When your staff turnover is between 60 and 80 per cent a year, you are obviously doing something wrong - or are you? The food and beverage industry here is scratching its head and wondering what it can do to retain its staff. Some in the sector have been suggesting to the authorities that it is the customers who need educating; they should be taught to be polite and treat staff with respect.
Singapore is always quick to push its service industries. The only problem is that the actual service (notably in retailing and catering) is far from perfect. The other day, I was looking round the handbag department at Takashimaya, one of the biggest retailers in town, and sought help from a nearby assistant. She looked at me blankly, gave me a curt 'don't know, lah', and pointed me towards a customer service desk on the other side of the store, immediately returning to her conversation with a colleague.
This is not untypical, but things can be even worse in the restaurant business, where staff wear long faces and are often oblivious to the finer points of service etiquette. The local manager of one chain with more than 10 restaurants in town recently confirmed that the industry is well aware of its employees' shortcomings, and has been discussing with the government what can be done. 'The problem is that no one treats it like a real job,' he said. 'Singaporeans don't want to work the long hours and they don't want to work at weekends. Then they complain if you're not open all hours of the day.
'Customers don't treat our staff properly, they are rude. This makes it even harder to retain members of staff who are already not very motivated. Waiters see this job as an in-between, and they're often out of the door before we've completed their training.'
One solution, of course, would be to motivate staff by encouraging tipping. In America, where waiters know their pay depends on performance, your glass of water is already on the table before you have sat down. But some people fear that tipping will never enter the Singaporean mindset. And, let's face it, in many countries, tipping is now expected irrespective of the quality of service.
I fear that another courtesy campaign might be on its way. But telling people, yet again, to be nice to each other is one thing, getting them to act on it is another. Singaporeans have tunnel vision, ignoring anyone around them.
For so many years, children have been taught from an early age that they must be better than the rest. Therefore, the thought of serving others has become an alien concept. After all, isn't that what people from neighbouring developing countries are for?