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.

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.

48 Replies to “Please stop this SMRT seat shaming nonsense”

  1. Indeed, all it takes is one misunderstanding to get “stomped” online. That seat has now become taboo on MRTs, LRTs and buses. Those who seem “undeserving” of the seat, now get a funny eye from the crowd – me included.

    But due to the risk of misunderstanding yet again, I pretend not to see it. :/

  2. Indeed. I need to paste this essay’s link whenever I see another one of those retarded posts on seat shaming.

  3. Indeed, the real culprit is SMRT for not providing enough seats. Why are we killing each other instead? We should jointly write in to SMRT and demand more seats. SMRT even took away seats in some train so that more people have to stand. Imagine standing for 40 mins in the train after already standing 30 mins on the platform waiting for the trains. Worse, SMRT said we could have packed ourselves in even more! Then entire design is flawed. How can a Jurong West guy go to work in Raffles Place without taking the MRT? They kept saying they have XXX number of km of MRT route, but what is the use? The portion between the Jurong West and Raffles Place is fixed, and there is only 1 line. It is jammed packed. There is no use adding Circle Line, Downtown Line etc, the Jurong West to Raffles Place portion remains the same.

    Don’t kill each other. Go to the root of the problem, which is a design flaw in MRTs and the MRT system.

    1. You are the other type of online users that the world could do without also. Only knowing how to criticize without providing solutions and giving grossly exaggerated analogy.
      I’m a Jurong west guy too, every morning, I don’t need to wait for more than 5 mins on the platform. The time to Raffles Place is only 30min.

      1. Indeed! These cry babies should be sent to some really poor country to get a perspective! 30 mins waiting at the station? Really??? There’s a limit to exaggeration!

        And all this vigilante behavior is only on the internet! They’ll run with their tails between their legs when talking face-to-face. Super Idiots!

        P.S. – I’m just a troll.

    2. And when there are a lot of seats and there’s suddenly no space to even board the train. What then? Remove the seats? Hahahaha

    3. I’m going to write to SMRT to remove all seats so we Singaporeans can stand as one.

      Not enough seats LOL. Come on man, have you taken the mrt before? Or do you always drive so you’re not used to slight inconvenience. Where do you want them to place the seats? On top of the train ah? Logic Bro. People need to start acting like they have brains, even if they don’t have one.

      I thought it was common understanding that when you reveal a problem, it’s etiquette to suggest a sound solution.

      Entertaining nonetheless. Thank you

    4. Sure, the solution is to provide 900 seats on every train so that no one has to stand during peak hour.

      I find nothing wrong with shaming. The bad side is, yes, it demonises those who goes against the conduct. But i also see the good side – to educate the masses that there is such a thing is considerate behaviour. Where moral education failed, social education takes over. Otherwise, what’s to stop every member of the public from saying, “It’s my right, so buzz off!”? Do I want Singapore to become a society where each man is for himself? No. Bring on the pitchforks guys!

      1. Hi Linda, I can only hope nobody does the same to you in the future, and that you are given a chance to explain yourself before your photo gets uploaded.

      2. Imagine one day you just worked overtime for 18 hours non stop,band when you enter the train all you want is just a seat, you can sleep in any moment because you are just too tired.
        Having a reserved seat doesn’t mean that is only for elderly, pregnant, disabled and those with a child only, but it is for those that really need the seat, and it doesn’t mean those people sitting beside priority seat don’t need to give up his/her seat. When the stomper took that picture, why ppl seated in other seat did not give up a seat?

    5. Not quite fair what you said. If you have travelled in commuter/subway trains abroad, you would know that peak hours means exactly just that – whether it be in London, Tokyo, New York or Paris.

      People are basically the same the world over, the difference being in some countries, some voluntarily give up their seats when he/she sees someone else who needs it more. I think we have to designate seats in our MRT because local commuters, meaning Singaporeans and foreigners of whatever status, are by and large not seen to be as gracious or willing to help others in need voluntarily. The reason. I really cannot tell. But having said that I should add that there ARE those who would do the needful to help others. But unfortunately, often time we also see the young and able of both genders, completely immersed in their hand phones oblivious to those around them or appeared to be ‘asleep’ – but who never failed to get off at their destination. I speak from experience. And I also speak as someone who in my younger, and stronger days, had always made it a point NOT to take a seat or rush for a vacated seat in a crowded bus – the only mode of public transport then – and often stood from start to finish of my journey. I also made it a point to offer it to an elderly person in a crowded bus.

    6. SMRT taking away seats isn’t the big problem. They should indicate which train cars have seats in the first place so it will not cause unsuspecting pregnant lady or old people or even injured ones to stand the whole journey.

  4. Hi Ian

    That’s a great article. Thanks for summarizing the thoughts of many of us out there.


  5. Hi Ian,

    Thanks for this article, I do wish Singaporeans would be more gracious with their behavior too.

    I sat on a reserved seat once after looking around to make sure no one needed it. Again, it was a packed train and every seat was occupied but the reserved seat. At the next train station, a man entered along with his wife and child. I did not see his child at first, but he spotted me in the seat immediately and gestured for me to get out of it. Of which I quickly obliged, but I did feel embarrassed and angry at being chased away unceremoniously by this man. My intentions were clear – I had no problems giving up my seat even though I was on the reserved seat. However, that man’s self-entitled behavior was unwelcomed and I was made to feel like I had done something wrong for even taking that empty seat even before they boarded the train. How dare a young woman be sitting in a reserved seat that’s meant for my child when I get on the following stop! Could he have approached and asked for the seat instead? I surely think so.

    It’s also interesting to note how an elderly man boarded a few stops after and was promptly ignored by the man. The seat was only emptied after they reached their destination. I had to bite my tongue from saying something, but on hindsight I should have asked for the seat for the elderly man.

    1. In some western societies, children are expected to give up their seats for adults because they pay less.

      In fact, I don’t think that most children need a seat on the train, I cannot think of a reason why they needed a seat and its evident of it from how their parents need to actually coax them to stay in their seats.

    2. Yeah you should of. But wait, you didn’t & just typed your own version of dibble. Big man you are ;o)
      May I amend the version of truth here? The man had two kids aged 2 & 4 (not one as you mentioned). You also clearly looked at the man & at least one of his kids. Whether you were evaluating through your due conciseness or not, the train started moving. I don’t think its anybodies fault you are childless nor have the commonsense of most sophisticated parts of the world here in 2015.
      PS: I don’t take photos of people on public transport, I just let them know, what I know……

  6. TOO RIGHT. I saw the post you were thinking of, and the first thing I thought of was that the man probably had a very good reason for sitting there in the first place. One should not assume that youth = health. There are so many medical conditions in people that do not result in an altered appearance.

    And also, what about all the other commuters on the train? Just because they are not sitting in a ‘reserved’ seat doesn’t justify inconsiderate or disrespectful behaviour.

  7. Dear Ian,

    Thank you for your insightful article and speaking for the majority of daily commuters who use the trains and buses to get to work.

    Whenever I enter a train and see that the reserved seat is available, I do a quick look around and when I’m sure that no one needs the seat more than I do, I proceed to sit down. And then the stares, the subtle looks of shock and disbelief will spread like a wave throughout the cabin.

    By purchasing a trip to anywhere on the MRT route, I have a right to that seat as much as anyone. Of course, if someone who needs the seat more than me enters, I will readily give up my seat to them not because I’m “required” to, but because I want to.

    And there is the root of the problem. Instead of designating seats and creating this issue, I feel more should be done to educate commuters on being gracious and giving up their seat regardless if there’s a sticker stuck there. Graciousness and civility can only be taught to a certain extend and I pray the day comes when we wont require a sticker to tell us to give up our seats .

  8. I do agree. Totally. actually anyone who is unwell deserved the seat (any seat). Be it young or old, some youngsters may have anemia (which can’t be identified easily). I believe the author’s main intention is to encourage everyone to be compassion and caring

    1. Priority seat sticker have also been misunderstood. This is my view of what it should mean.

      1. elderly WITH walking/disability
      – this excludes aunties/uncles/elderly who are unlikely to fall down. They should in fact stand and train their core and legs as a form of training. Hate it when aunties EXPECT the seat to be given to them.

      2. Pregnant ladies
      – if you are unsure if that person is pregnant or not, you can just ask. A little communication hurt nobody.

      3. People in crutches/wrapped feets/wounds all over

      4. People carrying young children.
      – simply because their CG is higher when carrying an extra load and it is more difficult for them to balance while standing. So, people with children who are able to stand and run should NOT be “entitled” the seat.

      *Add on*
      5. ANYONE who looks pale or looks like they are in pain
      – With a little less focus on your phones, and look around more you should be able to identify people like that occasionally. Don’t be afraid to offer the seat. Initiate to clarify! You never know when you can save someone from fainting.

  9. Yeah, it’s mainly Singapore and other small, overcrowded Asian countries.. But mainly Singapore..

    Photos are not usually accurate to what’s actually happened..
    While videos give you a better idea of what took place, they too are not always accurate.. They usually don’t show you the full truth of what led up to the events that you are watching..

    The Internet can and will bring out the worst in people.. They feel they are anonymous with made up names, like mine, so they free the demon that resides in each and every one of us..
    Hurting someone else makes them feel powerful and better about their own pathetic lives..

  10. well i support your words. because some singaporean or PR are being too “law by law” can is say that? just because the sign say cannot means cannot. but truth is i kind of find singaporean or some PR in singapore are letting seats for these people. but first of all i realize one thing. when we let people have our seats, one things in our heart that we must have is a willing heart. because nowadays people work in jobs that can be tiring. like wad u says NSmen , people works in the restaurants stand the whole day. all of you these can be tiring. sometime for me to sit in the reserver seat in MRT can be a no choice. and because of what we have right now ipads, iphones and smartphone right now we can have the privacy. there will be a one day soon or later our country will become like taiwan. most of the news from taiwan 30% are actually about people taking photo just because a person did something but is not on written on law. i dont wish singapore have these kind of dumbass news.

  11. Well, the thing is that Singaporeans are still immature from this freedom of speech offered by the advancement of social media. Singaporeans need to learn to be responsible and identify the consequences for the words they allegedly post online. Seemingly, Singaporeans are not posting for a cause, they are using the social media to bring their “complaint king/queen” attitude to a whole new level.

  12. Weird Singaporean behavior. Those guys are human too. Just give benefit of the doubt for this kind of situation. Maybe they are tired or not feeling well.

  13. most times the ones who try the hardest are the hypocrites… like the saying goes: ugly people, more pattern

  14. In almost every public carpark, a lot or two are reserved for the wheelchair – bound. Is it right under whatever circumstances (other than life and death situation ) for any driver to park there? Same question applies to this man occupying the reserved seat. He has to know the meaning of “reserved” seat.

  15. Just as seats in restaurants are reserved for patrons who may have booked the table beforehand, the reserving of 8 seats per cabin is a kind initiative by the train corporations to take care of the wellbeing of the 4 groups of commuters (the disabled, the pregnant, the elderly and the parents with babies) If you truly think that you deserve to sit on the reserved seat, then go on! You may be having a bad headache or your bag is very heavy, so go on, go and sit on the reserved seat! After all, people who require seats on the train badly are not just people who belong to the sticker group.

  16. Well said. Injured my ankle months ago, ankle guard removed but I still have difficulty standing for long so I take a Reserved seat if there’s one. I have come to ignore starers. I don’t need strangers to judge me. I know I will give up my seat if an elderly folk or pregnant woman appears.

  17. Personally, I feel there should not be seats identified for priority seating. People should just give up their seats when they see anybody who needs the seats more then they do, wherever they are seated. We need to educate people to have compassion and consideration for each other. This can only happen in a gracious society

  18. I appreciate this post but I do not agree that everyone’s motivation for sharing or discussing about the SMRT reserved seat aim to shame or bully. It is discussed or passed on because it is an issue of concern. If not for the viral discussion, we will not learn the other side of the story. If not for the discussion, we will not grow in reflexivity as a society. From this discussion I learned how dialogue is important in the public space like a MRT train. I learned that one need to communicate truthfully how much a person may need the seat, regardless of age, race, gender or citizenship, especially when asked. It is also important for us as a society to be able to give the benefit of doubt to anyone who signals that need. I have experienced being offered a seat, I looked around to check if others need it more and after communicating very simply, the one who needs it the most may have it. If we in Singapore learn to be more open in the train and in buses to dialogue among ourselves, there will be a better use of resources and a genuinely gracious community.

  19. I supposed they just want to shamed someone and be media wide known concurrently. They don’t even find out why the commuter refused to give up the seat. Years ago I used to hop on the train from Yishun to Orchard at peak hours and I used to give up the seat to a pretty pregnant woman everyday without fail. One fine day I was so ashamed that I didn’t do it because my foot was injured and bandaged. She smiled. But someone offered her a seat. Everyone should be ashamed if what it happened because another pregnant woman did it!

  20. Haha, I recalled that 40 over years ago until 1987 sg got mrt, all the while i / we had being standing in a non air con bus or later years buses with air con also stand for more than an hour to reach my/ our destination (eg. Rehill to chin bee drive) no one on bus complain nor write in newspaper to make a fuss.. all these years good lifes develope many “strewberries” abit stand or wait more than 10 minutes like father mother die like that… guys …please… endurences can improve??

  21. These idiots who go on social media to rant and rave and complain about everything under the sun are termed “social justice warriors” or SJWs for short. It’s not a compliment. It’s a derogatory insult. The danger is that SJWs will go on a lynch mob to harass and get people fired or even have their lives threatened simply because they feel offended at something. SJWs are utter scum and cowards and need to be called out for their bullshit

  22. true, and some are so ignorant that they think kids should be entitled, looking at the sign board, kid are not entitled to the seat, only infant on hand then maybe you can let the seat to the one carrying the infant; however if the infant is on tram, then there’s no need to give up the seat ….
    Some make use of kids to ask u for the seat but the kids are playing climbing up & down the stair, then maybe the seat should be given to one who really need the seat.

  23. I’m Singaporean living in the Nederlands the problems is mentality and how kids are brought up,in Nederlands public transport you do not have this problem, young and even able healthy older people will stand up for anyone they think is more in need of the seat more than they do and you see this happens automatically .If you don’t educate your children than this problem will be a vicious circle , teach your kids now you might need that seat one of these days .

  24. This whole saga is just a reflection of the “me” mentality of people nowadays. They should go back in time to those days of only public buses while you are basically at the mercy of driver and bus conductor. Yes, I still recall those days as a student when you are too short to press the bell right at the top of the bus and the conductor is smiling at your swaying attempts in the “fast and furious” bus. Same goes for old ladies. People seems more hardy then and do not complain so much.

  25. When I’m recovering from a leg injury ( well, it wasn’t in bandages), and when I did not take a walking stick, I dare not take the reserved seats in trains and buses. This is because others see me as an healthy person. They couldn’t tell I’m experiencing pain in my leg. Plus I don’t want to be photographed and be shamed as an inconsiderate passenger. Only when I took the walking stick along, and if there’re no other seats available, I would then sit on the reserved seat in the train and bus.

  26. Shame on the author who obviously doesn’t care about other more needy people in our midst.
    We must strenuously reject his heartless proposal. If our country is to be run according to him then all of us will lose out in the long run.
    Imagine every time the train door opens and everyone rushes for his/her seat. Then obviously the ones most in need of the seat will have no chance at all to beat the able-body man like Ian Tan to catch one.
    If we stretch Ian’s advocate further then we should do away with reserved car park lots for disable drivers. Maybe we should also discontinue NS because the physically ablest amongst us can always run fastest away from the country and leave the sickly to defend the country.
    Ian has forgotten that one day he will also grow old and sickly when he also would not be able to compete with younger people to catch a seat, just when he would badly need one in his old age.

    1. I think you need to re-read my article. I’m all for more grace and compassion. I don’t need a sticker to tell me to give up a seat to the needy. I’m not asking everyone to grab a seat when the train doors open. I’m asking everyone to give up seats whenever they can.

      And if you still don’t understand my article, the bottomline is simple – taking photos to shame people as a practice is an ungracious and destructive act.

      Finally, if it interests you, when I take the MRT, I hardly sit down because I’m able-bodied (as you’ve described so politely). I hope someone else can take the seat instead of me. I usually only sit down if the carriage is largely empty.

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