Sunday, May 16, 2010

Red Shirts Invade Singapore!

An army of red shirts have occupied the MRT stations. They don’t appear to be from Thailand, they seem very local. I noticed them when I rode the MRT the other day. Their job is to herd people into the trains, admonishing them to squeeze in. I’ve heard that they have such people herders in Japan, and they forcibly shove people into the trains, though I can’t say for sure. But it hasn’t come to that in Singapore – yet.

In the last year or so, as the country has been gearing up for the opening of the two casinos, I mean, integrated resorts, it seems every Chinese soap opera has had a story line about the evils of gambling. The family of the gambling addict ends up as wiped out as if a nuclear bomb had been dropped on their formerly happy home, only the message on these shows is not quite as subtle as an actual nuclear explosion.

How to connect the preceding two paragraphs? You may think that when you tap your fare card on the turnstile you are buying a ride on the train, but in fact you are merely gambling on the chance of getting on the next train. At certain times you may watch two trains go by without any hope of getting on. Once you do get on, your chances of getting a seat are pretty slim.

I’d love to be able to get rid of my car, which is nothing more than a huge tax bill on four wheels. But every time I get on the train I long to be back in the thick of Singapore traffic. And you know how I hate Singapore traffic.

It’s easy to complain. I’d rather propose a solution. My last proposal for the MRT – playing musical chairs at every station so everyone has a fair chance of getting a seat – was not well received. In any case, it hasn’t been implemented. So I don’t expect much with this proposal either: Fire the red shirts, get some dogs to herd the people into the trains, and use the money saved to run more trains.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Doing Business Slowly

As we were twenty minutes early for Cherisse’s violin lesson this morning we decided to stop at the bank and make a small deposit. Cherisse makes her big annual deposit right after Chinese New Year, when she collects more money than I ever saw until I was in my early twenties. But the tooth fairy has been making a few visits lately, so I figured a trip to the bank might be a good experience for her.

This bank had three separate queues: one for their priority customers, one for corporate accounts, and one for us regular slobs. There are ropes for crowd control, and the posts from which these ropes are suspended have small signs advising us to be patient, and the first one predicts we will be served in 15 minutes, while the next one estimates 10 minutes. There is no sign before the 15 minutes marker, meaning you could spend a few hours there. There are no clocks visible to remind you of how your life is passing you by as you wait for slow customers to be served by slow tellers.

We got into the queue just after the 10 minute mark. Several other non-priority and non-corporate customers arrived afterwards, extending the queue to what would have been the 25-30 minute mark. There was one lone teller assigned to serve us all, except for the two special lanes. In the priority lane was an Indian woman who remained there the entire time we were in the bank. Judging from the complexity of her transaction, I believe she was a member of the Mittal family and was financing the purchase of a new steel mill.

In fact, I get the impression that Singapore is a nation of billionaires, because nearly everyone took a long time to do their business. It seems this is always my experience whenever I go to the bank. I’m the only one who can get my business done in under three minutes. Maybe I need to increase my fees.

Periodically an employee from the back room would come out to one of the three tellers and do something before returning to the back room. She would walk with military precision, with her head straight, straining to avoid all eye contact with customers. Were she to meet a customer’s glare there might be some tacit recognition of the need to sit herself down at one of the several empty stations and start serving customers. I wonder what goes on in that back room? I imagine a bunch of employees are watching us customers on closed circuit TV, laughing at our pained expressions.

Our estimated 10-15 minute wait approached 20 minutes before we were served. Cherisse asked me what the bank’s initials stood for. I replied: Doing Business Slowly. (I have a policy of never identifying businesses I write about if the experience is less than flattering!)

Why not move our business to another bank? Like the People-Only-Standing-By-while-the-queue-stretches-out-the-door-and-down-the-street bank? I’ve thought about it, but they all seem pretty much the same. Singaporeans are used to waiting in queues, so why should any business waste money to serve their customers faster?

So our little adventure was instructive after all. Cherisse learned that banks only care about money, not people. And I learned that taking her to the bank once a year is maddening enough, but any more than that is insane. We’ll just hold on to all future gifts from the tooth fairy until after Chinese New Year 2011.