An examination of the queue

How did we get here? Not here, as a nation, but here, in this infernal queue. Perhaps both questions are the same, so ingrained has the practice of queueing become in the national psyche.

There was a time, though, when Singaporeans were a nation of inveterate non-liner-uppers. A local news article in September 1970 - dated just weeks past after the country's fifth birthday - made the observation: "In Singapore - where two Q-campaigns have failed . . . - the authorities have yet to find out why there is so much reluctance to wait in line."

Since then, we have largely fallen in line, as it were, queueing for a confounding array of things, but the path to linear waiting has paradoxically been a long and winding one.

The first reference to a queue in a local publication was in the Straits Times Weekly Issue in 1884, which sought to deal with a matter of "considerable interest to the amusement lovers of the Colony": that of a vehicular jam outside the Tanglin Club.

"The simplest (solution) is merely to give instructions to the police to strictly enforce the queue system, and, under no pretence whatever, to permit two carriages to stand abreast," the writer suggests.

In very next paragraph, the writer stumbles upon one of the built-in problems of the queue - that the string of "gharries, buggies, and dogcarts would extend to an unconscionable distance along the road".

In the intervening decades, the question of the queue would go on to dog the best of minds.

There are many things we now know about the queue, thanks to research. On average, we overestimate how long we have been in line by 36 per cent. The time taken for someone to gather up their belongings after paying at the counter is 3.17 seconds for the average (more like mediocre) person - queue scientists call this micro-wastage of time "faffing". We know now that we care more about how long a line is than how fast it is moving. And the other line, the one we are not in, always feels faster - but we did not need science to tell us this.

This tendency to compare and the resulting pique when we come off the worse for it ("queue rage" to researchers, just "rage" to the rest of us), is the reason that we have the serpentine queue today, an evolution from multiple separate queues.

Wendy's, American Airlines and British Airways all lay claim to serpentine queue firsts in their respective industries, but the impetus - the need for social justice and fairness, where everyone suffers in the same queue on a first-in, first-out basis - is shared.

In learning about the queue, we have also become less of a mystery to each other. "Britons require a queue," a 2010 book on museum management declares. "Americans seem happy with multiple lines and enjoy the game of trying to find the shortest one."

What, then, does the fiddly business of queueing say about Singaporeans?

"(Queueing) is a bit more prevalent in Asian cultures because we are more focused on social comparisons. The more people who queue, the more valuable (a product) is signalled to be," Sharon Ng, an associate professor from Nanyang Technological University's (NTU) Nanyang Business school, tells The Business Times.

"Asians are very loss-averse. Research has consistently shown that."

This loss-aversion is then manifested in the relentless queueing for things that are free or deemed valuable for any reason, arbitrary or fundamental.

If loss-aversion is a dominant trait of the Asian people, then Singaporeans are the ultra-Asians. Over the last few decades, key linear pursuits in Singapore for things such as spots in kindergartens and the roofs over our heads have evolved into arms races.

In 1993, for example, a new 24-hour Registration Deposit Box was installed at the the Resale Unit of the HDB Centre in Jalan Bukit Merah to eliminate the need for queues. Instead, real estate agents lined up as early as 2am every new working day outside the office itself.

"If you are the first person to put your form into the box, when they take the forms out for processing, it will be at the bottom of the pile," one real estate agent had reasoned.

Queueing, Harvard University's Leon Mann reckoned in a 1969 paper, is more than just securing priority service. For the person already in line, it is also a means of showing latecomers that he has "an unquestionable willingness to undergo further suffering to get the commodity".

As far as suffering goes, there is no nation better at it than one hardened by military occupation, several instances of food rationing and constant reminders of its scarcity of everything. In 1996, when the Ardmore Park condominium was launched, 100 people lined up six days in advance.

We are not, however, alone in our indecent urge to queue. In 1970, England's foremost queueologist PS Snapp produced a book called Everything you always wanted to know about queues but weren't interested enough to ask, a treatise so dogged in its thoroughness that an article in The Straits Times promptly called it "the book all England dreads receiving in its Christmas stocking".

As part of his exploration of the matter, Prof Snapp constructed a false queue of papier mache figures outside a wrecked building. What resulted were scores of English people who had seen the queue two to three blocks away, and had set off to join it.

"In most cases, these people admitted when interviewed that they did not know what the queue was leading to, and could not say what had come over them," the article said.

Even today, when we cop to being in a queue, some of us do it with a mixture of bewilderment and sheepishness, like 29-year-old Jacqueline, whose involvement in the Hello Kitty Saga of 2013 has left her so abashed, she has asked that her surname be omitted.

"I'm not too sure how I got embroiled in this," she says. Having visited five McDonald's outlets between the hours of 11pm and 5am in a bid to buy the final Hello Kitty on one Odysseyian night in June, hers is an epic Hello Kitty story to end all Iliads.

Nobody stands in line for nothing

It concludes, like most things Grecian, in pathos. Jacqueline, short of the two last Kitties, eventually gave away her first three ones.

"Never again," she says.

Contrary to how it must appear, especially when one considers free goodie bags, nobody stands in line for nothing.

"Something that is free or helps me to signal to others who I am - I queue for it. At the end of the day, it must feed some inner need," NTU's Prof Ng says.

And so, where there has been no necessity, we have manufactured our own, paying homage to the latest glass-and-aluminium offering from Apple in a serpentine expression of our aspirations and desires.

It is here, in a line filled with other people who want the same finite thing, that our aspirations bump up against the desires of the nearest person, with explosive results.

In Australia, a 2005 survey of 508 people found that the top-ranked gesture of rudeness came from someone who "pushed in front of me", far outstripping the second-placed act of making a "bodily gesture". These respondents might or might not have been waiting in line, but it is in a queue where the two most offensive of acts - pushing someone and pushing in front of them - tend to be combined.

Earlier this year, three men bumped into another man while they were queueing to buy newspapers at a mall in Sembawang. Words were had, an 18cm-long vegetable knife was produced, and all three men were taken to hospital with head injuries and slash wounds.

Even as we consider a violent queue, a peaceable one is similarly disquieting, as a tableau of docile en masse waiting for something good to happen.

In 1993, David Chan, a lecturer in the Department of Philosophy at the National University of Singapore voiced some of these worries. "Why take the risk of missing out on something others are enjoying? The result is a herd mentality where everyone goes after the same things and avoids the same things. No one wants to be different," he wrote. He had not blamed the queue, which had merely expressed the underlying dysfunction.

Since then, queueing has come to dominate the earth. Americans spend 37 billion hours a year waiting in line. Every Disney-run theme park on the planet is filled with visitors who, regardless of origin, conform to its relentlessly cheerful queues. Thousands stood in line outside Buckingham Palace to look at a notice of the birth of Prince William's offspring in July.

In that respect, Singaporeans have achieved the ultimate conformist wish: we are now just like everybody else.

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