Recently, a woman on an MRT hurled vulgarities at a fellow commuter for standing too close to her. This case of verbal aggression is not the first and will not be the last. In a densely overcrowded country like Singapore, what does personal space look like for the average Singaporean, and what do Singaporeans’ need for privacy actually mean?
Does personal space exist in a public sphere?
Singapore has 7,810 people per square kilometers, making it the third most densely populated territory in the world. This number is not expected to go down in the near future, with the population of Singapore estimated to grow from 5.69 million in 2020 to 6.52 million in 2035.
With so many people packed into this highly urbanised arena, are people on the tiny red dot entitled to personal space in public areas such as MRTs, buses, shopping malls, or void decks? What will a private space in this context even look like? When can Singaporeans assert that people are standing too close for comfort, and when can we tell someone off for blasting their music too loudly?
The oxymoronic need for privacy in the public sphere reflects how hectic Singaporeans’ lives are.
Singaporeans need privacy on public transport as it is an outlet for them to transition away from the hustle and bustle that work brings, into the comfort of their homes. For many, the time spent on public transport is often where one unwinds from the stresses of work.
While those who drive need to deal with road conditions and other drivers, those who take public transport have to cope with transportation delays and other commuters. For many public transport passengers, this is the time for them to be truly alone and ensconced in their personal bubble. They unwind by playing mobile games, reading e-books, watching K-dramas, or by conversing with friends.
The problem arises when some of these activities end up encroaching into other passengers’ private spaces. This is why hearing a fellow passenger calling a relative on speaker irks us, and why someone refusing to put down his large bagpack during peak hours becomes an irritant. It is the disregard of the private space of others while prioritising their own that frustrates. This, too, can explain why the woman on the train was so annoyed.
After all, these activities that bring comfort an individual may create stress to those in adjacent spaces.
Guard your personal space.
Snapping at fellow commuters is most definitely not the right way forward. Instead, passengers can try other ways to claim back their personal space. When a passenger is blasting music via the speaker during commute, perhaps one can use a pair of earphones to block out the sound. This way, you can continue your own activity e.g. binge watching shows on your phone.
If a passenger stands too close to you, or causes his bagpack to poke you at random intervals, try moving yourself to an empty space. If there are no alternatives, communicate your discomfort to the fellow commuter and encourage him to put down his bagpack. Often times, ignorance is the cause of someone else breaching your personal space.
If the train is too crowded and there are no other way around, recognise that it is a public space and that we have all to endure a little bit of discomfort as members of society. Alternatively, avoiding peak hours would minimise the chance of congestion.
It’s not as bad as you think.
Perhaps Singaporeans can find comfort by looking at Japan’s extreme rush hours. While congestion has been eased due to countermeasures during the coronavirus period, trains during peak periods used to be literally packed with people.
There used to be subway pushers who, as the name suggests, were hired to physically push as many commuters as possible into the train carriage. The passengers were often thankful to be able to board the train.
COVID-19 means Singaporeans need to be more sensitive of others.
The coronavirus has spurred the need for social distancing and to avoid talking to one another or on mobile phones while on public transport. This situation has also triggered an increased awareness of the concept of personal space.
As such, Singaporeans need to be more sensitive and understanding of others during these trying times.