Dear Singaporeans: A Helpful Guide to Complaining

Lily Tomlin once said, "man invented language to satisfy his deep need to complain." This is a quote I have always loved, and that I often pull out at dinner parties to sound cultured despite the fact that I have no inkling as to who Lily Tomlin is. 

In my mind, Lily Tomlin actually meant 'South Africans' when she said 'man,' for anyone who has ever met a South African will know that their favourite pastime is complaining. It's like a national sport in which everyone happily participates. South Africans will complain to their family, to their friends, to their colleagues, to the busboy at the restaurant, to the woman cleaning the public bathroom, to the stranger who has the misfortune of sitting next to them in the plane, the list is endless.

Anyone who has ever met a Singaporean might say the same. Singaporeans complain quite a fair amount themselves - to their family, to their friends, to their colleagues, to the uncles driving taxis (and vice versa), and especially to random strangers on Stomp (a "citizen-journalism website" that's essentially a gossip site).

In terms of quantity of complaints, Singaporeans may come quite close to Southern Africans. However, when it comes to quality, or rather intensity of complaints, Singaporeans have a thing or two to learn from us. I say this because in Singapore, the complaints are often intended exclusively for their own circles. If an Auntie in a hawker centre or even a server in a café messes up their order somewhat, more often than not, the customer will accept the food they did not want, and then sit down at the table saying, "alamak, this auntie gave me the wrong order!" 

In South Africa, this would never fly. If you mess up a consumer's order, snap at them, take too long to bring the food, or any other such offence, you're in for it. This is because anger is contagious in South Africa, and even enjoyable to some. If a customer is upset, she tells the employee, then she calls the manager. If she is severely unimpressed, she may even email the owner.

Once she leaves, she is on the phone to her best friend, her sister, her mum, telling them how poorly she was treated. She goes into work and complains to her colleagues. She goes out for dinner and complains to her friends. She posts it on Twitter and lambasts anyone who takes the side of the restaurant. All of these people will boycott the establishment, but they will also stop their friends and family from going because no one wants to go to a restaurant that they've heard bad things about. 

For this reason, consumer-driven markets are wet-their-pants scared of angry customers. The complain-chain in South Africa is so big and strong that even I (in Singapore) have heard about a debacle in Cape Town in which a popular establishment turned out to be racist and treated a black family poorly. The outrage was so great that the story made national radio, and by virtue of my blackness I refuse to ever visit that establishment, even though the likelihood of me visiting Cape Town at all in the next five years is already slim to none. But if I did go, I wouldn't go to that place! *waves fist in the air*

Slow burn #Jozi #spotthegprocket #thisissouthafrica

A photo posted by Gareth Pon : South African (@garethpon) on

In fact, I have a mental list of all the establishments that I never have and never will go to simply because my aunt's friend's daughter found a piece of plastic in her burger, or my father's colleague's wife was addressed rudely by the wait-staff. It's a matter of principle. And that, my friends is how a restaurant can go out of business - they pissed off the wrong customer on that one unfortunate day. 

I sometimes feel bad for South African employees, having seen the look of fear and hesitation when I asked them to come over. I'm always overly polite to the people serving me, having been a waitress myself and discovering that some customers are the devil. However, I am quite the firecracker if something is severely wrong, because I am my mother's daughter and I don't stand for nonsense. Even so, I'm still nothing compared to my mother and aunts, who have most likely had several wounded (emotionally, of course) employees want to spit in their food.

Nonetheless, I'm very proud of the way we complain because it means that even though South Africa has a cut-throat hospitality and food industry, I very rarely have bad service or food. Even a place that is mediocre will likely only last a year or so before it is shut down and replaced, because you have to impress to stay afloat. There is no room for 'meh.'

Now imagine my firecracker self coming to Singapore. Because Singaporeans don't often complain to the employee, manager or establishment, there has developed an imbalance of power. The general rule seems to be that you 'get on with it.' Because of this power imbalance, even on the off chance that someone does complain, it is met with at best a hurried apology and at worst the "Wall of 'Cannot'," (which I shall elaborate upon in a future post).  

In light of this tragedy, I have decided to prepare a handy-dandy guide to Singaporeans on how to complain with flair:


Send a firm (but polite) email to the manager stating exactly what happened and when it happened. Be sure to hint at getting reimbursed or compensated (unless it was really bad, then you should demand it). Or, you could play reverse psychology and not say anything. Then, when they offer compensation, you act politely surprised, and then graciously accept. This is risky though, because you could end up with nothing. This version should only be attempted by expert complainers.

2.Take it to Facebook.

Post a blunt (but not rude) statement about the establishment and make sure the privacy is set to 'public.' Be sure to tag their Facebook page so they know how disgruntled you are. Try not to add too many embellishments, they could land you in a messy situation. If you can, get your friend to comment, "I can't believe this! Not sure if I'll go there again :/" It doesn't matter if she's never been, it's just to add spice.

If the establishment didn't do anything to offend you per se, simply post "Quite underwhelmed by the food/service at XYZ," and tag them all the same. Everyone needs a wake-up call now and then. 

3. Phone A Friend

Get a friend to go eat/shop there and nonchalantly say to the server, "My friend came here last week and was very disappointed by the service. Let's hope that today you guys don't disappoint again." It's very passive aggressive, in true South African style. 

If these three things don't get them feeling nervous, I don't know what will. The important thing is that the more vocal you are in general with how you really felt, the more incentive restaurants, cafés and bars have to stay on their feet. Don't be afraid to be blunt! But don't follow the South Africans by over-complaining and/or being rude about it. No one likes a jerk. 

Moreover, the best approach is the carrot and the stick. This means that once they have apologised or remedied the situation, you make sure to thank them and let them know that you will definitely recommend it to all of your friends now. 

For a stellar example of how to politely and frankly complain, check out my review about The Alibi!

Happy Complaining!


Pepper & Söl