Celine Asril

Writer | Editor | Strategist | Consultant

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Why Singaporeans should all wait on tables once in our lives

Singaporean kids should learn to serve the country, and not just in army greens.

Entitled and sheltered, a lot of them would do well learning to wait.

I'm not talking about exercising patience, I'm talking about waiting tables, and how this is a misrepresented, misunderstood and belittled career path for those living in Singapore.

Why? Because a good portion of Singaporeans are classist snobs who find pleasure in the pseudo power we hold over others in daily servitude, and that character is rubbing off on our kids (we know, we’ve been treated this way).

“Because a good portion of Singaporeans are classist snobs who find pleasure in the pseudo power we hold over others in daily servitude."

I'm of the belief that waiting tables would make men out of boys, and women out of girls. I'd even go as far as betting that we would turn into a society of gentlemen and ladies if we put them through the experience, which must count as a life skill.

Surely, with our crop of demanding diners, the conversion rate will be high.

When it comes to dining out, Singaporeans don't make easy diners. We are a demanding, back-breaking, thankless lot: we expect service to be swift, precise and detailed, and all about us. We demand attention at all times, and the free glass of iced water to arrive immediately. What we don't realise is this: in general, waiters and waitresses that are employed have not been properly trained and probably never will be.

It is a gross generalisation but waiting tables is generally typecast as a thankless, tiresome task seen as unambitious and unsustainable - so why should employers invest in proper training when their staff is largely transitory?

And the feeling is mutual: waitstaff have little to motivate them. The pay is generally low (Sakae Sushi hit bigtime news when they offered to pay dishwashers $3,000 a month), the hours are long, and staff are employed without proper training so they are expected to learn on the job. If they make a mistake however, they get the blame. In some cases, they get fired on the spot.

As the saying goes, “You pay peanuts, you get monkeys”. Well Singapore, we get what we pay for: our service industry will never be up to scratch with such low rates, and owners perpetuating the job’s degraded status with poor work conditions. Ours is a society that employs 7 per cent (129,300) of its working population to be in the food service industry.

This despite diners who take it for granted that restaurants should be open throughout weekends and public holidays and throw up our hands and feet when a restaurant is not open (tip: make an online reservation). It’s ironic and hypocritical that the service industry's labour force is so ill-rewarded, ill-equipped, fleeting and scrutinised.

Tiong Bahru cleaner uncle

And what about their (lack of) medical benefits?

It’s not that we are not aware of the back-breaking duties and ailments that come from standing on the feet for eight hours (if you’re lucky) straight - it's that we don't wish to acknowledge it; it's easier to ignore the wire-bent 70-year-old grandmother who cleans up our mess from our tables at the hawker centre, and claims she wants to work rather than stay at home. How much is she paid? Likely $30 for an eight-hour day, and that is not enough.

And really, why would any of us want to work minimum wage (which does not exist in Singapore) to be ignored, bossed around and slighted by our peers? There aren't even tips to look forward to counting. We'd instead like to skip to living (what seems to be increasingly) the Singaporean Dream – owning a restaurant so we can continue to hire the young and old at low wages to perpetuate this cycle again.

No wonder we have to hire foreign labour to help us fill those spots. Instead of being grateful that our neighbours look to us for a brighter future, we blame them for taking the jobs we despise, and then gripe about them griping about us.

Kindness begets kindness, Singapore. Don't diss the waitstaff until you've worked a day in their shoes.

So here's what I propose: consider making all youths between the age of 15 to 19 wait on tables - let the National Service (NS) boys do their duty in this sector; and girls do their form of NS or meet their co-curricular requirements (baby steps...) in this manner. We'd all learn to have a little more respect for others, have a little more patience and practice some humility.

Besides, with 126,800 girls in this age bracket, we can solve at least this sector's labour woes.