Singapore Service – a Slippery Slope?

November 10th, 2006   •   2 comments   

HK Street
Are we losing out to Hong Kong?

The recent news about Singapore’s service standards further slipping to 26th position according to the World Economic Forum proved particularly sobering for me. What is especially ironic is that it comes just after we have practically pulled out all the stops to improve our customer service. Everybody would have heard of the national GEMS movement, as well as the ubiquitous four million smiles campaign, timed to coincide with the recent IMF-World Bank meetings.

Certainly, I don’t think that we have failed for lack of trying. We have an entire smorgasbord of service enhancing main courses on our national platter – Singapore Service Class, Excellent Service Award, Tourism Host Award, Model Workers of the Year etc. In fact, we now have a stunning 13,000 Excellent Service Award winners from nine industries, compared to a measley 377 from three sectors 11 years ago.
We also have an entire slew of training programmes covering practically anything and everything about service. Telephone etiquette, complaint resolution, handling of feedback, scripts, SOPs. You name it, we got it. We have also sent so many people overseas for study missions on service quality (including yours truly) that we can no longer plead ignorance.

Our government is probably one of the most proactive in the world in identifying that customer orientation is a key competitive tool in the global battle for tourists, talents, trade and transactions. And the government is not alone in this push. Trade associations, retailers, hoteliers, attraction operators, travel agents, airlines, transport operators, and everybody else seems to be up in arms against bad service. Yet poor service still lingers on.

Of course, we should occasionally take such ratings with a pinch of salt. An over obsession with the numbers game may make us miss the forest for the trees, and lead to analysis paralysis. Still, it is quite a wake up call to note that Hong Kong, the age-old nemesis of Singapore in the service stakes, has now catapulted to a spectacular number four!

Are there solutions to our downward spiral? I have some initial thoughts and suggestions on this.

Perhaps we need a crisis to catapult us from third world to first world service? This was what happened in Hong Kong, which found itself in the economic doldrums in the late 1990s after the Asian financial crisis. There was a concerted national effort then. It was do or die. Singapore was also hit in October 1997, although certainly not quite as bad as our neighbours. Sometimes, our high comfort levels may be the exact thing which leads to complacence.

Education is another key. Not training of adults, who are already ingrained with bad habits. But maybe something for pre and primary schoolers. Make it part of the curriculum, a fundamental discipline which is part of living in Singapore. This should not only apply to students, but also to parents. Make them attend a compulsory service quality programme.

This leads to the next point, which is culture. We need a serious shift in social mores which should start from the home. The strong reliance on maids have made us adopt a condescending attitude towards service personnel. From young, our parents have taught that if you don’t study hard, you may end up as a rubbish collector/ cleaner/ waiter etc – all of whom are respectable service professions. Something must happen in the home. This is where charity – and customer orientation – begins.

Finally, and this is a bold step, maybe we should just do less. Let us concentrate on the few critical factors that will make a difference, and do it one at a time. Let us dispense with the numerous awards, accolades, and accreditations. Let us study deeply the human psyche – maybe even in a scientific manner – and weed out the root causes. Sometimes, a blunderbuss approach may dilute the efficacy of any measure. You can be a jack of all trades but master of none.

Can we the citizens of Singapore make a distinct difference without yet another campaign to remind us to do so? What would be the tipping point for service quality in Singapore?

I think it is time for us to take this upon ourselves rather than point the fingers everywhere. Like charity, service quality should start from home.



  1. posted on Nov 13, 2006 at 4:21 PM

    Thanks Walter for linking me to this thought-provoking article.

    I just heard that GST will be going up from 5% to 7%, probably next year. I don’t mind paying 7% for goods. But to pay 7% for service, especially poor or non-existent service? That’s like rubbing salt into the wound.

  2. posted on Nov 14, 2006 at 12:05 PM

    Thanks Victor. I think GST is more a government taxation as opposed to service provision, which for tourism related industries are covered under CESS. I believe the basic levels of service needs to be enhanced more so than the superstars. So perhaps it would be good to start looking at that first.

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