Saturday, September 25, 2004

Servitude in Singapore 

mr brown’s column in yesterday’s edition of Today, titled “Don’t study, you'll end up in service industry”, reflects on the fact that service workers in Singapore tend to get a rough deal from customers (see also mr brown's blog on the article).

I think we Singaporeans get the customer service we deserve. We complain about the salesgirl who did not smile at us and pulled a long face when we entered the store. We mess up the display bin and then complain why everything is so hard to find.

We sit along the aisles of a bookstore and complain when we are told not to sit there because it is a fire-safety violation...

Working in the service industry is considered a lowly job; and serving people and doing sales are akin to being a lowly servant and losing face.
Perhaps he generalises somewhat — it is, after all, a humour column — but I agree with the general thrust.

Relatively new to affluence, many Singaporeans are still more familiar with old authoritarian norms when servants serve with bowed heads. Others have been imbued with the notion that the customer is king, and should behave like one.

Singaporeans’ treatment of service workers can also be seen as part of the more general trait of kiasuism, or the fear of losing out. Put in an advantageous position over the customer service or sales personnel, kiasu Singaporeans try to fully exploit it by being demanding.

In fact, the poor treatment of service workers can be seen as a form of abuse of power, which also manifests itself in other aspects of life in Singapore, for example, worker exploitation and maid abuse.

Kiasuism, in my opinion, is a common human trait, and will probably never be eradicated among Singaporeans. However, behavioural norms with respect to service and authority can — and probably will — evolve.

I expect that in time, as Singapore becomes more dependent on the service industry for jobs, that evolution will lead to a society that gives more respect to service workers and that realises that the customer is not so much a king but a person who needs help and who happens to have the money to pay for it.


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