People buy what they value

“I don’t have money leh. After 15th?”
“Ok.”

2 freaking dollars. They don’t have 2 freaking dollars.

Side note: The “leh” is an affectation of Singaporean English speech. It’s appended to most sentences as a sort of finishing element. By itself, it doesn’t mean anything.

Collecting money can be tough

I was tasked to collect mess fees from non-specialists in my unit. I was a lance corporal in the military. I was 20 years old.

In case you’re not familiar with military terms (I know I’m not…), the “mess” refers to the place where soldiers eat. Specialists refer to sergeants and above, until you hit officer ranks. For the purpose of this article, non-specialists are recruits (just joined), privates, lance corporals and corporals (ranked in that order).

I can’t remember why mess fees were needed, but I was to collect them from non-specialists (in my unit only). The specialists have their own specialists mess. The whole military compound had a food hall, which was free. Then there’s the non-specialists mess (which we hardly visit, but maybe other units frequent). Then there’s the specialists mess. And then there’s the 1 stall just outside my unit (the men in my unit preferred this than trekking all the way to the non-specialists mess).

Anyway, I was sort of favoured by the S4. I type bloody fast and he gave me paper documents which I was to transform into digital Word documents and save into a floppy disk. (Haha! Floppy disks! It was 1997.)

Yes, some of those documents were sensitive. No, I can’t remember anything. Torturing me will be a waste of your time. Have I mentioned it was 1997?

As a reference point, the S4 was the officer in charge of logistics and was one of the highest ranking officers in the compound. He had his own personal clerk. When his clerk left (the clerk finished his mandatory period of service), his duties were somehow passed on to me. One of those duties was to collect mess fees.

Coincidentally, I was the treasurer when I was in the Chinese Orchestra in secondary school. My advice? Do not be directly responsible for other people’s money if you can help it. I couldn’t sleep when I found the money I had on hand was different from what the record books said. I was about 15 years old. Good grief…

So. Recruits and privates were to pay $1, lance corporals to pay $2, and corporals to pay $3. The men were good-natured enough, but getting them to cough up money was a pain…

Why the 15th? Well, I was to get the money to the mess hall by the 10th of the month (I can’t remember the exact payment date. Let’s go with the 10th). After several months of failed attempts to submit on time, I managed to persuade the mess hall people to let me pay after 15th. This was because the army pays everybody on the 15th.

Granted, we weren’t paid a lot. It’s about a couple of hundred dollars a month, depending on your rank and length of service. $2 was maybe 1% or less of your military salary. But in absolute terms, $2 is nothing. The men typically spend more than that at the canteen every day.

Recession? What recession?

People pay for what they value. The men didn’t value the mess that much. Hence the reluctance to pay.

People still buy the latest iPhone, even though they still own a perfectly working previous version. People still go on vacations. People still go to expensive restaurants. The price isn’t the issue. If people value something enough to overcome the price, they’ll pay for it.

Here’s an interesting observation. I had little trouble with the recruits, privates and corporals. The recruits and privates were new to the military, and as a lance corporal *ahem* I was able to get them to pay up. The corporals were people who were going to the university after they finish their military service. They’d pay up so that I’m out of their hair or they don’t want my life to be miserable or whatever.

The lance corporals were from the hardier sides of Singapore. Polytechnic students or with lower education status.

Now I’m not saying the education status was the cause. I’m saying the attitude is different. The lance corporals were negotiating the terms. (My own rank was a different story. I was eventually promoted to a full corporal).

Once it was after the 15th, the men didn’t give me any more excuses. They’d just pay up. They weren’t trying to make my life difficult in the first place.