People & Society / Southeast Asia

The things we queued for

Finding out what matters to Singaporeans by combing through The Straits Times headlines with the word ‘queue’ in it.

S ingapore is a nation of queuers. So much so that over the years, this ‘national pastime’ has made the headlines in The Straits Times, our national newspaper—322 headlines since 1990 to be exact. We have camped overnight, cut queues, jostled, and even paid others to get what we want. Skeptics may peg this as classic kiasu Singaporean behaviour, but don’t people say that love is worth fighting for?

So, if you have ever taken the time and effort to queue for something, or someone, this is a tribute to you.

Gen X queued for notice of marriage, Millennials queued for Gong Cha bubble tea

On average, there have been 11 headlines about queueing every year since 1990. This may seem excessive—how can queuing be that newsworthy? Many of the queues were in response to Singapore’s development.

Take for example the 90s and 2000s. The majority of the headlines were of prospective homeowners queuing to register for Housing Development Board (HDB) flats. With over 80 percent of the Singapore population living in HDB flats by the 1990s, owning one was considered the ‘Singapore Dream’. Exclusive to this period were also headlines of people queuing for primary school registration and the National Day Parade (NDP) tickets. While people still queue for these things, the introduction of e-balloting and online registration have reduced the need for physical queuing.

Distribution of The Straits Times headlines with the word ‘queue’ over the years

Each heart represents one headline with the word ‘queue’. Mouse over the hearts to see more information.

Show headlines about people queueing for

Queue item:

Disclaimer: ‘queue’ includes ‘queueing’, ‘queued’ etc.

Sometimes, the things that we coveted were related. In 1997, there was a mad scramble by couples to register for marriage. The reason? They were incentivised by HDB’s new Fiancé/Fiancée Scheme, which allowed newlyweds to offset the $5,000 registration deposit using their Central Provident Fund (CPF).

Social media has taken over this decade. News can be shared more easily with a quick tap on the smartphone, which has enabled us to queue for more things more frequently. The 2010s had the most ‘queuing’ headlines out of all decades, and it hasn’t even ended yet.

With social media, what we choose to queue for also became greatly influenced by hype and how #instagrammable it is.

When bubble tea brand Gong Cha toyed with our hearts by announcing that they were closing and re-opening within the same year, many shared photos and videos of the winding queues at the new SingPost Centre outlet. Instead of being deterred by the crowd, more people jumped onto the bandwagon, and the queues amounted to a leg-numbing 14 hour wait.

Forget fried rice, it’s a chicken rice paradise out here

True to our foodie reputation, food was the overall top item Singaporeans queued for, making up about ten percent of the headlines. But we don’t just queue for any food. We only queue for good food, choosing to devote our labour mostly for Michelin recognised food like Tsuta ramen, and hawkers stalls which were awarded the Bib Gourmand.

Chicken rice was a close second, bolstered by the Ah Tai and Tian Tian Hainanese chicken rice rivalry after word got out that the Tian Tian chef was fired and working for the competitor.

Popular items that people have queued for as a percentage of all headlines

Impressively, Apple products made it to the top five, even though the first iPhone was only released in 2008. Once again, we queue selectively. After the initial buzz over the first iPhone, there was a lull in enthusiasm for the iPad, Apple Watch, and other iPhone models. The momentum only picked up again over the launch of the iPhone X models.

Timeless love

Unlike the ever-changing landscape of Singapore, these are the items that we have consistently queued for over the years.

Items which have consistently made the headlines since 1990

Celebrities: Some things never change. The next time the older generation makes a jab about Millennials or Gen Zs queuing overnight for K-pop band BTS concert tickets, you can gently remind them that they were once fanatic fans too, who queued for the Beatles record, and surprisingly—Mediacorp actress Zoe Tay’s album—in the 90s.

Lottery: While queues for lottery tickets are a familiar sight in our heartlands, they become newsworthy whenever a record prize sum is announced, like the annual Toto Hongbao Draw. One notable exception was in 2006, when instead of congregating at Singapore Pools, people were queuing for red bean buns at a Taoist altar. Apparently, the winning 4D combination was chosen at the same altar a few weeks prior to that, and people believed that lightning would strike twice if they ate the buns blessed by the same deity.

HDB flats: Queues for HDB flats were often a result of the policies being introduced. The spike in headlines in 1994 was caused by a new policy to have separate queues for first-time applicants and upgraders to cut down on waiting time. The second spike in 2002 was over the introduction of the Built-To-Order (BTO) scheme. It was a game-changer as flats were built only if demand exceeded 70 percent, and gave potential buyers the flexibility to choose the exact location and type of flats they wanted.

Collectibles: Over time, we have queued for commemorative coins, stamps, and notes, but none could rival the mania caused by McDonald’s Hello Kitty promotions. In 2000, thousands waited in line for the Hello Kitty and Dear Daniel wedding set. The aftermath was unprecedented: Cisco guards and the police were called in to break up fights, people were hospitalised, traffic was jammed, and McDonalds had to shut down some of its outlets to contain the situation. 13 years later, thousands flocked to McDonalds again to snatch the limited edition ‘Singing Bone’ Hello Kitty. The key difference was that this time round, scalpers uploaded the figurines on eBay and Craigslist (Carousell was not mainstream yet) and sold them for upward of hundreds of dollars; a far cry from the original price of $4.60.

Transport: Before Give-Way Glenda and Move-In Martin taught us how to be civil to our fellow commuters, SMRT had the ‘Stop the Stampede’ campaign in 1991, and experimented with Y-shape queue lines in 1992. The Mass Rapid Transport (MRT) only started operations in 1987, so SMRT had to deal with teething issues, such as people jumping queues or rushing to board the buses and trains. Typical of Singaporeans, most suggested fining as a solution when interviewed by The Straits Times. After the 90s, the focus shifted to shortening taxi queues. At the forefront was Changi Airport, which introduced information boards in 2009 to direct taxi drivers to crowded terminals, and a short-lived trial in 2014 which had a separate queue for premium and common taxis. But with the prevalent use of ride-hailing apps, queuing for taxis has become less of an issue today.

National Day Parade tickets: Even though queue related headlines about the NDP tickets stopped by 2003, we included it as an example of Singaporeans’ love of the process of queuing. When people had to physically queue for NDP tickets at the National Stadium in the 90s, the mood was celebratory. People made friends with others in the line, had picnics, and relied on a placard held by a soldier to know how many tickets were left. A bit of that magic was lost when e-balloting rolled in in 2003. Almost half a million people entered the ballot, yet 4,000 of the tickets remained uncollected. The organisers attributed it to people ‘trying their luck’ and rejecting the tickets when they realised that they were allocated preview show tickets rather than the main parade. And then there were the scalpers, who had the gall to sell these free tickets for upwards of $500 a pair.

Our habitual queuing may raise some eyebrows—do Singaporeans really have nothing better to do than to queue all day?

But by examining the things that we have queued for over the years, certain aspirations we share as a nation were revealed. The desire to build a home, to enroll our children in a good school, and to bid farewell to our founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.

And maybe this is the privilege of a sheltered, ‘air-conditioned’ nation, where queues make headline news. Still, it is reassuring to see a queue, and know that this is home, truly.

This story won the third prize at XDS’s data storytelling competition which challenged its participants to produce a data-driven story about love in Singapore.

Methodology

We collated a total of 322 Straits Times headlines which contain the word ‘queu’ (not spelling error) in order to capture the different variations of queue such as queue, queues, queued, queuing and queueing. We excluded articles which were about queuing but do not have queue in their headlines, and articles with queue only in their body text.

The raw data was compiled from two sources:

  1. The Singapore Press Holding (SPH) API by running a general search for ‘queu’ within the Straits Times database. This includes all sections of The Straits Times, such as Lifestyle, Home, and Asia. Unfortunately, the API only included search results from 2014 to 2019.
  2. We then scraped the OneSearch engine for archived articles from The Straits Times with the word ‘queue’ from 1990 to 2014.

Afterwards, we further filtered the headlines by the following conditions:

  1. Headlines must contain the word queue (or its variations).
  2. Headlines must tell the story of people queuing for something.
  3. Headlines are reporting about queuing within Singapore.

This means that we excluded headlines regarding news from overseas, offences (i.e ‘Bank robber arrested after waiting in queue’), and implementations (‘Govt studying more ways to cut queue’). Having said that, we did include headlines of implementations if they were made in response to cope with intense queues (‘Who will get to jump HDB queue?’).

Whenever we needed to read beyond the headlines for context, we accessed the NewspaperSG database from the National Library’s multimedia station to read the full articles.



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Disclaimer: Our stories have been researched and fact-checked to the best of our abilities. Should you spot mistakes, inaccuracies, or have queries about our sources, please drop us an e-mail at hello@kontinentalist.com

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