Self before service

Richard Seah

For want of 10 cents, I once nearly made a mess of myself. It could have been worse. I could have made a mess of the place I was at – the Maxwell Road Food Centre.

I am talking about those public toilets operated by turnstiles. You deposit a coin and the turnstile lets you in.

From the toilet operator's – in this case the National Environment Agency – perspective, this system is fantastic. It gets to collect money automatically, without even having to engage a low wage worker. And the money is no small change. Just five toilet users per minute adds up to $30 per hour, to a couple of hundred dollars per day!

For that sum of money collected, the toilet user or “customer” gets zero “customer service” in return. If you have a very full bladder but don't happen to have 10 cents, that's your problem. What if you are on the verge of diarrhoea? It may no longer be only your problem!

This is no a small issue. For it is a symptom of a much bigger one, where services are provided primarily from the perspective of convenience and profit for the service provider, while the welfare of the customer takes a back seat. This is one of the fundamental reasons why service standards in Singapore are generally poor. There is no service culture.

A case in point. Last year, I wrote a number of letters to the press pointing out that the Fairprice X-tra outlet at AMK Hub consistently failed to implement its “Express Lane” service by serving customers with more than 10 items in their shopping baskets.

After my second letter was published, because the situation did not change for several weeks after Fairprice said it would look into the matter, the communications manager and communications director invited me to tea, purportedly to hear my feedback. But even before we met, they had already decided what to do – change the signage from “Express Lane. Not more than 10 items” to “Serving single basket shoppers only”.

I pointed out that a single basket could hold 50 or even 100 small items. They pointed out that, from the operations viewpoint, it is easier to do it this way than for cashiers to face the unpleasant task of re-directing shoppers who abuse the Express Lane. In fact, with the “single basket” system, there is nothing for cashiers to implement, since those lanes are blocked by railings and trolleys cannot get through anyway.

Oh well. People like me who qualify for the Express Lane are only small customers. Better for Fairprice to lose me than to lose those aunties who queue up at the Express Lane with full baskets. I felt so foolish to think that I mattered.

Also at AMK Hub, the DBS Bank near the basement has ATMs that allow only minimum withdrawals of $200. The first time I discovered this was very late one night. I did not have $200 to withdraw. So I had take the bus home and then walk a few hundred metres to use the ATM “near” my house. When I raised this matter with the bank, the customer service officer pointed out that there are other ATMs in the building. True. But at past midnight that night, most of those other ATMs were no longer accessible, except for one outside the building, quite far away. Walking there and back would have meant that I missed my last bus home.

To DBS' credit, it did not seem to have introduced similar ATMs elsewhere. But whoever thought of that idea in the first place was clearly thinking more about the bank's – rather than its customers' – convenience.

I never knew what banking convenience could mean until last year, when I acquired a Citibank credit card and used a non-DBS/POSB ATM for the first time. Whoa! I encountered a cash deposit machine (in Singapore) that has the flexibility to accept not just $10 notes and higher denominations, but also $5 and $2 notes. Previously, I only saw such machines in Malaysia.

And the first time I withdrew money from a Citibank ATM, I was most pleasantly surprised. The $300 that I withdrew did not come as six pieces of $50 notes (as what DBS/POSB would have given me), but included five pieces of $10 notes, just in case I needed small change. “How very thoughtful,” I thought to myself. For once, I felt cared for. I felt served. And I could not help but wonder why this service had to come from a foreign and not a local bank.

Still on the subject of banks, have you noticed that nowadays, most banks have their counter services on the upper level? While the ground floor is reserved for marketing investment products? Never mind if fewer people use the investment services. They have greater value.

Yes, banks now have ATMs, internet banking and other convenient services that make it largely unnecessary for people like me to use their counter services, except when I wish to cash a cheque. But who are the people who now need to walk up and down that flight of stairs? People like my sister who are uneducated (she does not feel comfortable to use an ATM card) and old!

Many years ago, my sister ran a hawker stall and I once accompanied her to renew her hawker licence. As you know, most government departments have long stopped handling cash. And it so happened that day that the NETS payment system was down. But can any government department exercise flexibility? Sorry. No cash. Wait.

Fortunately, the system was up and running again after about half an hour, so it wasn't too bad. While waiting, I asked the officer what if the system was down for a long time. “Pay by cheque,” he replied matter-of-factly, as if the average hawker carries a cheque book.

Cashless payments remind me of the National Library. Ah! Finally they got the system sorted out and users can now pay their overdue fines using a choice of cards: NETS, Cashcard, Transit Link, etc. But boy did they take a long time. I remember for a good many years, it used to be Cashcard or nothing. I remember once walking a great distance to buy a Cashcard, for $10 or whatever sum, I forgot, just to pay a few cents worth of fines. (I had the option of paying later, but heck, I wanted to get it done with.) And then, as a step improvement, some library branches accepted more types of cards than others. If I am not wrong, it took more than 10 years from the introduction of cashless payment to reach today's standard of convenience and service.

It may seem that I am harping on the distant past. But I bring this up to show how deeply rooted this attitude is. The government's insistence on cashless transactions long ago set the precedence of putting the service provider's convenience ahead of the user's.

Meanwhile, another unhappy trend crept in – the privatisation of public services. And so we now have public transport, healthcare, telecommunications, electricity and more essential services all run by corporations with profits as top priority and public service somewhere further down. This is another topic for another time.

For now, let me end off with another example. If you ride the MRT around the Northern part of Singapore, you will hear announcements advising that if you wish to go to Johor Baru, you should alight at Woodlands Station and take Bus Service 950.

This sounds like a helpful public service announcement. It is not. Because if you do wish to go to Johor Baru, the far better option would be to alight at Kranji Station, which is closer to the customs checkpoint and which has three bus services – SBS 170 and CW1, plus SBS 160 across the road – heading towards Johor Baru. At Kranji, you just walk out of the station and chances are, there are buses waiting for you. In contrast, at Woodlands, you need to walk a long way to the Service 950 bus stop... and wait. If you are unlucky (as I once was), you might meet an extra long queue and need to wait for the second bus to come before you can board.

Why, then, are commuters being given this piece of poor advice? Ahhhhh! It's because Service 950 is run by SMRT, the same company that runs the train that they are riding. So what sounds like a public service announcement, for the benefit of the public, is in fact an advertisement, for the benefit of the transport company. Don't be fooled!

Yeah, you still get served in the end. But only after the service provider has served itself.