The waiter test

I got an unsolicited response in my Linkedin box today about my Dad from a former creative director of a large multinational agency who once worked with him. He said that he liked my old man because he treated his film crew well. He made the point that my dad trained his crew and ate with them instead just hobnobbing with the clients and creative directors from the agency.

This former creative director’s comments brought me two months back when I met with two of his old crew. Called them “Uncle,” and realized that I wasn’t being polite to older people but stating a fact. My father’s crew had been with him for nearly thirty years. They had seen me grow up and he saw to it that they were there at family events and he was at theirs. The only thing that didn’t make them family was biology. My dad took care of his team and I he took it personally when the government preferred to let a White Australian director of photography leading a Hong Kong based crew into shoot military ads over him because he had a predominantly Malay crew.

I bring up these instances because they are fundamental to the heart of social dynamics, particularly in a place Singapore, which places so much emphasis on things like economic growth and attracting the world’s rich. I’ve argued that we are the Wet Dream of Confucianism – a place where bureaucrats who did well at school, run the show.

In fairness, there is plenty going right with Singapore and as every foreign friend I have says “What are you complaining about?” I agree that much of Singapore does work and the there are parts of Singapore that are really nice and I get that even the not so nice parts of Singapore compare very well – or as an American navy boy I took to Geyland says, “If this is your worst neighbourhood, come to America and I’ll show you a bad neighbourhood.”

However, whilst much may seem right, a place run on elitist principles, has one dangerous flaw, which is the fact that the myth that everything good about society is due to the top. Hence, anyone with a brain cell or two starts sucking up to the top in order to get to the resources there and anyone who isn’t in the race is left to die. At the same time, the top develops a belief that it’s the top because of some divine right.

Let’s remember that we are the place where a daughter of an elected member of parliament took to social media to tell someone talking about job insecurity to “get out of my elite uncaring face.” The father actually tried to defend his daughter by telling people they didn’t want to hear harsh truths and only apologized after a public backlash.

Whilst these things are not criminal per se, they do reflect a rather sad mentality or a confusion between elitism and meritocracy. The elite believes it is the elite based on merit because that’s what it has been conditioned to think. Being “uncaring” is associated with being “elite.”

As a matter of disclosure, I am not from “humble” beginnings. I have never known a day of hunger in my life. I’ve always had shelter. I belong to a very privileged minority and having a PMET job has always been understood. Yet, I have always been weary as seeing myself as being “better” because I can use the letter “BA II” behind my name. Whenever I hear people talk about “Oh but you are a graduate,” or “You know so and so,” I am inclined to question why these things matter.

I’ve grown up understanding that to get to the top, you need to know how to work. Part of it does require ego stroking but I’ve also grown up with the idea that people at the top know that you will inevitably suck up to them because they have the power and money over you and so you have no choice but to be nice to them.

If anything, people at the top of reputable organizations should inevitably be more interested in your character, which is revealed by how you treat people with nothing to offer you and so, at a certain level, the job interview is being taken out to dinner. You get what they call the “waiter test,” because how you treat the waiters says everything about you. One of the most famous quotes on this comes from Mohammed Ali:

The boxing champion wasn’t the only person to work on the principle that people who were rude to waiters couldn’t be trusted. As the following link suggests – CEO’s of big corporations do make judgments as to how you treat the “little people.” [LINK]

Which if I look at the things that have been said to me about my father into perspective. My father remains a very talented photographer and advertising film director. He studied techniques of the great photographers of the day intensely and he did well. He treated his people well (I mean who in the private sector works for a single employer for nearly 30-years) and they worked well for him.

What has struck me is the fact that one of the creative directors mentioned this aspect of my father as a key point for liking him. Given that the ad agency creative directors have a say in who becomes director of photography, it struck me that the people who are giving you work are taking note of your character.

Functional organizations will value character in the people and contractors they work with. They will look out for it and no matter how clever or talented you are, they will test your character and if you fail character test you will not be hired. Dysfunctional organisations on the other hand forget that character counts. They tolerate your talents to suck up to the top rather than your character because that’s all that really matters. If an organization doesn’t test your character, you should ask yourself whether that’s an organization you really want to work for.


Tang Li

*Although I’ve been based mainly in Singapore for nearly two decades, I’ve had the privilege of being able meet people who have crossed borders and cultures. I’ve befriended ministers and ambassadors and worked on projects involving a former head of state. Yet, at the same time, I’ve had the privilege of befriending migrant labourers and former convicts. All of them have a story to tell. All of them add to the fabric of life. I hope to express the stories that inspire us to create life as it should be.




2 Responses to “The waiter test”


    Straits Times: Government to get policy-making ideas from citizens’ panel on improving employment resilience

    “Resilience” is the capacity to withstand or to recover quickly from difficulties.

    “Improving resilience” is easy. It is not rocket science.

    The most important thing is to have a SINGAPOREANS FIRST POLICY for jobs (and also in local education). Foreign workers should be the “filler” and/or “buffer”. If there is not enough locals to fill job vacancies then foreigners can be brought in to fill the shortfall. It there is an economic downturn then foreigners should lose their jobs first and be sent home.

    The second requirement is to eliminate the big advantage foreigners have over locals because they are exempted from paying CPF making them up 17% cheaper to employ than locals.

    The massive influx of foreigner depressed local wages and push up prices screwing Singaporeans big time. This has got to stop. Singapore is a country, not a company. Other countries always give priority to their citizens for job and in education. Singapore should not be different considering Singaporeans are the only real asset of Singapore. They are Singapore.

    PAP’s claim that Singapore needs foreign talent is self-serving bullshit considering it limits to a minority of each cohort than can go to local universities. This is unique to Singapore. Singaporean needs more local graduates even if they are a threat to PAP political dominance.

    Singapore should scrap LKY’s / PAP’s “pick-the winner” policy. It cannot pick the winner. Not a single government scholar made was successful in the private sector. NOL, Chartered Semiconductor, etc. were ran by scholars. All of them failed. They even lost BILLIONS of taxpayers investing overseas. More recently, a scholar lost $400m investing in the FTX scam.

    Singapore has the resources to invest in young Singaporeans. Moreover, it should not be using taxpayers’ money on foreigners to study in Singapore.

    GD Star Rating
  • xoxo:

    Wise words from Muhammed Ali.
    Its when you are no more occupying the top position that you know who are your friends.
    Esteem from others is fleeting and useless.
    Have some self-respect,fellow sgs.
    Do not let outsiders or even other sgs including gahmen put you down.
    We are the REAL STAKE-HOLDERS no matter who the fiack say otherwise.

    GD Star Rating

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