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Let's fine uncivil shoppers.

AS the Prime Minister himself said in his National Day Rally speech: "In India people say namaste or vanekum, in Australia, they say 'G'day mate'. But in Singapore, if you are lucky, they ask, 'What you want?'"

Something has gone quite wrong here. Singapore, thanks to Singapore Airlines has become an icon of good service to the rest of the world.

Perhaps it's a cultural thing. We've come to expect good hawkers to be grumpy and taxi drivers not to know where we want to go. That's sad.

It seems as if we only put on a good front for foreigners and revert to our nasty brutish selves when they go home.

Or perhaps good service only comes about with economic necessity. Our airlines and hotels provide world-class service. Most of their business depends on tourists who demand good service.

Besides, these are industries where there is very little difference in the physical product. Say what you like, but one hotel room looks pretty much like any other. At the end of the day, it is service that makes the real difference between the six-star and a five-star hotel.

On the other hand, there's no need for a hawker to pamper you. Don't like his char kway teow? Then don't eat it. A good hawker has ten other people waiting and willing to endure his grumpiness if you won't.

Good service for a hawker means serving you good food at affordable prices — nothing more and nothing less. Unlike the hotel business, there is a noticeable difference in the end product.

To be fair to customer service professionals, Singaporeans are horrible customers. For every horror story about bad customer service, there are an equally horrific number of stories about bad customers.

A representative of a fashion department store once noted that people returned perfectly good clothes with their scent on them, after wearing the clothes for a week for free (they had a one-week warranty). It's hard to smile at people like that!

What can be done? For a start, more competition is needed within industries. This should bring the products on par with each other. Once this happens, service will become a defining factor.

Look at the Yellow Pages. When it was the primary source of information, the directories could be placed at collection points and people would collect them. Thanks to competition from online search engines, Yellow Pages is providing services such as doorstep delivery of some of its directories.

This also occurs in the business-to-business sector. Goldbell Engineering — the distributor of Mitsubishi Fuso trucks — recently established a lounge for truck drivers to shower and watch TV while they wait for their trucks to be serviced.

These drivers are not the final customers for Goldbell Engineering. But by setting up the lounge, the company added value to stakeholders and indirectly, its customers. Once the basic products and services become similar in an industry, companies will invent ways to add value through better service.

As for creating good customers, perhaps a course on being a good customer should be added into our civics and moral education.

The lesson of "do unto others what you want done to you", should be drilled into our young. It's easier for customer service personnel to react pleasantly when faced with pleasant people.

Service orientation is part of being a gracious society. Recently, the national movement to develop a culture of service excellence — Go the Extra Mile for Service (Gems) — was launched.

Perhaps, it is also time for the Government to look into the cost of being ungracious and pass it on to the ungracious. Just as the Government has looked into the cost of social ills such as smoking and littering and passed on the costs to consumers by way of higher taxes and fines, perhaps the same could be done for ungracious behaviour.

Since courtesy campaigns have obviously not been as effective as we would like, perhaps we should contemplate fines and taxes to make people more polite and pleasant to each other.

Tang Li - The writer is a freelance writer.

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