, buying groceries and living in the tiny squalid shophouses. Life was very tough

Comprising mainly Cantonese and some Hakka women from Sanshui district in Foshan, Guangdong province, they worked in the brutal heat and toil of construction, and hard labor jobs, avoiding the vice trades of prostitution, opium and drugs. Most were illiterate and wanted to escape the poverty of the farms to earn a stable-enough salary. Most hoped to send enough money back to China for their families to build houses and live more comfortably. These women were thrifty, fiercely independent and endured so much hardship in Nanyang.

Like the ah-ma-cheh (or ah-sum, amah, or in Mandarin ma jie 妈姐) with their single plaits or pigtails recognizable black and white samfoo from Shunde district in Foshan, also Guangdong province, many samsui women remained single, either by choice or via abandonment or divorce, forming a close network of sisterhood and support. These networks and clan associations were highly crucial to providing help post-war and aiding their medical needs as the century turned, and they got too old and too weak to continue to work.

Samsui women were a common sight right up to post-1965 Singapore, building Capitol Theatre and Toa Payoh housing estate in the early 1970s. They worked for as long as they physically could. Then they aged, and there were none to take their place. They retired. Some returned to China. Others stayed. A few remained single, and others married. A bygone era. The tides of the construction industry shifted as other male foreign labor from other developing countries dominated the trade. Machines and technology relieved the humans of back-breaking work.

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Tribute to Samsui Women of Singapore

This blog to express as a tribute to the Samsui women of Singapore, the silent heroine who built Singapore over five decades. The immigrant construction workers from China, the synonymous red headgear workers (all female) with tough, resilient, hardworking and weather-beaten characters who are the vanishing workers of Singapore.

The blog is created with acknowledgement of thanks to the contributors at National Archive of Singapore (NAS), YouTube and other "memory-aid" resources of the Internet fraternity to share with our bloggers.

Samsui women came to Singapore in large numbers. As many as 200,000 are thought to have arrived between 1934 and 1938 alone. From the Sanshui District (三水區) of Guangdong, they took a vow to never marry before leaving China, and wore large red headdreses as a symbol and reminder of their vow. Most found menial employment in construction or as domestic servants and were known and respected for refusing to work as prostitutes or opium peddlers. Many of them had taken root in Singapore as their homeland.

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Samsui Women
Liu Kang Building Site / Samsui Women 1951 Oil on canvas
Liu Kang Building Site / Samsui Women 1951 Oil on canvas

Laborer is needed everywhere. No matter how much time has passed, it is something that still revolves around us. Though now isn’t as harsh than the past where in the ancient Egypt, there were slave laborers to build pyramids for the king, and in the 16th centuries, where laborer were hired to help out in shifting trades cargo. And now we have migrant laborer to help build and clean our home.

All of them require a lot of effort and I do appreciate them for their presence. During presentation about laborer, I find the oil painting by Liu Kang is rather interesting. Because often when people talk about laborer, they will tend to look at the bad side of things and talk about cruelty against human rights and etc. However in Liu Kang’s work “Building Site/Samsui Women” he depicted the happiness of the laborers (Samsui Women).

By making his oil painting colorful, it shows realism in his work. When looking at the painting, the women point of view seem to be looking down on their work, it felt as if they were really focusing on the job that need to get it done by the end of the day. Somehow the work itself make one feel to look at it with respect rather than a judgmental point of view towards it. It is really a pretty refreshing way of looking at another point of view. Cause it is like saying that we should be appreciative towards laborers in our country and respect them for having to travel so far in order to earn a living, doing jobs that normally people wouldn’t really want to do in life.

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The Samsui women of today

SAMSUI women have a small but distinct niche in Singapore's history. Their broad red hats & blue-black samfoo marked them out as they went back and forth to work on the island's building sites.

Since the last working Samsui women retired, their image has become a fixture in Singapore's perception of how it transformed itself into a modern city.

They are eulogised in drama serials; there are Samsui women T-shirts, collectible figures and dolls on sale at the Chinatown Heritage Centre; & when the Dim Sum Dollies performed The History Of Singapore at the Esplanade last July, one segment was devoted to Samsui women.

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Lim Tze Peng’s 1976 painting Untitled (Samsui Women), depicts the subjects in the trademark red hats, panning for raw materials.
These samsui women were probably part of the first batch of immigrants who arrived from the Sanshui district in Canton (Guangdong), here you see them working on a construction yard between 1938-1939. Image from National Museum of Singapore
samsui women helping in a cleanup of the former Empress Place, better known to many now as the Asian Civilisations Museum. Here you can see their distinctive red headgear and blue samfoo. Image courtesy of The National Archives of Singapore.
On 7 November 1987, three samsui women who worked on the construction of the Bishan MRT station, were invited for Singapore’s first MRT ride. Image from Asiaone.com
A samsui woman receiving help before heading out for a celebratory march-past at the 1980 National Day Parade. Image courtesy of The National Archives of Singapore.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

Bickering over a Reserved MRT seat


Woman on Reserved Seat tells auntie: 'You pay, I pay ... you earn my respect!"

A video of a woman and an auntie engaged in an altercation over an MRT reserved seat has been circulating on Facebook.

The video, shared on Sure Boh Singapore’s Facebook page, shows a woman sitting on the reserved seat on board a MRT train. An auntie in turquoise can be seen standing in front of her. The woman then told the auntie:
  • “You pay, I pay.
  • “I don’t think you deserve it (the seat).”

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SBS - Sure Boh Singapore Yesterday at 06:03
Reader Contributed:
Young lady sitting on reserved seat and quarrel with an auntie.
Credit: Eddie

Ane Tan: Best is remove all reserved seats ... everyone has equal rights to a seat .. it's up to individual kind-hearted soul to give up your seat to the needy .. this way it doesn't dawn on old people to demand for their reserved seat ... becos everyone paid the same fees to the MRT and Don't forget working adults are equally tired after a hard day's work.

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Women bickering over reserved MRT seat: "You pay, I pay ... you earn my respect!"

A video of a woman and an auntie engaged in an altercation over an MRT reserved seat has been circulating on Facebook.

The video shared on Sure Boh Singapore's Facebook page shows a woman sitting on the reserved seat on board a MRT train.

An older woman in a turquoise top can be seen standing in front of her.

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Old Lady VS Young Lady, over priority seat in Singapore Subway/Mrt
Related image

Over the years, we have heard stories and perhaps even seen it with our own eyes about “sleepers” in the train. In particular, those seated on the priority seats will shape shift into “sleepers” almost instantly whenever they see any fellow passenger that fits the priority seats criteria.

However, seldom do we hear cases about such a UNIQUELY SINGAPORE drama, and this has stirred up massive curiosity amongst all Singaporeans. Most of us – myself included – don’t know the exact details thus I would not jump to conclusions with regards the topic.

From the bits and pieces of the conversation recorded in the video, I can only make out certain information which I believe would not be entirely true.

related: Youth being disrespectful to an elderly in the bus

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Please stop this SMRT seat shaming nonsense

For some years now, some Singaporeans have taken much delight in shaming supposedly undeserving people who are occupying the SMRT train carriage’s “reserved” seats for the needy. They snap photos with their phones and put it online on forums, websites or social media to shame the subjects. Their desire is for the Internet lynch mob to descend on their photo victims to teach them a lesson. It’s time to stop this nonsense, people.

Every seat is up for grabs by anyone, and every seat should be offered to someone more in need. Just because some SMRT staff stuck a sticker above one  seat, doesn’t mean you have to get all huffy-puffy about that particular seat. If that occupant doesn’t want to get up, maybe you might want to ask someone else who is seated too?

I’ve always believed that we should always be on the lookout to help other train commuters. But there is a line between civility and self-righteousness that has been crossed here. You folks who believe in cyber-shaming over train seats, you say you do this to help someone in need. The minute you post that photo online of the stranger you hardly know, do you realize you’re actually missing the real point of being gracious?

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Should reserved seats in public transport be exclusive?

Are 'reserved' seats in public transport exclusive to a certain group of people, or are they simply a form of guideline for Singaporeans to take more initiative in giving up their seats?

What's your take?
  • Are reserved seats in public transport exclusive to a certain group of people? Why?
  • Should it be so? Please elaborate
  • Do Singaporeans lack the initiative to give up their seats, or do they have the right to stay seated?
  • How can conflicts like the above be avoided?

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How effective is priority seating in Singapore?
Reserved priority seat

The Land Transport Authority (LTA) launched its ‘Graciousness Campaign’ a couple of months ago – posters and stickers illustrating positive social norms are being put up on bus shelters, inside buses and in the trains. In addition, with the Downtown Line being opened recently, there will now be brightly coloured ‘reserved’ seats for the disabled, elderly, pregnant or whoever needed it more.

This does not differ from the current norm where one can still use such ‘priority/reserved’ seats but if someone came along who needed the seat more than you do, it would only then be right if you gave up the seat. This generally seems to be the case in other countries as well. Most public transportation abroad do have ‘priority seating’ clearly labelled and most people that I have seen are indeed gracious enough to give up the seat to someone else more in need of it.

However, I have also seen the oblivious individual either fast asleep or glued to their phone or iPod while someone in greater need stood right in front of them. So, the question still stands – how effective is priority seating in Singapore? So far there has not been a law in Singapore where ‘priority’ seats are solely meant for the disabled, elderly and pregnant. As of now, these seats are simply ‘priority’ and anyone could still use them.

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Priority seats breed culture of dishonour

I refer to the letters “Reserved seating signs not needed in civilised society” (Apr 22) & “Offer more priority seats instead of giving the needy their own cabins” (April 19).

The concept of priority seats in Singapore’s public transport has developed a belief among locals that we are entitled to publicly shame those who do not give up these seats.

If this culture of dishonour continues, people would be giving up their seats only for fear of being shamed. Do we want to be part of that kind of culture?

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Priority Seating
P seat 2

Someone told me that in Taiwan I think, such Priority seats are never taken by anyone WITHOUT special needs. Well, it’s a different scenario here in Singapore… Many who are strong, healthy, male, young, sit on it without much thought if it’s empty. Maybe they think the P seat shouldn’t be ‘wasted’ if there’s no one with special needs around. And maybe perhaps, someone else without special needs would take it even if they don’t.

Well, I personally avoid sitting on P seats simply because I think there are MANY people with special needs around. Even if there are none who boards the train at Kembangan, there most probably will be one who walks straight into YOUR cabin in Eunos. Don’t you notice?? Anyway, I am fine whenever I see these people give up their seats quickly for the special needs person. But last week, I saw this uni student who only gave up the seat after 5 mins of pondering!

Today when I was coming home in the MRT, I felt even more vexed. This 18-year old looking girl was sitting on the P seat. Then, an elderly couple strolled in with their daughter who was pushing a baby in the stroller. This girl saw them… and did not stand up! The train moved for about 5 mins… then 2 persons (1 of them a Caucasian) who was next to her gave up their seats for the elderly couple. And that teenage girl just acted oblivious!!! I felt so MAD! When that teenage girl glanced at me, I gave her the MOST DISAPPROVING look I could give! I think she has ZERO etiquettes …. So if you are reading this, let’s be more considerate and give up your seats (not just the P ones) for those with special needs… You’ll definitely feel better and burn a little more calories by standing… :)

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On how to encourage people to give up their seats
Priority passes make it easier for people to give up seats

There has been much effort put into encouraging Singaporeans to give up priority seats on public transport to those who need them. However, a prominent issue with the system of priority seats is that not all sickness and discomfort can be seen. For example, a woman in the early stages of pregnancy or a man with a hidden disability falls into the “needy” category, but is not given priority seats, mainly because the discomfort is not visible.

The solution to this is an improved system where people in need can apply for priority passes. Such a system is used in many other parts of the world, such as in Taiwan and London. Of course, it is hard to be sure that commuters will give up their seats, even when they see a priority pass.

The gracious act of offering others help has to come from the heart. But, hopefully, with the introduction of this system, people will have less doubt on whether a person is really in need, and will be less hesitant to give up their seats.

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Is priority/reserved seat an entitlement?

Last week, I took the MRT and it was quite packed. I am a senior citizen and I had hoped that someone would be kind enough to offer me a seat, as has happened before. But not this time. I was standing in front of a younger lady who was seated on the priority seat and busily engaged with her smartphone. I tried to make eye contact with her but chose not to verbally request for the seat. I took the opportunity to do a personal experiment. She looked up at me momentarily, but quickly returned to her smartphone. At the City Hall MRT, we both alighted. I gave way to her as she made her exit and I followed. Quickening my steps, I caught up with her, smiled and said, “Good morning. May I ask you a couple of questions?” She returned a smile and said, “Sure.” I asked her if she would give up her seat to someone in greater need, like a senior citizen. And she replied, “Of course, I would.” I then gently announced that I was the Senior Citizen standing in front of her. In obvious shock and embarrassment, she said, “I am so sorry!!! You do not look like a senior citizen. If I had known, I would have gladly invited you to take my seat. I am really really sorry.” Her sincerity was fully evident in her profuse apologies. I smiled and said, “Thank you, that is what they all say about me. No worries.” I then asked her if she would give up the seat for me if I had requested for it. “Of course,” she said. “ I would have ... without any hesitation.” And she continued apologizing. I thanked her for her responses and we walked together towards our offices.

We’ve read or watched Stomp videos of situations similar to what the younger lady and I were in, and those didn’t go well. If I had curtly demanded the seat, I would have either made her lose face totally, or worse, possibly triggered a defensive-aggressive response. So while we might be well in our place to expect the priority seat to be given up for us who are identified as needing it more, we can also ask nicely and without prejudging the person occupying the seat.

My experience reinforced what I believe about our people. We are essentially kind. People do not act graciously because they do not know or are too caught up in their busyness to be aware of the need. If they knew, they would respond. This is why we keep reminding people and we know that many are responding. We need not prejudge, we can do our part by assuming the best of people. Chances are, people will respond according to what we think of them. Kindness is all about being other-centered. It is a value that should be inside us. But to look out for or not prejudge others, we need to consciously make an outward effort and take some time. And that only takes a moment. That’s why we say, there’s always time to make someone’s day.

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Debate online on reserved seats
Debate online on reserved seats

NETIZENS are abuzz on local forum HardwareZone.com over an MRT-board incident of a senior citizen being refused the reserved seat occupied by a younger man. More than 400 comments were posted overnight following the Tuesday-morning incident.

Some have accused the younger man of being inconsiderate; others said that, although the seats are reserved for the handicapped, the aged, the pregnant or mothers with very young children, such commuters did not have the right to demand to occupy them. The young man has since apologised for his action in the forum.

The senior citizen, Mr Jason Wang, a 63-year-old architect, said he boarded the train at Tanah Merah station at 7.35am and saw that the reserved seat.

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Does that mean that only PRIORITY seats can be given up to the needed?
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Rachel knew that I dislike sitting at the priority seat and there were 2 seats, which one of them was that, so she sat there and I'm beside her. We're carrying laptops and bagpacks. When it reached a certain stop, this guy sitting 2 seats away from me tapped on me and said "Hey, tell your friend to give up your seat to the lady." I felt weird to tell Rachel, so I stood up and gave the seat instead. Rachel stood and asked as well. She was pissed off after knowing and said "ONLY PRIORITY SEATS then can give up?" loudly and obviously people turned.

We did look, and not like we did it on suppose that we don't want to give up. The lady doesn't look like an elderly either. I bet the lady felt awkward after both of us gave up the seat.

Yup, if you are so great (伟大), why not you give up your seats? It's true, why must it only be the priority seat that must be given up? If you have a heart for the needy people, you will definitely give up no matter where you are sitting.

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Inconsiderate behaviour as the Singapore way

Every now and then, we hear outcries over the lack of consideration among Singaporeans not giving up a seat to the needy on public transport, or pushing their way in on boarding without first letting others alight. To be honest, I am not sure if the situation here is as bad as all that, but I suppose it varies depending on time and place. Some sections of the route, or times of day, especially when the trains get crowded, it may be worse. To begin with, it’s got to do with urbanisation: The more people congregate, the more we are atomised, and competition for scarce common resources can bring out the worst in us.

At the same time, showing consideration to others is a learned trait. We can cultivate a sensitivity to the needs of the other person and pride in our displaying co-operative behaviour. But first, one has to see the other person not only as a competitor — or worse, an Other — but as a fellow member of the community, however community is defined.

That this is a learned trait is quite obvious when we observe the competition for seats on trains. There is a cultural difference, and here, I will not mince words: Nine times out of ten, the most aggressive person pushing her way into a carriage in the hope of grabbing a seat, without letting others out first, it is a middle-aged Chinese woman.

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Do we really need reserved seats on MRT trains?

While reserved seats were no doubt conceived with good intentions, they have not yielded the best results on MRT trains. Reserved seats are an artificial means of promoting graciousness that may be doing more harm than good for Singapore’s MRT culture.

Stigma surrounding reserved seats - Nowadays, many commuters hesitate to occupy a reserved seat on an MRT train. This is in part due to the prevalence of internet shaming on social media sites such as Facebook and Stomp, which has caused sitting on reserved seats to be stigmatised. Earlier this year, a man tried to publicly shame a woman who had no visible disabilities but was occupying a reserved seat on the MRT train. He asked his friend to record him on video and proceeded to confront the lady in an arrogant manner, possibly for the sake of gaining online attention.

In another incident, a pregnant woman who tried to sit on a reserved seat was questioned by another commuter, who demanded “proof” of her pregnancy. Unwell passengers who are not visibly disabled may also be shamed into giving up their reserved seats. Such is the tricky nature of reserved seats – how do you ascertain if someone is “deserving” of a reserved seat? How old is old enough? And how “injured” must one be to rightfully occupy a reserved seat without having to endure disapproving glances from fellow commuters?

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I've always wanted to express my views about this issue that is ever so present in this society. What I cannot grasp is how people do not understand that we have our own points of views and you have to be okay with that - you can reject feeling the same way as someone but you cannot stop them from feeling the way they do.

I will dive straight into the point. (I'll leave out buses, because I travel by train 90% of the time, and I don't sit when I travel by buses 99% of the time).

When I take a seat on the train, I do not seat on the reserved seat. The only exception is when I am one-stop away or when the train is basically empty when I boarded it. I did not feel the excessive need to give up the seat for anyone and I know how this sounds but here are the reasons why.

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Keep the Reserved Seating signs in MRT trains

After our report on the spat between two MRT commuters over a reserved seat, there has been some debate on whether the Reserved Seating signs in the trains should be removed.

Of the 23 commuters we spoke to yesterday, 21 were against removing the reserved seats. Student Rohini Chopra said: "Until it becomes natural for people to get up and give their seats to those who need them, the signs are still necessary." A few commuters even suggested a fine be imposed on those who refuse to give up reserved seats to those who need them.

But lawyer Edmond Pereira disagreed: "Singapore is already a 'fine' city. Let's not add to that list of fines."

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Make it Right for a Better Ride

As seen above and at the rate which STOMP’s Ugly Commuter section is being updated, we are still quite some distance away from being gracious commuters.  Nonetheless, I feel that public education on the importance of being gracious while commuting, should continue and we should start with the very basic to make each journey more comfortable and pleasant for everyone.  That means targeting efforts at encouraging the following behavior:
  • Give up your seat to the needy
  • Move to the centre of train or back of bus
  • Queue and let others alight first
This year’s campaign, “Make It Right For A Better Ride” features posters with poems, slogans and calligraphies penned by commuters on how to make our journeys more pleasant by being gracious.  The posters are already on display found at MRT stations, bus shelters, trains and buses to remind passengers to be more considerate when using public transport.  Check out http://on.fb.me/betterride for the full collection of these posters.

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Horrible manners on Singapore MRT reserved seats
What’s your take on people abusing the MRT reserved seats?

Apparently not every one is willing to give up their seats for the less-able. Yesterday I went on the MRT with my 73-year-old mother, we stood right in front of two reserved seats for about a minute. One girl pretended to be in deep sleep, while the other avoided any form of eye contact and buried her face in her phone—furiously punching the keypad the very moment we stood in front of her.

They were both young and able-bodied. I tapped the one who was not pretending to be asleep and said: “Excuse me, could you give up the reserved seat for my elderly mother?” She looked up reluctantly and glared at me for about 3 seconds before vacating the seat.

You would think that’s the end of the story, but it wasn’t. This passenger was “vindictive”. We alighted at the same stop and when on the platform, she went out of the way and made it a point to elbow my side before walking away. I just shook my head in disgust.

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Giving up a seat to someone more deserving or in need should be a social and cultural norm
Every seat is up for grabs by anyone, and every seat should be offered to someone more in need

Full Coverage:
Malaysian media shame S'pore MRT commuters for inconsiderate behaviour
Inconsiderate commuter refused to move toddler’s legs, prevented use
MRT saga involving couple accused of hogging reserved seat
Lady asks for seat on MRT for her 3-yr-old, gets rejected, ends up taking photo
Have clear guidelines on priority seats
Women bickering over reserved MRT seat: "You pay, I pay... you
Public transport-reliant mom with infant fed up with S'pore's jam
The politics of dominance: Don't take it to the limit
MRT reserved seat hogger's spat shines spotlight on Indian bankers
Standing firm against hate speech
Lady asks for seat on MRT for her 3-year-old, gets rejected, ends up
Here's a breakdown of the MRT saga involving couple accused of
Man wants to lodge police report after wife gets accused of hogging
Inconsiderate MRT commuter refused to move toddler's legs and
Husband of alleged hogger of MRT reserved seat threatens TISG
Malaysian media shames Singapore MRT commuters for
MRT commuter slams man for refusing to give up priority seat; man
'Tired' MRT commuter slammed for refusing to give up reserved seat
was unwell, says commuter in seat spat
Public transport-reliant mom with infant fed up with S'pore's jam
SMRT introduces new stickers, queue lines to promote better
SMRT rolls out stickers and special queues to promote better travel
Accessibility - SMRT
MRT commuter slams man for refusing to give up priority seat; man
Singapore MRT - Horrible manners on Singapore MRT reserved seats
How effective is priority seating in Singapore?
94% say they give up their seats on MRT trains | TODAYonline
Lady asks for seat on MRT for her 3-year-old, gets rejected, ends up
The evolution of priority seats - The Pride - Singapore Kindness
Do we really need reserved seats on MRT trains? | The Independent
The evolution of priority seats in MRT trains | REACH
Priority seat - Wikipedia
Singapore news today | IF YOU DON'T GIVE UP PRIORITY SEAT
Singapore news today | MRT RESERVED SEATING IS NOT AN
Written Reply by Minister for Transport Khaw Boon Wan to ...
Should reserved seats in public transport be exclusive?
Reserved for the deserving - Youth.SG
Please stop this SMRT seat shaming nonsense - Empty Vessel
Singapore's Public Transportation: In A Fix Over Priority Seats
Pregnant? Who cares? (A social experiment) - Five Stars And a Moon
Tap 'N' Sit - Nanyang Technological University
Lady asks for seat on MRT for her 3-year-old, gets rejected, ends up
Should reserved seats in public transport be exclusive?
reserved seats - Picture of Singapore Mass Rapid Transit SMRT
94% say they give up their seats on MRT trains | TODAYonline
'Tired' MRT commuter slammed for refusing to give up reserved seat
SMRT giving away Care stickers to needy passengers | Everything
MRT seats removed after public feedback | Press Room
New Reserved Seat Designs in Trains Send the Right Signal
SMRT train reduced seats to increase standing instead
Can Children Sit On Reserved Seats In Singapore MRT?
MRT reserved seats - Singapore Parenting Magazine for baby
Singapore news today | MRT RESERVED SEATING IS NOT AN
Do we really need reserved seats on MRT trains? | The Independent
MRT reserved seats for Malays as part of Elected Presidency changes
Lady asks for seat on MRT for her 3-year-old, gets rejected, ends up
This uncle standing beside an MRT reserved seat is either Khaw Boon

Busology: A humorous look at public transit!

Mounds of bags in the aisle, the symphony of heavy metal music, passengers not moving to the back of the bus and the gentle aroma of food and beverages – these are the reasons for Busology.

Busology provides a good natured, humorous look at common situations that can make our public transit system unpleasant for travelers. t’s hard to establish enforceable rules for many of these situations, because most really come down to a matter of common courtesy.

We sincerely hope you enjoy the Busology and that it results in a more pleasant ride for you and all passengers.

Prioritus Seatus
Priority seats are for people who have a hard time standing on a moving bus – but unfortunately some people have trouble recognizing that

Why do some people prefer the sardine treatment at the front of the bus when there’s room in the back? When it’s crowded, beat the crush – step to the back and relax.

Backus Packus Smackus
When walking down the aisle try not to smack us. Please be careful with your backpacks and other belongings

Pollutus Transportus
Buses don’t have snack bars because they’re not restaurants. Imagine if Transit’s 135,000 daily passengers each left litter and spills behind

Roller Bladeus
Buses often have to stop quickly! For your own safety, please remove roller blades before boarding the bus or take a seat near the front

Graffiti Muchos Costus
Transit spends thousands of dollars every year cleaning graffiti. It’s not pretty and it costs all of us a lot of money. Please don’t sign the bus

Loudus Obnoxious
Double, double, toil and trouble. Music blares and tempers bubble. Enjoy your music…quietly please

Aislus Cloggus
Some people make an obstacle course out of the aisle with strollers, and packages. Please keep your belongings out of the way of other passengers

Cheapus Skatus
Qualifying high school students, post secondary students, children and seniors pay reduced fares for some very good reasons. If you’re not eligible, please pay your fair share

Qualifying high school students and post secondary students pay reduced fares with a valid school Student Photo ID. Sorry, other IDs and notes from teachers don’t count

Exitus Wrongus
Oh, what a tangled web we weave when by the front door we leave. If possible, please exit by the rear door

Blasphemous Vociferus
Why must some people use profanity? Please exercise self-control while sharing the bus. Public transit is just that, public

Odourous Unbearableous
Everyone likes to stop and smell the flowers. Unfortunately, some people are sensitive or allergic to them, as well as strong perfumes and colognes. Please be considerate of others when using transit

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related:Couple in "Chope" table incident arrested
Putting Packets of Tissue to “Chope” Seats