First impression you get when you visit Singapore is one of excellence right from the time you land at the Changi airport. There are excellent systems and facilities in place at the airport. On almost all the occasions it is a race against the time to pick up the baggage from the belt. The country has achieved such excellent levels of service delivery quality through their systems.
Staff at the airport are excellent and "friendly" and there is an aura of pleasantness about them. This small country of some 700 odd square kilometers have come a long way for the past several decades. Many attribute such levels of advancement to the culture of discipline instilled upon people by the visionaries such as Lee Kuan Yew. Discipline has been an integral factor in the Singaporean lifestyle. I suppose no other nation in Asia can boast of such disciplined behaviour as a nation that we see in Singapore.
Beyond that facade however is a story which is worth exploring in detail.
If one comes across a situation or makes a conscious effort to test their (Singaporean) responses under different scenarios only one would realize how scripted these people are!
Naturally Singaporeans are not the most friendliest people in the world. A walk down Orchard Road or at a mall and definitely in the MRT you will find people whom you think cannot get those jaw muscles to move in such a way to construct a smile. (Coming from a country where smiling is so natural, I find this difficult to stomach!). The good part about it is that they certainly do mind their own business in public places!
On the road if you ask them for directions etc, some do their best to tell you where things are. However higher percentage simply snap back at you and say 'Nuh'.
Let me explain using few other examples.
In one of the beaches at Senthosa island we wanted to find out as to where are the changing rooms were. There was this man selling ice creams in a permanent sales hut and since he was the only local around we went and asked him where the changing rooms were. He just shook his head and in an arrogant way said 'nuh'. Thinking language might be the problem I started using multiple gestures and pretty vividly explained our requirement. He wasn't bothered about it and after sometime with some angry reaction said "nuh' "nuh' with gestures towards us to the effect go away. When everything was said and done and we were waiting for the 'beach tramp' to pick us at the tramp station we saw the changing rooms. It was right behind the ice cream stall on the other side of the road!!!!!
Say you go to a restaurant and make some queries about the dishes from the Steward serving you. He would be perfectly prepared to answer 6 -7 questions that he has been trained for. However say that you have a genuine problem such as wanting to find out whether a particular dish might be too spicy for a person who finds normal Singapore dishes alright to digest. Trust me you are in for big time trouble. Let me explain.
We went in to this restaurant at the Toa-Payoh hub for dinner with our hosts. Ushering to settle us down was prompt and very good. They said all the 'typical' words you are expected to communicate to your guests at a restaurant. In trying to decide what to order I wanted to find out whether a particular dish would be too spicy for small children(We had two 4+ kids with us). I asked the waiter showing the two kids whether it will be too spicy for them because usually they do not like it when it is spicy. The stewrd responded with a big smile. When I repeated the question again, he simply showed and said the particular item number of the menu item. After reading it again I simply couldn't figure out whether it was spicy, so I asked again by saying I'm from another country and I have not tasted it before, so which is why I wanted to know whether this is spicy. He gave me an embarrassed smile! I asked for his boss who simply snapped back and said 'yeah'. But I must confess, their salads were one of the best I've had.
From visits to public attractions to shopping trips to most places or dining experiences at other fast food restaurants the experience was no different. The country also welcomes some 23 million odd tourists on an annual basis. There're splendid products are targeted at these tourists whilst the country as a whole seems to be geared to service the tourists. Just as the famous Mc Donald's system, they seems to produce service encounters of identical response's. It is a perfect script that they play into.
However beyond the script, it is a different world altogether.
There were signs of the Singaporean govenrment taking certain steps towards addressing this problem. For example there were campaigns on the streets encouraging parents to allow their children to be creative. Probably the government has understood that people need to play beyond the script. May be, just may be, it is a matter of time!