Monday, July 10, 2006

Post No. 75: Courtesy, Our Way of Life...?

In light of the recent study by “Readers’ Digest” that ranked Singapore, in terms of courteous behaviour, at the 30th place out of the 35 cities included in the study and the government’s ongoing drive to improve the quality of the local service sector, I would, in this essay, be discussing 2 issues which, from my viewpoint, are highly inter-related. And these 2 issues are namely the state of courteous behaviour here in Singapore and the quality of the local service sector. The reason why I say that these 2 issues are highly inter-related is that, in my opinion, courtesy forms the main basis on which good service is based on. In other words, good service is courteous service and if people are not courteous in their daily behaviour, how are we to expect them to provide courteous service when they work in the service industry?

While I somewhat agree with the criticism that the “Readers’ Digest” study was unscientific and not comprehensive enough in how it determined the supposed level of courteous behaviour in the respective cities and though I would not go to the extent of saying that we Singaporeans are a rude lot of people, I would have to sadly say that, with regards to courteous behaviour, we do have much room for improvement. I mean, just look at how people, at MRT stations, are so “eager” to get onto the trains that they surge and crowd at the trains’ entrances, treating the alighting passengers as though they were invisible. And I suppose that you all are aware of how people refuse to give up their seats to those whom need them more; sometimes some people can even sit without feeling guilty when a pregnant lady or elderly person is standing right in front or beside them. Also, need I tell you all about people who refuse to move to the back of the bus (as though the back of the bus was haunted) when it is quite obvious they are obstructing more passengers from boarding the bus? I mean, we cannot be all that courteous in our behaviour if we need a campaign to remind us to smile and behave courteously towards our special guests whom will be visiting Singapore in September during the upcoming IMF-World Bank Summit (coincidentally, this campaign reminds me of how my Vice-Principal in JC would remind my school mates and I to be on our best behaviour when special guests come visiting)?

As for the quality of local service, though I have not personally experienced any bad service (either I am very lucky or I just do not come into enough contact with the local service staff), I too have heard my share of “horror stories” about bad service. And I am certain that all of you have experienced cases of bad service. Hence, similar to the situation of the state of courteous behaviour here in Singapore, it can be seen that there also remains room for improvement for the local service industry.

Thus, now that we have determined that there is a need to improve the level of courtesy and local service standards, we need to think about how are we to improve them? Can they be improved? In my opinion, for us to answer these 2 questions properly, it is necessary for us to look at the possible causes of the lack of courteous behaviour & good service here in Singapore. To this, I would be focusing my attention on in the next few paragraphs.

From my viewpoint, one main factor contributing to the lack of courteous behaviour here in Singapore, which in turn indirectly contributes to bad service, would be the competitive and pragmatic nature of the Singaporean society. And added to this would be perhaps our society’s high emphasis on economic value, that is for something to have value in our eyes, that something will need to have economic value of some sort. Hence, bearing in mind the local social & economic climate, it may be observed that one reason why we are not all that courteous in our daily behaviour is that we do not have time for it and, in fact, we do not see the need for it. I mean, to a person facing increasing costs of living and rising competition brought about by economic globalisation, of what purpose would being courteous in behaviour serve him? In fact, if we looked more closely, we would be able to recognise that besides wanting our society to be a more gracious one, the current campaign by the government to improve the level of courtesy and service standards also have the other aim of wanting to improve Singapore’s international image in order to attract more tourists. Thus, in a way, it can be said that the current courtesy campaign is in part due to our government’s recognition of the economic value of courtesy & good service.

Another contributing factor to the lack of courtesy & good service here in Singapore is, from my viewpoint, the lack of affirmation & reciprocity towards courtesy and good service. Just think about it. If you are courteous towards others but those that you are courteous towards do not respond positively towards you, wouldn’t you be discouraged, perhaps even to the point when you rather not be courteous anymore? Also, imagine that you all are working in the service industry, wouldn’t demanding and unfriendly customers result in you becoming disheartened and perhaps even becoming somewhat unfriendly? In my opinion, the reason why there is a lack of affirmation towards courteous behaviour & good service is that we have a mentality that they are to be expected, that since it is expected of people to be courteous and to provide good service, there is no need for us to respond positively when we are on the receiving end of courteous behaviour and/or good service. Thus, without positive affirmation or reciprocity, even those who are very courteous will soon perhaps become discouraged and no longer maintain his/her level of courteous behaviour.

In addition, it can be seen that the poor image of jobs in the service industry have also contributed to the low level of service standards. Rightly or wrongly, people have come to perceive jobs in the service industry as being low end jobs and/or as jobs which one cannot develop into a career. Thus, this rather poor image of the service industry results in those working in it perhaps having the mentality that since they are only doing their jobs for a short period of time and not to develop it into a career, they need not put their best into it. This is especially so with those who take up such jobs as part-time work (e.g. students on vacation). Also, it results in people and/or customers not treating those working in the service sector the respect they deserve (i.e. the lack of positive affirmation). Hence, suffering from a rather poor image, it is little wonder that the local service industry is unable to attract committed & capable people who are able to provide good service.

Having looked at the possible causes contributing to the low level of courtesy & service standards here in Singapore, I would now move on to discuss how we may perhaps improve the current situation.

One way that may be employed to improve the situation would be one that the government has been practising for quite some already and that method would be to initiate campaigns. Of course, it is in doubt as to how effective this method would be, considering that Singapore’s Courtesy Campaign has been around for so long and yet the level of courtesy here in Singapore have not really seem much improvement. Yes, I concede that we cannot expect immediate results and that the drive to improve both the level of courtesy and service standards remains an ongoing process but the question is: how long do we have to wait before we can see any concrete results being achieved? And do we have the luxury of time to wait indefinitely for results?

Another suggestion made by people is that we should attempt to include the teaching of the importance of courtesy as part of the local education syllabus. This way, as some would argue, though we cannot change those who are already out of school to become courteous, we would be able to inculcate the value of courtesy in the young so that the next generation would learn to be more courteous. Indeed, this method sounds plausible but, contrary to what Socrates may have said (no offense to him, of course), knowing is different from being or doing. In other words, though one may know what courtesy is and the importance of being courteous, it does not follow logically that one would thus become more courteous in behaviour, it remains possible that one would still be rude despite being taught courtesy in school. Hence, unfortunately, the effectiveness of this method remains doubtable.

Besides the 2 above suggestions, there are also those who realistically suggest that we should introduce monetary incentives to make people, especially those working in the service sector, more courteous and to provide better service. According to those who suggest this, we should go beyond the current 10% service tax and 5% Goods & Services Tax (GST) to reward those who truly provide good service. Indeed, if it is mandatory to pay the 10% service tax, those working in the service industry would not feel the incentive to provide good service since even if they provide bad service, customers still have to pay the 10% service tax. And there is the complaint that the revenue from the service tax does not go into the pockets of the employees but rather to their employers. Thus, it have been suggested that we should attempt to create a “tipping” culture here in Singapore so that service staff who provide good service would be duly rewarded and thus, inspire others to also improve on their service. In fact, there are those who suggest that we should grade businesses in the service industry on their level of service standards, just like how we have been grading the hygiene levels of businesses in the Food & Beverage (F&B) industry.

However, while this suggestion of employing monetary incentives to improve the level of courtesy and service standards here in Singapore does undoubtedly has its own merits, we need to also recognise that it too has its own flaws. Firstly, I do not know about you all but, to me, good service is service which comes from the heart and not that which is motivated by monetary rewards. Just think about it. Is monetary-motivated good service also sincere service? And if it is not sincere service, can it truly be good service in the first place? As for the idea of grading businesses in the local service industry according to their level of service standards, I am afraid that it appears to me to be quite impractical to implement. I mean, how are we to grade something as subjective as service quality? What standards are we to use to determine what is good service and what is not? What good service means to me may not be the same as what it means to you all. Also, with regards to implementing “tipping” in the local scene, a concern, from the perspective of an economist, may be that unless we ask service staff to declare how much in tips did they receive, this additional income may go unaccounted, not be included in their calculation of how much income taxes they have to pay and also not add to the national income of Singapore. We wouldn’t want this to happen, would we?

Furthermore, another method which the government has been implementing is to improve the public image of the service industry. That is, they have been trying to dispel the public perception that jobs in the service industry are low end jobs which cannot be developed into a career. By doing so, it would not only attract more committed & capable people to join the service industry and to inspire those already working in this sector to be more conscientious in their daily work but also make customers more respectful of those working in service jobs, thus creating greater positive affirmation for the latter. Yet, it should be noted that this improvement of the local service industry’s image should not only be a cosmetic PR exercise but should have real substance to it, that is it should improve the career opportunities in the local service industry and to improve its working conditions. Of no use it would be if there is no substance behind a wonderful image.

And, lastly, I personally think that for us to improve the level of courteous behaviour and service standards here in Singapore, it would be imperative to instil in all of us the importance of the Golden Rule of Reciprocity. In other words, we should remind people to put themselves in the shoes of others (and praying that those shoes aren’t high heels). It is not without reason that Confucius said “Do not to others what you do not want others to do to you” (子曰:“己所不欲,勿施于人。”) or for Jesus to preach in his Sermon on the Mount: “Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12). This means that if we all want others to be courteous towards us and thank us for being courteous, we too should do the same for them. It also means that if we want good & friendly service, we should ourselves be friendly & pleasant customers. In short, we should put into practice the “Mirror Effect”. For in the end, it would be no use if we have courteous people but none that are appreciative of courteous behaviour or if we have good service but also rude & unpleasant consumers/customers, wouldn’t it?

In conclusion, I would like to remind you all that, in our efforts to improve the local level of courteous behaviour & service standards, we should not expect immediate result. Such things take time but, nevertheless, I am of the opinion that if we are determined enough to do so, we will be successful in our efforts in the long run (just look at how much our local political, social, economic & physical landscape have changed within one generation). Of course, as I have already mentioned earlier, the question is whether we have the luxury of time to wait for success to show itself? That is a question I am afraid I cannot answer, for only Time can tell us the answer. Nevertheless, we all should remember that the most direct way to increase the level of courteous behaviour here in Singapore is for us ourselves to start becoming more courteous towards those around us.

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