As a young man, my dad was a hawker, and his specialty was char-kuey teow, the ubiquitous dish that was a hawker stable. He built a reputation for his generosity and impeccable customer service. Often, he would ask customers if the portion was sufficient, and since most of his customers were tradespeople and labourers, the answer was frequently a ‘no’. Without fail, he would then offer a second helping at no charge, and a third one if you ask him nicely. In short, I think he founded the concept of eat-all-you-can, long before we have all these buffets in hotels and restaurants.
Needless to say, his reputation grew, and attracted many customers who took advantage of his generosity and honesty. The problem is that since he’s charging a mere 10 sen (back in the 60s) for multiple plates of kuey teows, his business soon floundered. He didn’t have the heart to say no to people, and as many of these customers became his friends, he didn’t want to tell them to stick to one plate. In less than a year in business, he had to close shop, and move on to other trades.
The only good thing that came out of that was my mom, who was working in the stall next door, and was so impressed with his good looks, honesty and generosity that she married him and till today laments daily of his honesty and therefore destining both of them to a life of poverty.
When I travel, I make it a point to buy my dad, who’s a smoker, his carton of cigarettes. That never lasted long, as he shares with everyone he meets – never expecting anyone to return the favour (and no one did).
Such is my dad’s intense honesty, that he has never supported the idea of any of my siblings going into business. He rightly equates business with dishonesty and charlatanism.
Growing up, we were subjected to frequent lessons in honesty and integrity. The smallest of lies (even if told in good intention) will attract severe punishments.
Having grown up and run several businesses, I now see the value in those lessons. Over the years, I have encountered numerous business associates, employees and employers, who will take advantage of the slightest opportunity to cheat, steal and lie – all in the name of progress and prosperity. Many of these ended in legal suits, which was a drain in everyone’s energy and emotions.
Take our local businesses as examples. When fuel prices went up, everybody raised their prices. The coffee shop owner increased the price of that cup of tea by 20 cents, because the sugar supplier wanted 10 cents more, who in turned had to pay his transporter 5 cents more, because the lorries now costs 3 cents more to run due to higher fuel. In reality, it was profiteering, with the rising costs serving as excuses of convenience.
That would have been perfectly acceptable, as after all, people go into businesses to make money. However, customer service has also suffered. That same coffee shop owner is now employing less workers, paying them (all foreigners) less, and requiring them to work longer hours. The reason? None – just need to make more money. The results? Service suffers.
Even that would have been perfectly acceptable, but the same coffee shop owner is now finding that he’s losing customers, and those who do come are now buying less. So, he now laments that it’s the government’s fault, GST and all, that he’s running out of business.
I am far from being as honest as my dad is, but the lessons that he (and my mom) drilled into us from young remain very valuable guiding principles. Increasingly, trying to be as honest as I can means I am attracting business acquitances who believe in the same principles. Integrity does pay, believe it or not.
I may never be rich and famous, but I sleep soundly at night, every night, free from worries and guilt, as have my dad and mom all these years.