To Complain or not to Complain. That’s the Question.

Most issues are not black and white. There are at least two sides to each story. So on the topic of Singaporeans and their fondness for complaining, we are covering both sides. First, Erik Ingvoldstad makes the argument that the complaints are a good thing, whilst Hoong Wei Ling has a different view. Please note that no punches were thrown during this discussion.

Erik Ingvoldstad:
I don’t think I’m going to surprise anyone or offend anyone by saying that Singaporeans are well known for their propensity to complain about pretty much everything. Weather, public transport, cost of living, customer service, taxi uncles, restaurant service and pretty much everything else is something people in Singapore love to complain about. It is a central trait in the Singaporean culture, and something that many are embarrassed about on behalf of the island nation. This hilarious clip from the TV show The Noose shows how the complaining culture works.

But is complaining so bad? Is it driven by “kiasu” attitude? Is it rude and inconsiderate? Will it be the demise of the Singaporean success story? Maybe not. Let me offer an alternative interpretation. The culture of complaints is one of my favourite traits in the Singaporean culture. It is something the nation should be proud of, and export to other countries. The ability to say “not good enough” is the ultimate representation of consumer power. Why should we be happy with “average”? Why should we keep our mouths shut if service is bad? Why should we as  consumers put up with complacency from companies and governmental organisations? We shouldn’t. We should voice our complaints clearly and firmly.

Of course, there is no need to get angry or rude, but by recognising a problem and letting the store or establishment know, we are doing others a favour. In fact, we are doing the company a favour. Maybe the last complaint is what it takes for the restaurant to improve their service? Maybe the store will change their unjust policies? Maybe the customer service team will understand that the people of Singapore are not going to stand for being taken for granted? In fact, complaining is one of the biggest contribution we as individuals can give to the society at large. Or as Bill Gates put it: “Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.”

Now, of course, there are things that are over the top, and unnecessary to complain about. But within reason, I say “go forth and complain!” Speak your mind, let brands, store and companies know if they’re not doing a great job. Your fellow citizens will thank you!

Hoong Wei Ling:
I have a different opinion on the act of ‘complaining’. I am against it. In that sense, I am not a typical Singaporean. I feel many Singaporeans have a self-entitlement mindset and they are quick to shoot from their hips, without truly understanding the bigger picture.

I don’t like to complain in general because it feels like I’m merely airing my grievances, and projecting my anger and frustration on a service staff, and honestly, I know I am not helping with the situation. I don’t like to pile on more stress to the already stressful situation.

More often than not, the issue at hand needs to be fixed at an operational level (eg more training), organisational level (eg more staff needed, better managers, better leaders) or even at a policy level (eg set minimum wages, change the lowly view of wait staff). It is not something that a ground staff can rectify easily.

Most service staff are not privy to a lot of things that management may or may not be looking into behind the scenes. And there are a lot of reasons why things don’t work, not up to scratch, etc.

I also know that ground staff do not have the mental and emotional capacity or even the leadership quality to process complaints properly on a DAILY basis. To most of them, this is a JOB that pays the bills, it is not a CAREER, much less a CALLING. Hence, the amount of energy they put in, or having the right service attitude is not always there. As much as this is a basic expectation from consumers.

The ability to distill the essence of what went wrong, not to be defensive, and knowing how to do service recovery (which is what will redeem the situation most of the time) is a lot to ask for from a regular service staff. And do you think they would remember to raise the thousands of customers’ complaints during their weekly WIP? No.

In the end, after being on the receiving end of thousands of complaints, service staff get jaded over time, are disillusioned and they leave the industry. Without mentorship, support or proper guidance to help them learn how to cope with the tremendous stress, our “innocent” complaints are just perpetuating the cycle of service breakdown, staff shortage, bad service, etc and the problem is never resolved.

Whenever an issue arise, I would try my very best to process it carefully and try to simmer down before I open my mouth to talk. And it is important to speak to the right party who knows how to process feedback. I believe there is a difference between a complaint and giving constructive feedback:

Complaint: Hey, you know this is not right that you did this…


Constructive feedback: (with a genuine smile) Hi, this has occurred or happened. Can you help me to understand why? Because it has made me very upset, and while I know it was of course not intended by the business, I am still upset and I would like to understand better and share my views on how service can be better.

As a Singaporean, I would not encourage my fellow countrymen to complain more. They have done enough ‘damage’ locally and continue to behave terribly when traveling overseas.
I am, however, very passionate about service quality and I believe the service industry needs to undergo a service design transformation. Let’s focus on that instead. As people and as a nation!

That’s what Erik and Wei Ling had to say. What do you think? Add your comments below.

Erik Ingvoldstad is the Managing Director of Acoustic.
Follow Erik on Twitter @ingvoldSTAR,


Hoong Wei Ling is a Senior Account Manager @AcousticAgency. You can find her @desertflood on Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest.

Follow Acoustic at @AcousticAgency

Don’t miss out on insights, ideas and opinions from Acoustic, sign up for our newsletter here.

[Main photo by MCI/Tan Pei Wen, under CC]