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What is wrong with service in Singapore?

By Daven Wu
9 July 2012 6:41 PMUpdated 02 Jul 2014

What is wrong with service in Singapore?

They’re badly trained. They’re rude. They make silly mistakes. They’re never around when you need them. What’s with the attitude? Where’s the manager? Such terrible service!

The quality of service in Singapore’s food and beverage establishments has long been a national bugbear. Frankly, there are two reasons why service is invariably so wanting — the pay is crap, and (please, no hate mail) the average Singaporean diner is an ill-mannered boor.

The first: it is beyond me why anyone would seriously consider being a waiter when the average wage is about $6 to $10 an hour. Depending on his experience, the average full-time waiter takes home about $1,100, and if he’s been doing it for a long time, $2,000. To add insult to injury, the service charges on the bill rarely goes to the waiters.

‘The restaurant takes it,’ a waitress once told me. ‘So we depend on tips and if we’re lucky, we might make $18 a night in tips. And if most of the customers are Chinese, forget it — the Chinese never tip. And they always drink water. Tap water, some more!’

"Someone told me I was stupid to my face once. I went to the kitchen and cried."

Not to sound like Marie Antoinette, but $1,100 a month doesn’t get you very far in Singapore these days. It’s no wonder waiting tables not a viable long-term occupation for most. That also explains why so many waitstaff these days are non-Singaporeans.

Which takes me to my second point: I once waited on tables at a local restaurant — it was part of my research for a story I was writing. Halfway through my first night, I swore I would never be rude to a waiter again in my life.

As if the work isn’t already backbreaking enough, the customers can be evil. At the severe risk of over-generalisation, the Singaporeans I served were rude and patronising. The nicest bunch I encountered were the expats. Almost without exception, the Americans, British and Australian tables I served would look me in the eye and engage in animated conversations. They made requests with smiles and reciprocated with, ‘Thank you!’

Almost without exception, the locals treated me like a maid (or how I imagined they would treat their maids). My greetings, as I handed out menus and served Coca-Colas, would either be ignored or acknowledged with a sullen expression. They never engaged in eye contact and snapped their orders. I felt barely human, with no reason to exist other than to refill their glasses of water and ferry them the bill.

"And if most of the customers are Chinese,
forget it - the Chinese never tip."

Of course, there were bright spots. At the end of a particularly brutal lunch service during which I’d been hobbled by blisters in my feet, a Singaporean customer came up to me and slipped me a business card for a podiatrist. ‘I notice you’re limping a little. Go see my friend. She’s excellent.’

It made my day, though not enough for me to want to stay on much longer than my undercover assignment. As one waitress confided, ‘That’s why no one wants to be a waiter. It’s such a stressful job. The customers are very fussy and demanding. Quite often, they use vulgar words or are so insulting. Someone told me I was stupid to my face once. I went to the kitchen and cried.’

So who’s to blame? The restaurant industry? An ungracious society that should know better?

Restaurateur Cynthia Chua of the Spa Esprit Group (Barracks, Skinny Pizza, Open Door Policy) says the food and beverage business is a difficult one. 'It's hard to hold onto staff and keep them motivated as it's so easy for them to get jaded and discouraged. The customers can be difficult, the hours long, the compensation is poor, it’s physically taxing and they simply don’t receive recognition for what they do. In Singapore, waitering has traditionally been considered a low skill or a fallback, hence the lack of talent.’

With all of this going against them, why would anyone want to be a waiter? To earn the top tier of $2,500 a month, or to be treated with disdain and disregard by the customers? Well, they do it because, sometimes, this is the only job that’s available and they have families to support. But that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve a little respect.  

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A carefully reformed ex-lawyer, Daven Wu has spent the past decade or so atoning for his former sins by professionally eating out a lot. His chronicled experiences for Appetite Asia, Epicure and Wallpaper* magazines make him no stranger to the vagaries of Singapore’s service industry. These days, he divides his time between London and Singapore, and is prone to waking up in the middle of the night muttering, ‘Laksa!’

 

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