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Malaysia's Standard of Service in Restaurants: Good or Bad?

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Sitting in any nice restaurant in KL, you might forget for a moment that you’re not in a western city, so masterfully has the look and feel been duplicated. As Editor Chad Merchant has unhappily discovered, however, that similarity ends when it comes to service.

As an expat, I’m routinely asked by locals, “How do you find Malaysia?” If nothing else, Malaysians are keen to know how their country is viewed by foreigners, as I suppose many of us would be if we were to meet a foreigner living in our own home city. And the answer for me is pretty standard – and very truthful. With only two exceptions, I find Malaysia a very easy and enjoyable place to live as a foreigner. Of course, that sets up the next question, and sometimes I try to get them to guess what the two things are here that I really don’t care for.

The heat, the government, and the traffic in KL are typical guesses. None of these are correct, although the last one is at least getting close. It’s not just the traffic I dislike, it’s driving here in general. Getting from point A to point B can regularly be counted on to be a chore, owing to the confounding network of roads, the sheer volume of cars and motorbikes, and the rather vexing driving habits of Malaysians, I’m sorry to say. So that’s one point, and it’s far and away the most frustrating.

The second is a bit more vaguely defined, but it is at times equally exasperating: the near-total lack of customer service standards here. I think perhaps the Malaysian mindset is simply not oriented to service. I don’t know that it ever will be. One of my local friends perhaps said it best, intoning with a sense of defeat, “Malaysia is where good service comes to die.” At the time, we were indulging in a rather expensive meal at a hotel property whose brand is internationally renowned for its sterling calibre of service, yet it was sadly lacking in its refinement and delivery here in the Malaysian incarnation. Service was perfunctory and minimal, delivered by rote rather than arising from any real desire to provide gracious and impeccable service, and it was a noticeable difference.

It’s long been a bit of a curiosity to me why I’m compelled to pay a 10% service charge in restaurants, yet receive virtually no service to go along with it. Being American, I come from a place where tipping 15-20% for good service is the cultural norm, so of course, I have no problem at all ponying up 10%, though I expect it to pay for actual service. Of course, more often than not, I still have to act like I’m in a mamak, flagging down servers, asking for anything and everything I want, and generally being ignored the entire time. Occasionally I’ll eat at a nice restaurant and receive something quite close to Western standards of service, with a server checking in to see how the steak is cooked, or to ask if we’d like anything, or to silently clear the empty plates. But this is very much the exception here, not the rule. Another thing I find particularly galling is that, in many cases, that 10% doesn’t go to the service staff at all. I’ve asked a number of workers, and it seems that at many places, it just goes to the establishment’s bottom line. So it’s really not even a service charge at all, is it?

Of course, there are certainly pleasant surprises from time to time… and though I’m hard-pressed to think of any specific anecdotes in recent memory, I’m sure there must be some. Too often, though, the customer in Malaysia is just not that important. I remember once dropping into a shop near my neighbourhood, and it was surprisingly unattended. Assuming the lone clerk had stepped out only briefly, I had a seat and waited. Almost 10 minutes later – and who knows how long he had been gone before I arrived – he reappeared, offering no apology, no acknowledgment of his absence, no concession that anything was out of the ordinary. It simply didn’t register that he had a paying customer sitting and waiting while he had abandoned the shop and that’s exactly the kind of non-service mentality that’s common here. Not rude, just oblivious.

I recently met another expat here from Thailand, though he and his wife had also lived in the United States and Australia before spending some time in Bangkok, then coming to KL. So I posed the question to him, asking how he liked Malaysia. And the very first thing he said was that people here were not at all service-minded. That there was simply no sense of taking care of the customer. He felt it was one of the biggest shortcomings in Malaysia’s goal to truly become a world-class country.

Eleven years ago, Prime Minister Badawi said much the same, naming prevention, maintenance, and service as the three issues that Malaysians were badly deficient in addressing and implementing, all part of his infamous speech characterising the nation as having a first-class infrastructure, but a third-world mentality. For my part, I can generally get past the relative lack of high service standards here, as I don’t expect everything to be a carbon copy of my home country. But if that’s going to be the case, then please… at least get rid of the service charge!

Source: The Expat Magazine February 2014

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