Dress And Behaviour

The recent Toa Payoh food centre incident shows that “smartly-dressed” does not mean one has the smarts to temper an explosive situation with social grace. Clothing, as we know, is—and has been—mostly a façade

Smartly dressed 1

By Raiment Young

People are obviously easily deceived by appearances: the smarter you look, the more intelligent you are perceived to be, or least inclined to succumb to publicly unacceptable behaviour. This, however, was so quickly and easily debunked just last night.

That berating and that shoving of the seemingly harmless elderly gentleman in Toa Payoh Lorong 8 food centre on Friday evening that has gone viral were the responses to the rage of the couple that Netizens enthusiastically described as “smartly-dressed”. Such gossip! Some of them, as well as a report on alvinology.com, portrayed the duo as “well-dressed”. Such fake news!

I’ll be the first to concede that what constitutes smartly-dressed and well-dressed is subjective, and smartly-dressed and well-dressed may be diametrical, and are not necessarily indicators of fashion or trend. But I have seen enough disgraceful behavior on the part of the smartly turned out to realise that just because you look clean and tidy does not mean your manners are as impeccable.

Like the rest of you not at that food centre at that time, I saw the foul-mouth and the assailant in action online. Although the footage was no cinematic oeuvre, I could still discern that the now-infamous couple was no Bonnie and Clyde. Yet, despite the hazy video, it was their manner of dress that people remember, since, for most, spiffiness does not beget insolence. Smartly-dressed, of course, could also refer to the two’s office attire, which, by convention, is supposed to project professionalism, if not civility.

Here’s what I saw: the woman was in a white sleeveless top (battle-ready since she did not need to roll any sleeve up for a fight) and a pair of cream-coloured, high-waist pants. Her prone-to-push companion was in a long-sleeved shirt (so fitted at the torso that it’s obvious it’s darted at the back. Note, also, the pen in the pocket)) and a pair of dark-coloured trousers that formed a (’70s-looking) silhouette to better enhance his samseng stance. The female’s aggression seemed to indicate that she was completely able to hold her own, yet the man saw it fit to come to the expletive-loving maiden’s rescue, in crash and bang fashion. Hantam first, talk later.

Smartly dressed 2Screen grab from the viral video showing a man and woman and their elderly victim

Heroism has a long historical link to the smartly-dressed. In fact, in the annals of comic-book heroism, the superheroes that are dapper in dress when not in life-saving costume have a better chance at liberating the world from evil and saving maidens from tyranny and dramatic death. From Clark Kent to Bruce Wayne to Tony Stark, sartorial smartness enhances machismo and valour. In the case of the food centre Super Shove, people remembered that he was smartly-dressed because he operated in the traditional swank of comic-book superheroes. Rarely do bravery and brutality in a food centre come in such a package, so you keep the image in mind.

Bad behavior at communal dining tables appears to be more associated with the smartly-dressed set than the not so. The habit of choping, which appears to be a factor that led to the Toa Payoh kerfuffle, is more prevalent in food centres and food courts that are visited by the smartly-dressed office crowd. In fact, it has been suggested that it was “office ladies” that started the trend of using packs (one is no longer adequate) of tissue paper to chope seats.

I did a random, admittedly unscientific study and found that makan places such as Changi Village Hawker Centre and Old Airport Road Food Centre see less—a lot less—patrons wielding tissue packs/umbrellas to hold a seat/table than their CBD counterparts, such as Lau Pa Sat and Golden Shoe Hawker Centre (also known as Market Street Food Centre). Where the blue-collar smartly-dressed throng, choping is commonplace. And you’ll likely find a patron ready to attack you should you dare to question the rationale of a pack of tissue representing a living person.

But these days, a pack of tissue is not quite enough to indicate that the seat/table is taken. Last year, at a Kopi Tiam food court, I saw something I did not imagine could happen: a person had placed his OCBC name card on the table in lieu of a pack of tissue. When he returned with his lunch, I could see that, like Super Shove, he was smartly-dressed. I was tempted to write to the bank to enquire if this is how a business card should be used, but I, like many of you, succumbed to whatever-for.

What was even more astounding was this incident in which an umbrella had a starring role. I was with my 77-year-old mother at another Kopi Tiam food court. She spotted an empty table and walked towards it. As she was about to reach her destination, a woman from behind her quickly whipped out and extended her compact umbrella, and placed it across the table. In one swoop, an old lady was denied a seat at a food court table. My mother was stunned. From where did the umbrella shoot forth, she wondered.

Mom, a smartly-dressed woman.

Photo: A. B. Tan. Video screen grab: The Local Society

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