Service charge? For good or for bad?

by chaotarroo

While having lunch at a kopitiam yesterday, I witnessed a young mother slapping the hand of her son because he attempted to throw scraps of unwanted food on the floor. And it occurred to me that the same mother might not do the same if they were in a restaurant. My speculation may sound counter-intiutive considering it’s only natural for parents to better discipline their kids in more posh and supposedly, civilized setting. However, speaking from experience, that’s not the case. I have seen parents let their kids throw food scraps on the floor, shred and waste pieces after pieces of serviettes and leave it floating around the dining area, allow kids to play with and again, throw their plastic cutlery on the floor even after my poor colleague have replaced it with a fresh one 3 times in a short duration of 5 minutes. And these parents let their kids do all that I’ve mentioned without remorse or embarrassment. More strikingly, it’s not just a handful of rotten apples that’s tarnishing the names of average, responsible parents. I would, with reservations, estimate that about 30% of parents is guilty of letting their kids go into “auto-pilot” mode while dining with us. However, whenever I have my meals at the neighbourhood kopitiam, kids become more angelic, or rather, parents become more proactive in making them behave.

The cause of this bizarre phenomena? 10% service charge and 7% GST.

Funny things happen when you attach a price tag to social goodwill. Few years ago, Freaknomics ran a social experiment on fining parents who picked up their kids late at the child care center. The results? When a fine was introduced, the situation with tardy parents got worse both in terms of frequency and duration. In fact, tardiness level went up by more than two times than before the fine was imposed! Without the fine, being late would mean having to apologise for inconveniencing the teacher on duty. However, with the fine, it’s a different ballpark altogether; be glad that I am paying your salary to take care of my kids.

The perception of goodwill becomes skewed when you mix it with a monetary incentive. Not dirtying the floor at a kopitiam is an act of grace to lessen the workload of the poor janitor. But to do the same at a restaurant? Who gives a shit, on top of the food that’s already costly, I am also paying cold hard cash for their service and they better do whatever it takes to earn it.

What I just said in italics may seem like a hyperbole but I believe it’s a propensity that deeply rooted in many Singaporeans when dining in restaurants, consciously or not.

It’s time we rethink if 10% service charge is for the better or worse in times when Singapore is struggling to fend off its rivals in the service industry. Having given one’s bearing to people who “abuses” the system, it does not inspire service personnel to provide good service but unyielding servility. And there’s a world of difference between serving with passion and stiff obligation.