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.
Last evening, a lady posted a photo of a man occupying a “Reserved Seating” seat in the SMRT train carriage on Facebook and she made the post “public”.
She alleged that he had refused to give up his seat (to another person in need) even though she claimed she had asked him nicely. She claimed he was rude to her. Then she wrote that he must be tired because he was overweight and put a hashtag #BeingFatIsNotAnExcuse.
Of course, the post was widely shared. People started attacking the man, not just for his alleged behavior, but his excess body weight. Some online media picked up the story within hours (one decided to focus on the man’s support for PAP), and most amazingly, even the mainstream newspaper ran a story with both sides of the story within the day. In the newspaper, the man claimed he was not feeling well due to a heart condition and he claimed that she kept talking about his weight.
The lady then quietly took her post offline within the same day.
Note my use of italicized “alleged” and “claimed“. These are two words journalists, lawyers or experienced writers often use as disclaimers when describing an incident or details of a court case – because it’s one person’s word against another.
And that’s precisely the problem with the “cyber-shaming” that has become the norm inside of trains and other public places – when you post these shaming photos online, you think you’re in the right and it’s your right to take this person down in the online space.
But that’s only your side of the story.
You don’t consider the consequences of what might happen to your photo subject, or even to yourself when the post goes viral in the hands of thousands of pitchfork-wielding, anonymous strangers looking for the next tasty morsel of online entertainment.
You don’t take time to ponder why such a scenario may have happened from your photo subject’s point of view. You prefer to let the howling crowds serve instant and brutal justice on your behalf, because you couldn’t solve it right there and then to your satisfaction (for whatever reasons).
And it doesn’t have to be an overweight guy . It could be some NSman wearing his uniform and sleeping in that seat, or some young office lady clutching her bag.
You don’t care if they lose their jobs, get ostracised by colleagues or acquaintances, or go into depression for being publicly humiliated for just taking a seat.
And of course, you don’t realize the very same things could happen to you too, the cyber-shaming photo uploader.
If you’re someone who decided to share the same post out of personal outrage for what you believed happened in the train – you’re actually propagating the same lack of understanding of what really happened there, and reinforcing this shameful bullying behavior that has become prevalent in society today (I’m sure it’s not just Singapore).
In short, all this shaming only promotes a sickening behavior that underlines the need for more empathy and graciousness in our society, even if there was an original intent to promote better etiquette in public spaces.
I’ve been taking the SMRT train since it began operations in 1987. There have been days in my youth when I’m so tired from work or school that my head would flop onto another person’s shoulder.
Or I would be soundly sleeping with my mouth wide open for the whole world to see my tooth fillings. This happens to many of us train commuters, and when we wake up, we may so groggy we don’t even realize we’ve missed our train stop.
When my wife was pregnant with Isaac in 2002, we would take the peak morning train together to work. I would often ask people to give up their train seats to her and even if they appeared to blithely ignore her earlier, they would often agree and offer their seat.
From the mid-2000s onwards, the trains started getting really crowded with the influx of foreign labor, and I realized one thing – I could be seated and not be able to see a pregnant lady or elderly person who had just entered the train carriage. Many folks who are seated just can’t see through the thick crowd to identify someone in need.
Then as phone cameras got better, the cyber-shaming started (especially with the rise of the awful site STOMP). More people started to avoid sitting in the reserved seats altogether to avoid being accidental victims of the STOMP fans. Sometimes you’d see the seats being empty even as the rest of the carriage is packed to the brim.
I’m not saying there are no unpleasant people who take the trains with you and me. In fact, you’ll probably find more than a few bad eggs on any trip – people who lean their whole body against the holding bars, who refuse to move further into the carriage so others can come in, or those who just have plain disgusting hygiene. I will also frown if I see someone pretending to sleep in that reserved seat when other people come onboard and I will wake them up if an old uncle shuffles in.
But that’s the public transport experience – the majority will be ok, and there’ll be the odd few who don’t understand civil behavior or fit into societal norms. Tensions often run high due to the sardine-can nature of the trains, or when the trains break down yet again.
I’m also not saying using your phone camera to capture misdeeds in public is wrong – I strongly believe the use of in-car cameras has led to a reduction in road-bullying cases, and there have been more than a few molesters caught on trains thanks to other people’s smartphone cameras.
But back to my original point – people need to stop this nonsense once and for all.
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?
Footnote: I have refused to put links to any of the social media postings or stories about the SMRT incident. Obviously, I will not contradict my own position or lower my dignity by further propagating these incidents.