Thursday, October 28, 2010

Why Singapore courtesy trumps Indonesia's 'santun'

by Mario Rustan THE JAKARTA POST

Todayonline 05:55 AM Oct 28, 2010

Some years ago, an old British headmaster, frustrated at the behaviour of local students, said to me that "Indonesian does not have a word for 'courtesy'."

I would translate courtesy as "santun", a borrowed Javanese word implying its culture's most admirable behaviour - speaking and acting politely. Courtesy, however, covers other aspects not covered by the concept of "santun" - respect and consideration.

Indonesians love to think of themselves as a nation of polite and friendly people. We have helpful people who offer service with a smile. We speak politely and address all strangers as "sir", "madam", and "big brother/sister". Schoolchildren are told that tourists love Indonesia because of its friendliness and politeness.

Early this month, I travelled to Singapore, an unsmiling nation. Singaporeans grunt, yell and speak fast in incomprehensible English.

If you look Chinese (as yours truly does), the shop attendant might address you in Chinese and would become unhappy when you didn't understand or try to reply in English.

And yet, Singapore is a global hub for international conferences, a favourite destination for holidaymakers from around the world - including Indonesia - and a financial powerhouse. So why does grunt triumph over smile?

I experienced culture shock when asking my hotel's information desk and then a convenience store clerk where the nearest MRT station was. If you don't know and you ask, they treat you like a fool (if the former) or imply that you are wasting their time (if the latter).

Later in the day, the Singaporean treatment was particularly hard for some of my acquaintances from Java. Someone was yelled at when asking, "What's this?" when ordering food.

The waitress grabbed our empty plates as we were speaking. When we were still figuring out how the MRT tickets worked, impatient people behind us began practically pushing us over.

Singaporeans are intense people. They live hard, work hard, party hard. Poor people - like us Indonesians - have time to greet each other, give directions to strangers, take our time to enjoy one another's company.

Or do we? When I was walking to the check-in desk at Soekarno-Hatta International Airport, I noticed that they had employed several "customer service" staff.

The first one who greeted me asked me about my flight. After he answered a question I had put to him about my gate number, he asked where I lived and what my job was. Finally he asked me to come closer to him, while his female partner laughed behind his back.

There were dozens of other uniformed officers who spent the hour crowding a closed check-in desk, chatting and laughing out loud.

I had lunch in a cafe, where after taking my order, the waiters stood near the tables and exchanged raunchy jokes and rude banter, enough to make several potential customers leave.

It has become a familiar scene in several shops - waiters and clerks making rude jokes in audible voices in front of customers.


A few months ago, a writer in this newspaper compared the treatment she received in Soekarno-Hatta and Changi airports in reference to requesting a wheelchair.

The Singapore staff bluntly snapped at her. The Jakarta staff declined her request with a smile, a half-bow and an excuse.

In the next few days, I learned the game and learned to compete with Singaporeans. Eye contact can get you what you want, or psyche out your competitor to give away his hand.

Fast feet and hands can give you an edge in getting empty tables or seats. But the best part of playing in Singapore is you can play fairly, at least compared to in Indonesia. You may jostle, but everyone queues.

People and things arrive on time, and when somebody has to give you a negative reply, they don't give a lame excuse. They just say "no" and that is the end of the discussion.

A Singaporean who wanted to meet me informed me well in advance. We made sure that we knew when and where we were supposed to meet, and when she knew she was going to arrive late, she notified me - a rarity in Indonesia.

In terms of politeness, Singaporeans need to improve. In terms of consideration for other people, they have plenty to learn. But in terms of respecting others, they do.

Perhaps for most people, the waiter did not respect the patron by taking away the empty plates early. But what is important is that they had delivered the correct food in a timely manner.

Lately I've become frustrated by upstart restaurants in Bandung that take forever to deliver my order and that have waiters who idle away their time and do not follow up on my complaints appropriately - and never say sorry.


Singaporeans are practical people and love to point out that they are stressed out by their high-speed lives. But take another look, and you might see that the suffocating slow life of Jakarta is worse.

Worse, while in Singapore you can be assured that things work, it's a different story here. I tried to make some Singaporeans smile using practical, friendly and quick introductions, and it worked. On the other hand, it's harder to make strangers in Jakarta smile, because many are concerned about their personal security.

A humorist in Jakarta wrote in his blog that he was worried about the new service policy applied by a popular restaurant chain.

The waiters, he said, greeted customers enthusiastically, made comments about them, praised their choices, and then asked if they were comfortable enough. And then in the middle of dining, the waiters would come and ask the customer if they liked the food. And so on.

The problem was the words that they used were unnatural, their enthusiasm and smiles forced, and like my experience at the Jakarta airport, they didn't respect their customers' personal space.

Along with other requests, such as for them to have more babies, the Singaporean Government wants its people to be more courteous. After all, they are too tired, burned out and too stressed to be able to smile, to make small talk with strangers and to be more expressive.

But since they respect each other's space, they act responsibly on the streets and they don't make poor excuses; in terms of courtesy, they are superior to Indonesians.

The writer is a graduate of La Trobe University, Australia. He is currently writing a novel on city life. This column first appeared in The Jakarta Post.

[This article is meant to tell Indonesians they need to improve. So I would take his praise of Singaporeans with a pinch of salt. And I don't think those are examples of courtesy. Just efficiency. And to some extent, courtesy has some inefficiency. And good service sometimes means adopting a culture that is foreign or unnatural. But once the spirit is inculcated, it will express itself more naturally.]

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