I recall more than three years ago hoarding a war chest of Duke-issued T-shirts. I was a freshman then, and Gildan cotton garments were a mainstay of my wardrobe. I also remember having to commit to the exercise of queuing, and being educated by my American peers on the right expression.
“You mean line, don’t you?” my friend offered when I whined about the serpentine train of people on a diabolically stuffy and moist summer evening.
“Line,” as opposed to “queue,” suggests a deliberative discipline. There is the deliberative dimension when somebody lines up his or her shoes. Line also connotes staunch linearity. It is the default rule governing our societal interactions. Quite often, the allocation of scarce resources clings to the axiom of lines: “First come, first served.”
This prevalent practice of forming lines offers cues on things that animate our social life.
For the 20-minute interval between classes, students scurry from lecture hall to tutorial classrooms. The espresso machines on campus emit a hissing overdrive as people queue for a rejuvenating shot of caffeine. With a recognizably strained whirl, e-print machines spit out reams of readings and assignments. When a student proceeds to print out a science textbook during this peak period, the seething impatience that accumulates behind him or her is almost palpable.
An alternate set-up would have students who have minimal printing needs hop ahead of the queue. With two students contending for the printer, the student who has to print a thousand pages does not need to hold up the student with a single-paged reading response in the printer queue. The latter would only nibble away a morsel of the former’s time.
This musing begs a larger question on utility maximization. A time-centric queue does not always seem to be the best means of maximizing benefits or minimizing costs, considering the panicky tapping of feet and exasperated sighs from our e-print queues.
A queue can be defied when people who have pressing needs will benefit the most from the scarce product or service. A family whose flight is on the verge of taking off can wriggle by the line of travellers who are awaiting airport security clearance. There is also the intuitive thought that organ queues should make allowances for people in dire straits. The person who has waited the longest does not necessarily benefit from the transplant the most.
Yet, there are instances when queues are a barometer for the level of need. Days before units of ultra-luxury condominiums in Singapore are about to go on sale, one can spy construction workers and maids camping at the sales office. These are paid queuers. People who value a swanky address the most are willing to offer cash to migrant workers who are willing to wait. The force of money to allocate resources is inescapable. However, there are easier means of attaining allocative efficiency—an economic outcome distributing goods to people that most desire, and are able to pay for, such goods. Consider an auction.
From an economic angle, queues are not always bankrupt of usefulness. They can be signalling devices. Cheap and good food abounds in Singapore’s hawker centres. These are sheltered sites that bring together street food vendors. My mother is a gastronome. Her keen eyes will scan the hawker centre for the food stall sporting the longest queue. Then, she will proceed to lengthen the queue. The quantity of people waiting in front of a stall bespeaks the quality of the hawker’s cuisine.
There is also something intensely democratic about queues. We loathe queue jumpers. We also find it chafing when airport security rolls out the royal red carpet and opens a new lane for gold medallion/elite plus/diamond class passengers. The willingness and ability to pay to avoid waiting does not mitigate the searing unfairness. The queue is almost sacrosanct; each human body has its place in this rigid, egalitarian-esque template. Like the concept of one-vote-per-eligible-citizen, some things are sullied by free market exchanges.
Democratic norms nourish a communal spirit that helps individuals define themselves vis-à-vis others. There is the value of equality amidst an unsettling and uneven socioeconomic terrain. There is the feeling of being part of a larger entity—a town, a school, a country, a world—where one’s opinion counts.
Next semester in K-ville the fervid queue in a frigid winter begins. As clumps of students wait, chat and mingle in lines, the queue becomes a concentrated collective experience. It is less about allocative efficiency than the ties that it will bind.
Jing Song Ng is a Trinity senior. His column runs every other Tuesday. You can follow Jing on Twitter @jingapore.