As a daily commuter, there have been times when the only thing I wanted after a long day at work was to grab a seat on the train or the bus on my way home.
Being your average office worker who spends most of my waking hours seated at my work desk, the only logical thing to do when I get on public transport is… to find another seat to plonk myself on.
On the odd occasions where I’ve managed to secure one during peak hours, I’d always felt like I’d struck the lottery.
And I’d won it fair and square. Nevermind if there’s an elderly uncle hovering near me who looks like his legs may give way anytime.
After all, that’s what priority seats are for, right? And those seated on these should be the ones yielding their places for him, not me. I’ve settled comfortably into my seat, so don’t disturb me. I’ve got a game to play or a show to watch on Netflix.
In all honesty, this was the way I used to think. In the past month, however, I’ve come to realise how selfish I have been.
After tearing a ligament in my right ankle, I recently underwent surgery to repair it. And while waiting for my ankle to heal, I’ve had to rely on crutches to get about.
Commuting with a foot injury opened my eyes to the harsh realities of getting around with a handicap, especially during peak hours.
Being slower than most, I’d lose out to commuters competing to be the first in or out of the train. The same goes for getting on the escalators, and even entering or leaving the train station.
With my crutches, trying to stand on moving trains or buses, or ride on escalators was like taking my first yoga class all over again. Everything felt awkward and I was just one wrong move away from falling flat on my face.
My temporary handicap showed me a thing or two about how we in Singapore treat other commuters who have greater needs than ours. And it has also forced me to look into the mirror, so I now see my past behaviour through a different lens.
Hot take one: We look the other way, but that doesn’t mean the problem goes away.
Most of us are probably pretty quick to spot that attractive guy or girl who boards the train or bus.
But the same enthusiasm disappears once our eye catches someone who may actually really need a seat – particularly if it’s the very one that you’re comfortably sitting on.
With a very visible aircast boot on my leg, I thought others would readily offer me a seat on public transport. To my surprise, it wasn’t often that this happened. People would catch my eye, then immediately avert my gaze like I had a lethally contagious eye infection. They’d return to staring at their smartphone screens, or be suddenly overcome by an urgent need for some shut-eye.
Perhaps they thought that someone else would offer me the priority seat. But these seats were often already occupied by those who obviously needed them.
Eventually, someone would be kind enough to notice me and offer me a seat. While I was appreciative of their gesture, the nonchalance of others was unnerving. It also led me to wonder – had I been just like them before being forced to hobble around with a handicap in the past month?
That made me feel guilty.
Hot take two: We leave it to those who are in need themselves to take care of those who need help
The real irony I’ve discovered is that most of the time when I’ve received help, it’s actually from those who are in need themselves, such as older commuters, or those travelling with young children.
It dawned on me that they must have extended their help, whether by giving way to me or offering me their seat, because they understand how it feels to be in my position. So, even if it meant inconveniencing themselves, they chose to take care of the young man lumbering about on crutches instead.
At this point, I’ll confess that in the past, I’ve only given up my seat to others because I was worried about getting STOMP-ed.
It’s definitely uncomfortable to look back on my past behaviour now and see it for what it was – selfishness and a lack of compassion.
I never used to think much about the struggles of others simply because I felt like it wasn’t my business. But having walked a mile in their shoes, you can bet that I’ll be that much more alert to lend a helping hand to others the next time I’m taking public transport.
Hot take three: Are we unknowingly kicking someone when they’re down?
We Singaporeans tend to be in a rush whenever we are commuting – be it to get to school, work, gatherings or home.
The competition begins the moment you enter a train station. It’s a mad rush to the gantry, to get on the escalator or into the lifts, or in and out of the trains.
As a result, parents with prams, wheelchair users or those who require walking aids are made to wait for the next lifts, despite the many signs around that encourage priority for the handicapped, disabled, elderly or those travelling with young children.
On some occasions, I even got my crutches kicked by those rushing for the gantries. Most would utter their apologies, but on one occasion, there was a smartphone zombie who kicked my crutches so hard that I almost lost my balance. He then walked by as if nothing had happened. I suspect he hadn’t even realised what had happened at all.
In our haste to get somewhere, we have created a race that leaves needy commuters dead last.
I was fortunate to be on crutches for only one month. But for others like the elderly or the disabled, this is an everyday reality.
Being ignored or overlooked is never a good feeling. So you can imagine how grateful I felt when one particularly selfless commuter went as far as to ensure I managed to pass through the gantry before going through it himself.
His kindness, along with that shown by others through small gestures like holding the lift door and letting me enter the train first, has taught me a lesson in empathy I won’t be forgetting in a hurry.
Sure, I may still feel my heart skip a beat when I see an empty seat, or choose to play games and watch Netflix on my phone. But I make a conscious effort to look up more now. I make sure I’m aware of my surroundings and the people around me. And if need be, I’d gladly abandon my game and pause my show to give up my seat if you happen to need it more than I do.
I hope you’ll do the same for someone else, too.