Soon after I arrived in Singapore last October, the Straits Times ran a series on customer service in Singapore. The paper’s assessment was pretty grim. It seemed the caliber of customer service in Singapore was awfully low.

This didn’t ring true to me. Or at least it wasn’t a reflection of my own experience. At that time, I had just finished a one-month stay in the Conrad Hotel, and I’m not sure I’ve ever been served so attentively and cheerfully in my life.

Whenever I would mention this to my Singaporean friends, they would shrug it off as a function of my skin color. “That’s because you’re caucasian.”

This may be true to a certain extent, but I attribute it more to the fact that I hadn’t made any special customer service requests to date. As a customer, I had so far managed to operate entirely within the accepted bounds of my role.

Yesterday, however, I tried to return a shirt I purchased last week, and I got a taste of what the Straits Times was talking about.

While ironing this shirt, I had inadvertantly melted some of the (apparently synthetic) stitching. The thing is, I had looked at the care label first, which I’ll admit is entirely uncharacteristic of me, but I really liked the shirt. The tag said the shirt was 100% cotton, and it had a little picture of an iron on it. I took this to mean that ironing it was ok, and I proceeded to set the iron’s temperature setting to ‘cotton’.

Then I smelled burning plastic. Stitching, ruined.

Now, it’s worth noting that when I took the shirt back to the shop, I wasn’t looking to get my money back, or even store credit. Again, I really liked the shirt. I just wanted a fresh, unburnt one.

The first girl I talked to at the cashier stand scrunched up her face and made a hmm sound. She consulted with her colleague, who pretty much did the same thing. They called another colleague over, and the three of them examined the burnt stitching, then the care label, then the stitching again.

“It looks like nylon.” One of them said to me.

“Yeah.” I said.

“You can’t iron nylon,” he said.

“I know. But I didn’t know it was nylon. The label says 100% cotton, and see that little picture of the iron?”

“This picture says 50 degrees. Did you have your iron set hotter than 50 degrees?”

“That 50 degrees is for the water temperature,” the first girl chimed in.

Nods. “Hmm.” Long pause.

“I’ll have to go confer with my manager. Would you like to have a look around?”

“Ok,” I said. I wandered over to the rack where I’d found the shirt the previous week. There was one left in my size. I picked it up and examined the stitching on the back, where I’d burnt the other one. It looked like cotton thread. I brought it over to the girl, who had seemed close to crossing over to my side of the negotiation. “Look at this thread,” I said, “it looks like cotton. How would I know I shouldn’t iron it, especially since the label says ‘100% Cotton’?”

She nodded. “Maybe this one has different thread.”

I wasn’t sure whether this observation was for or against my case.

The other guy returned after a while with the burnt shirt. “We’ll have to keep this for a few days.”

“But I’m flying back to the US tomorrow.”

“Hmm.” Long pause “But you should not have had the iron so hot.”

“I just put it on the cotton setting. The label says 100% cotton, and see (showing him the new shirt) this looks like cotton thread.”

“But it must be nylon or something.”

“I know that now, but how could I have known that before?”

“You must have had the iron very hot.”

“I just had it on the cotton setting.”

We went back and forth on this two or three more times, before he finally said, “I’ll do it.”

“You’ll exchange it?”

“Yes.”

“Oh! Thank you so much!” Not sarcasm, but relief, like a drink of water after a desert crossing.

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