No tipping, keep the service charge

Now and then, there’s a small but undying movement to bring back tipping at restaurants and cafes in Singapore. I hope we will not turn back the clock when every time we eat out, we’ll once again be subjected to this apetite spoiler “to tip or not to tip”, and if to tip, how much.

If tipping comes back, it will be like Chinese New Year all year round. The expectation of receiving hongbao by the wait people, the cleaners and security personnel and even the neighbours’ maids at our condo is something I find a headache to deal with.

OK, for the cleaners and security personnel, it’s a custom that’s already established by my mother and not easy to discard. I deal with that by sticking to what she used to dole out when she was managing her own finances, with a little extra top-up to account for inflation, and a little minus if the person involved is a newcomer and hadn’t done his/her full year stint.

For the various neighbours’ maids, my rule of thumb is to give those who give my mum time of day during the year — and only if we happen to run into them during the first month of the new year.

As for restaurants, I try to avoid them during the CNY, especially those where we are recognised as regulars. Do I give a hongbao to every wait person who drifts by our table to utter “Kong Xi” or just the wait who does the customary spiel as he/she dishes out the yu-sheng? And what about the restaurant captain who welcomes us and shows us our table?

Perhaps I am a meanie but I would like to think it’s because I hate the pressure, even the intimidation, to give recognition to all and sundry!

My mother says “it’s not the size of the hongbao, but whether you give one or not” that counts. I’m afraid she’s no longer in tune with the attitude of today’s service staff. The giver of a $2 hongbao is eyed quite differently from one who dishes out a $20 hongbao.

And it won’t do to give some a bigger hongbao (because they serve directly) and a smaller hongbao to those who merely drift by opportunistically to say hello: because it’s not an incentive for those who get less to rush to serve you the next time you are there; rather it’s more likely to ensure you the cold shoulder from them.

This is a somewhat long preamble to explain why I will say no, no, and never to tipping; what happens at CNY is already bad enough; I don’t want to have the same experience every time I go out to eat.

I don’t want to be mentally awarding points every time I step into a food establishment. What do I give for clean cutlery and crockery and what do I minus for those with stains? Do I time the arrival of the menu and how often I’m hurried to place my order? What if, after the menu has been given, no one returns to take the order and much eye and hand signals have to be given, before there’s any response?

Then there’s the food. If I tip for good service, how do I tip the chef for excellent food? Or if the food sucks — as has been the case on a few occasions recently when we ate a some multiple outlet chians — do we tell the attentive wait staff, sorry no tip for the whole experience because your kitchen cooked up swill?

When I eat out, I want to relax. I don’t want to act as judge and jury while having a meal.

Really, the whole service charge thingie had been introduced years ago when Singapore became more sophisticated and wanted to institutionalise the tip: to prevent the stingy diner from acting mean and to encourage the service people to go the extra mile.

Service charge was and still is such a civilised way of replacing the archaic and often demeaning gesture of tipping to the recipient and the pressure on the customer to signal his pleasure or displeasure with money.

For me, the service charge is the very spoonful of sugar that makes the food and drinks go down, in a more delightful way.

So I don’t know why the Straits Times and its writers including Kimberly Spykerman continue to refry fried rice a la its Feb 16 feature headlined  Tipping towards good service which was immediately followed up by usually delightful food blogger Sparklette with a poll asking these questions:

Would you prefer tipping to paying the 10 percent service charge? Do you think Singaporeans are ready to embrace the tipping culture?

My answer, Sparklette, is a clear and unequivocal “NO”.

Don’t let’s take the regressive step, even if a 100 other countries claiming to be more democratic, free and progressive than Singapore are doing it.

Because if we go back to making tips the norm, how can we be sure that aside from the wait people, the taxi driver, the post man, even the policeman won’t be expecting a tip or two too?

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6 thoughts on “No tipping, keep the service charge

  1. I think restaurants here will be better off with the service charge. The tips they receive will be too little to share amongst the staff. Even when it is mandatory in USA, some of my American friends still do so reluctantly and tip the minimum.

  2. Haha, don’t know whether restaurants would be better or worse off, but where I’ concerned, it is definitely better to keep the service charge. But pse don’t ask for SV and a tip as well, as some of the credit card chits have the cheek to seek!

  3. Totally echo your sentiments. Them who push for tipping don’t realise that the ‘tip’ culture is not the same in the West as it is in the East. As you say, in a Chinese restaurant especially during CNY, more than one serve the table, and in a very money-conscious society, you do get treated worse if you leave a small tip. Mindset different here. If u wanna endorse a tip culture, u gotta change that first, which is virtually not possible to do so overnight and certainly not with a few articles in the ST!

    Speaking of which, when I was in the US, I found (and also heard the same from those who resided there) that tipping less than 15% of the total resulted in the staff unashamedly reminding you that it’s minumum 15%. Whereas in Europe, people are generally more graceful about it – tipping is totally at your discretion, and despite the 10% minumum, you give however much you think they deserve, and it generally doesn’t change the attitude of the wait staff towards you.

    God forbid if a tipping culture does end up evolving that it doesn’t end up like the former!

  4. Hi Areya: Hope CNY is getting better for you, once u’ve acclimatised to its quirks in S’pore? All best!

    As fr tipping, quite agree tt it’s notoriously aggressive — on the demand side — in the big US cities. There’s a letter abt it in the ST Forum today. Fm personal experience, even cab drivers demand one and if it’s less than what they think they deserve, they may actually return the tip with the insult: “here take it, u need it more than me!!!!”

    I’ve forgotten what it’s like in the UK n Europe, since it’s a long while tt I’ve been to either destinations. A more recent experience in Melbourne is worth noting tho: places where there’s no service charge, when one gives a small tip, it’s still highly acceptable. And even when one doesn’t leave a tip, the service fm start to finish remains polished n toothy.

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