Some Singaporean eateries want, like Ferran Adria, for their customers to go away happy – feeling like they’ve had the meal of a lifetime, a memorable event that they will replay in their mind’s eye over and over again.
Others, well, would rather the customer went away poorer.
Singaporean businesses must collect a 7% goods and services tax (GST) on behalf of the government – this is a fair thing, and one that they must do to remain compliant with the law here. No one should have any problem with this. Some places absorb the GST – that is, the price given on the menu is an all-in cost, and the restaurant owner will pay the GST out of that amount.
Service industries here are allowed to levy a 10% service charge – not everyone does this, but enough do. Again, the service charge should be stated on the menu – where this is done, you will sometimes see it expressed as ++ – plus GST, plus service charge. You’ll hear people mention (and sometimes curse) “the plus plus”. Whether the service charge is just a way to pad out the price, or it is genuinely distributed to the salaried workers in lieu of tips, is another thing entirely. But it is up front.
Then there are the other ways that a restaurant bill gets padded out. Here is one – the moist towelette:
These are supplied without asking, and most places add them to the bill – it is only an extra few cents (20-80 that I have seen) but you are paying for it.
A lot of the chain/franchise places in malls will place a bowl of nuts or pickled vegetables in front of you when you are seated. These are also frequently added to the bill – and again, it will not break the bank at a dollar or two, but it is still something to be aware of.
Live seafood can be a bigger trap – the price quoted will mostly be by 100 grams weight – expect that a reasonable mud crab will be a kilogram or more. If in doubt, please ask for an all-in cost (including the plus-plus) before confirming the order.
Corkage can also be a surprise – some places will allow you to take a bottle of wine with you, but charge SGD30 and more a bottle for supplying a couple of vaguely clean glasses. Check first.
I have to say that not every place is like this – indeed, many restauranteurs and hawker food operators I have met here are incredibly generous people – but there are some more interested in short term gain than building a long term mutually profitable relationship. Exercise caution and you will be fine.