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What does a $6.50 latte at Starbucks entitle you to?

Are you allowed to chat until the coffee runs dry? Or does it give you the right to study there for an entire afternoon?

Nobody knows for sure, but one poor student managed to inflame half the Internet when she publicly insisted on her right to the latter option.

On Sept 1 – which was Hari Raya Haji, a public holiday – a female student made a complaint on Starbuck’s official Facebook page when she was asked to vacate her seat for studying on the premises. According to her post, she had yet to finish her drink and was still “working on her assignment” when a staff member approached her and asked her to leave because she was studying.

A man speaking with a grumpy expression

“Where has the Starbucks experience gone?” she lamented, calling the whole incident “an unpleasant and embarrassing experience”.

Her complaint did not mention the location, time or the names of the staff members involved, so we can’t be sure if the place was crowded on a public holiday. But a sizeable crowd – with an estimated 900 comments – responded. There was little mercy for the girl. The nicer comments asked her to “go to the library”, while the harsher voices condemned her as a selfish person and “a self-entitled millennial”.

Following the widespread outrage, her complaint has since been deleted from Facebook and Starbucks has stepped in to try and calm everyone down. However, the incident was also covered on various other platforms like Stomp and Mothership, where more brickbats were levied upon the girl, and other students like herself.

An unpopular opinion as it may be, I would argue that students like her have every right to study in Starbucks.

Students yelling outside a coffee shop

Hear me out before you react in anger and close this tab. There was a popular backlash against “Starbucks studying” because such behaviour hogs space and prevents other paying customers from sitting and enjoying their coffee.

This, of course, implies that everyone in Starbucks has a limited amount of time to finish their drinks. Once this invisible timer expires, your presence on the premises supposedly turns from entitlement to inconsiderate behaviour. Like a party guest who’s still drinking when the vacuum cleaner has started.

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Accepting that this is even true, that is still no reason for singling out students because there are plenty of other seat-hoggers. Just take a good look at any coffeehouse on the weekends and you can find culprits aplenty. There are insurance agents who treat the tables like their personal meeting room and freelancers who use Starbucks as a long-term office. There are also families and couples who will talk for hours over a cup of lukewarm coffee.

A bald man making a sarcastic statement

The inconvenience created by these groups are no different from inconvenience caused by extra hardworking students. Yet, no one ever gets called out for reading a magazine during peak hours and you can talk for hours without anyone batting an eyelid.

So what makes it right for everyone else and wrong for the students?

The only compelling reason that I can think of is this: Cafes are not meant for studying. Or as one netizen succinctly argues: “Starbucks is meant for chilling not studying.”

This would be a great argument, if only it were true.

A student attempting to poke a woman's hand with a fork

When The Pride contacted Starbucks for a comment on the incident, the company responded thus: “At Starbucks, we want our space to be a welcoming environment and a unique gathering place where all our customers can enjoy their favourite cup of coffee with friends and family.” (Italics mine).

On the Starbucks Singapore website, the company declares that it wants to provide people with “a personal space to use as they wish”. Its Singapore mission statement even encourages its customers to “relax and linger in a comfortable armchair and escape into a book”.

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So what’s wrong if someone wants to linger over a chemistry textbook? You do not need to be a law professor to see that that Starbucks is giving Singapore a carte blanche for how to use the space inside the cafe. If that’s the case, we can hardly fault the students for taking advantage of this blank cheque. After all, students are indeed part of “everyone” and nowhere in the expression, “use as they wish”, is doing homework or working on a school project excluded.

In summary, unless Starbucks imposes a strict time limit for every cup of coffee purchased, it’s unfair to single out students who have every right to be there. Like many cases of right versus right, the only resolution to this space shortage is for both sides to compromise amicably.

If you’re a student, go ahead and enjoy your right to a seat at Starbucks but also show some courtesy to your fellow patrons. Your frappucino entitles you to a table on the premises but your calculator and file should not get their own table at the expense of other customers. In other words, don’t leave your stuff lying everywhere.

A young man being dragged out of a restaurant along with the table

If you’re someone who’s just angry at the students for “hogging your seats”, have a think before you go on social media to lambast them. Most students are already stressed out and tired from Singapore’s high-pressure education system and I’m sure they don’t want any more online drama.

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For the sake of everyone who desperately needs their caffeine fix, why not try a kopitiam solution to this atas coffee problem? In hawker centres and coffeeshops around Singapore, people compromise and make way for each other when it gets crowded. It’s not uncommon to see office workers who will squeeze to share a table and uncles eating chicken rice who will shuffle along to make way for your tray of Briyani.

There is nothing to stop us from applying the same courtesies to a Starbucks outlet, so perhaps all we need is a little kampung spirit alongside the Starbucks experience to make it a pleasant stay for everyone.