The Honor Code of Singapore
Updated: Mar 14
Singapore has two cruise ship terminals. The old one is connected to a shopping mall, is in a more centralized location, has better wifi, and is more widely known. The new one is collossal, somewhat off the beaten path, and more difficult for cab drivers to find. This voyage, we were docked at the new terminal.
I hailed a cab to go to the Marina Bay Sands shopping mall -- the high-end retail epicenter located at the base of Singapore's iconic landmark hotel. I knew I could get a decent coffee there, and walk to other stores to complete my errands.
Four minutes of standing alone in the taxi queue, and a little SMRT cab drove up.
"Hello!" I greeted him as he rolled the window down. "Is a credit card ok?"
"Yes," he nodded stiffly, and unlocked the passenger door.
Unlike in the U.S., where you sit in the backseat unless there are too many passengers to fit, on the west side of the Pacific, you sit up front with your driver. Unlike in the U.S., where it is perfectly acceptable to sit in silence for the duration of your drive, it is polite and expected that you and your driver engage in conversation. Oh, and Americans: you don't tip. It isn't expected because they earn livable wages, so it's almost insulting.
"Where are you going?" he asked.
"To Marina Bay Mall."
"Ah. Shopping," he muttered as he punched the destination into his meter. And we were off.
"Where you from?" he began as we meandered at 50 kilometers an hour down the winding road.
"The U.S.," I answered.
"Ahh, the U.S.," he continued, as we entered a traffic circle. "Much nicer people there, in U.S., nicer to cab drivers."
We continued around the circle as he decided which exit his GPS was telling him to take.
"I had Aussie fare a few weeks ago," he recalled after we entered the exit ramp. "Aussie man claimed he knew way 'round Singapo', filed a complaint about me that I took him on long route, charged higher fare," he gestured passionately as he recounted the injustice. "I never! In Singapo' we take honor seriously. I could lose my job! And my boss? Hurt his reputation!"
We entered a construction zone. My driver went to turn right at the prompting of his GPS, and saw the road had been closed.
"Ooooh..." he sighed. "Don't worry, I can find a way out!" he exclaimed as he switched off the meter.
"It not you fault there's construction," he explained. "I can figure out how to get there but not totally sure of best way. But you no pay extra!"
"Alright...thank you," I replied.
"Aussie man, he not just complain, he say horrible insults about me!" he resumed his story. "To say bad things about integrity, it hurt my family also. And I apologize and apologize..."
"What did your boss do, then?"
"He investigate, because what Aussie man say I did, that is illegal! He returned to him all his money, it came out of my pay. But he suspect Aussie man was lying, a foreigner bullying for money. So there is nothing on my record."
"That's good. There are trashy people from every country. I'm surprised you said he was Australian and not American!"
"I could've lost my job! It could go on my permanent record! And then what would my family do?" he wailed.
"I'm sorry you had to go through that. Don't let that man spoil your opinion of Aussies, they're usually quite lovely!"
We pulled up in the taxi queue of the Marina Bay mall, and I grabbed my credit card.
"I guess that'll be twelve Sing dolla's," he said.
"Here you are," I offered my plastic.
"Oh! Oh no, oh no..." His smile vanished in an instant and he cradled his face in his hands. "No cash?"
"No sir, that's why I asked if a credit card was ok, before I got in the car."
"Oh nooooo....I turned off the meter and now I cannot take card payments!"
"I'm so sorry -- my ship just docked this morning, we haven't been here in a while, so I need to get some Sing dollars."
"Is ok, is ok," he breathed heavily. "Just go. Free ride, my mistake, free ride."
"There's an ATM right there," I gestured towards the kiosk just inside the mall. "Wait here a minute, I'll be right back. I was going to get cash anyway!"
"No -- no! I cannot. I cannot! Free ride, just go. Free ride."
"But you can watch me all the way from here to the ATM -- I assure you, I'm coming right back."
"No -- no!" he was shaking his head furiously, holding up his hands.
I sat in silence for a moment.
"OK, well thank you sir. I hope you have a good day," I said as I gingerly let myself out.
He averted eye contact in shame, cheeks flushed, and sped away as I shut the door. I can only hope he didn't suffer any further repercussions with his boss for having inadvertently given another free ride.
And me? Well, I felt like yet another foreigner shmuck for the rest of the day, even though the incident wasn't any fault of my own. After my errands, my next cab driver got a little lost looking for the new terminal with my ship, but we arrived and I paid my fare without complaint.