14 June 2012


The lack of common sense in Singapore constantly amazes me. I have been here more than a year and I am still surprised when something so simple becomes either so difficult or so confusing that no one knows how to proceed.

People here will walk right into me because they don’t understand spatial awareness or the concept of personal space (or, heck, even the concept of watching where they are walking). Everyone wants to be the first person to get somewhere – on a bus, off the bus, on the train, off the train, on an escalator but not off an escalator (they usually stop right where the escalator ends and cause a major traffic jam, not realizing that the thing they just stepped off just keeps going).

There is a difference between lack of common sense and pure ignorance, though I am finding that in my neighborhood, there is a very fine line between them.

Case Number 1: The Change Issue
If a cashier states that a charge equates to $21.40 and Paul hands the cashier a $50 note, followed by a dollar coin and two 20 cent coins, he is sometimes met with a confused look like the cashier does not know how to handle the situation. Paul sees the wheels turning, wondering if the cashier is thinking something like, “Why do I have $51.40? This crazy man should have just handed me the $50 bill. What am I supposed to do with this extra $1.40?” So he waits a few seconds, and watches as the cashier hands him back the extra $1.40, then proceeds to make change. Occasionally he does come across someone who will provide the even change he desires, though he is not sure if the cashier really understands the concept.

Case Number 2: You Can’t Always Get What You Want

Singapore is hot. The temperatures are as high as the humidity levels and sometimes all a person wants is a cool drink. I happen to like coffee. Sometimes, if I don’t have my coffee, I have a less than a 5 percent chance of being friendly, engaged in a conversation or awake around 3 p.m. On days like these, I need some coffee.

On a few occasions, like many days this week, hot coffee is not an option. Monday I met a friend for coffee. She was sitting outside and, though the area was covered and shaded, it was still a hot day in Singapore, so I decided to order my caffeine on the rocks. I had already reviewed the menu and found the “hot beverages” section; no chilled beverages were listed but I decided to a rebel.

“May I have an iced chai with soy milk please?” I kindly ask the Singaporean man behind the old-school pharmacy-height counter that required me to stand on my tip toes in order to hand over my money.

He looked at me and repeated, “Iced chai?”

“Yes, iced.”

“We only offer hot chai.”

Having heard this before, I want to roll my eyes, implore the ballet gods and do a proper en pointe, grab the guy by his tie and pull him over the counter to my eye level. I would then educate him on how the whole iced beverage system works. I am sure I can pull some Alton Brown lingo about the cooling properties of frozen water because I have seen enough Good Eats episodes.

The first time I received this response, I walked out of the café. This time I simply looked at the man and asked, “Well then, may I have a glass of ice?”

Case Number 3: Restaurant Wars

Sometimes Singaporeans are so focused on one thing that they are not able to multitask in the least. If they get busy, they get overloaded and, for some reason, cannot see the light at the tunnel’s end. Last month Paul and I decided to experience an evening in Holland Village. We thought that it would be a relaxing night but I was not the slightest bit relaxed.

When we arrived at our planned destination, we were greeted by a seemingly-overworked, young Singaporean woman, who ignored us at first and then, frantically approached us as a crowd was gathering.

Seeing another woman trying to jump ahead of me, I successfully made eye contact first and held up two fingers. The woman, wide-eyed, looked around, looked back at me and simply said, “We are full.”


“How long for two?” I asked, with a bit of “Duh…think ahead here” attitude.

She looked around, thoughtlessly offered a guess and then walked off. So Paul and I decided to take a walk as well.

Case Number 4: Supply and Demand
When I am able to find a good product at the store, I know that I need to grab more than one because I likely will not be able to find the item for months ahead. In Singapore, store managers lack common sense when stocking items. I have never been to a single grocery store in Singapore when I did not notice an “Out of Stock” sticker displayed. Has no one here heard of inventory? Supply and demand? There are computer systems that will do all the work people used to do by hand, so invest, people!

Side rant: Singaporeans also stock the shelves during store hours – at all hours. Just as I have never gone without seeing an “Out of Stock” sticker, I have never been to a store when an employee is blocking my path and my reach because apparently I arrived at Stock Party time. Who in their right mind makes employees stock shelves during store hours – especially high-volume hours? Take an hour before the store opens and an hour after the store closes to break everyone into teams and stock away without interruption. Wait until the really slow times if you don’t want to hire an early or late stocking team. And, please, stop cleaning the floors during high-volume hours as well. It is not helpful to walk on slick floors or try to maneuver a cart in the already-way-too-narrow aisles without having to deal with a man on a zamboni.

O.K., back to the topic at hand – supply and demand. Restaurants and snack shops run out of products all the time. I have been to several casual restaurants to read the menu, select an item and then hear, “So sorry ma’am, don’t have.”

“But it’s on the menu.”

“Sorry, don’t have.”

Many times menus will have items printed on the menu that someone has manually crossed out, either with Xs or with permanent marker to block out what is written.

Paul and I usually stop at Auntie Anne’s pretzel shop before the evening church service so that our bellies do not growl during the pastor’s address. On a couple occasions, I ordered the pretzel sticks.

“We’re out,” replies the guy behind the counter.

Wait for it….Nope. Nothing.

“Can you make some more?” I ask.

“It will take five minutes.”

“O.K.” And then I advise that I will either wait or come back. If it only takes five minutes, why does your brain not flick on and alert you to make more product when the supply runs low so that you will not inconvenience your customers by making them wait for new product? Hello…does anyone know how to operate a business here?

Of course, the answer is yes, some people are quite capable of operating businesses, which is why Singapore has such a great economy. There are just so many times when I wonder why the brains are programmed to simply follow directions and do what people are told and nothing else. Are they trained that way from birth? Maybe. Maybe no one ever tells kids to be creative, think for themselves and think outside the norm.

Once I have my pretzel (or the sticks for which I patiently waited), my brain is once again baffled by the lack of common sense. I am handed a buttery pretzel and pushed aside while the cashier makes a move to hear the next customer’s order. “Excuse me,” I interject. “May I have a napkin?”

Sadly, this common sense thing is contagious. I learned today that even white people can catch the dumb bug.

Final Case: The Curious Case of the Careless Mom
This morning I walked into my neighborhood Starbucks to do some work. When I walked in the door, I was greeted by a barefoot toddler in a little dress and curly hair. She was standing next to a coffee bean display at the end of the counter a meter or two from the door, holding a bag in her hand while 30 or so more were strewn around her feet.

This girl was standing in a lake of coffee bags and unkempt cardboard display boxes and no one in the entire café was doing anything to resolve the situation. The two Starbucks staffers continued to take and make orders. The café residents were all at their tables minding their own business. I looked around for someone resembling this child, yet no one came to the rescue. How long had this stuff been all over the floor, and why did this girl’s parent not stop her? HELLOO!!! Anyone want to claim this mess…I mean child?

If your kid wants to mess up your house, that’s your deal. When your kid starts tearing up a public place, especially at 9:30 a.m. at a Starbucks where the foot traffic is constant, step in and take control of your child!

I took my place at the end of the line, with only one man ahead. For about five seconds I debated what I should do. Should I ignore the problem like everyone else? Should I pick up the items because no one else will?

I decided to bend down and approach the girl, eye to eye. I began picking up the coffee bags, one by one, and arranging them on the shelves according to their flavors. I picked up the cardboard boxes, admittedly not completely fixing them, and placed them on the shelves as well. I was baffled that the girl’s mother did not approach the scene immediately and help me clean up the mess that her child created. Instead, I heard three Aussie women behind me softly chuckling and making cracks about how this woman was cleaning up the mess that belonged to one of them. “She is probably going to turn around and see us all just sitting here…” blah blah blah. I rolled my eyes and just kept going.

When I was nearly finished, I looked at the girl who had been practically frozen and staring at me the entire time and I softly advised that this was not acceptable and she was not to do that again. I continued to place the last of the bags on the shelf and, when I finished, I smiled at her, told her we were done and offered her a high five though she did not accept. I didn’t hear any comments from the women behind me. I stood up, waited my turn and ordered my drink.

I walked passed the mom and her friends, who ended up leaving the café around the time my drink was ready. We made eye contact a couple times but no one offered a wave or an inviting gesture. No one said “hello” or even “thank you.” They all just giggled and went on their way. You’re welcome, ladies!

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