Service tax and tips

This came about because I don’t like ++’s behind prices. If you tell me the price of the food is $14.90, then when I’m paying, it’d better be just $14.90. I don’t like doing mental arithmetic gymnastics. I also don’t like whipping out my phone to use the calculator.

It’s probably the main reason why I don’t go to fancy restaurants. It’s not so much the high price (though it’s a big factor), but that I feel deceived about the price. The listed price is not the price I have to pay.

Consumption tax

The Goods and Service Tax (GST) was established in Singapore, 1994. It started out as 3% in April 1994, then 4% in January 2003, then 5% January 2004, and is currently 7% from July 2007 onwards.

This caused some confusion because what used to be “round” prices now became weird. $5 became $5.15, and pray you had a human calculator with you if a price was something weird, like $4.95.

Because the GST is a consumption tax, it generally applies to everything. From food to clothes to electronic gadgets. Almost every price is affected.

The progression from 3% to 7% made things worse. I remember having to design and code a software system to deal with taxes. Based on the date of the transaction, a different tax rate had to be used. For example, in December 2002 it would be 3%, but January 2003 it would be 4%.

Because it generally confused the Singapore consumer, most shops simply incorporated the GST into their prices. Instead of saying an item costs $4.95 with 7% GST, the listed price is $5.30 (actual is $5.2965). The consumer doesn’t have to do any mental calculations.

It is also particularly fortunate that the Singapore 1 cent is no longer issued, because then businesses forced their prices to be rounded to the nearest 5 cents. Apparently, even 5 cent coins are no longer issued, we might see prices rounded to 10 cents. This rounding will come into play later on.

Also, if you’re in America, death to pennies… It costs more to produce a penny than a penny is worth.

Waiting tips

It is not common in Singapore (or Asia in general) to tip a waiter or waitress. I think East Asians and South-East Asians believe that it’s their job. Any tips are a bonus, not a given.

I’ve read that in Western countries, particularly in America, the wage for waiters and waitresses are lousy. Some wait staff survive a month because they had tips.

The tip is another unknown factor in my calculation of payment. How much to tip? I would much rather you work everything I have to pay into the price, and I decide beforehand whether I want to consume food and beverage at your eating establishment.

While I’m against exploitative wages, I also don’t want to fire up the neurons needed to calculate the appropriate tip amount.

Besides, the tips given to the waiter or waitress probably don’t even go directly to them. The tips go to a general pool, where it’s either spent on something for all the wait staff, or divided evenly amongst the wait staff. This also generally discourages staff not to be extra attentive to customers, since all their colleagues gain at their expense.

One lump price

So for most Singapore businesses, the GST is included in the price. The consumer is charged at one price, and the business has to calculate the correct GST to pay the Singapore government. Remember, tax evasion is a criminal offense.

However, there are 2 ways to calculate the GST. One is to calculate the GST portion first, the other is to calculate the sales price first.

For example, $14.90 with GST included. Using 7% as the GST, we divide $14.90 by 107 (because $14.90 is 107% of the sales price) and then multiply by 7 to get the GST amount. Which is $0.97 (rounded from $0.9748). So the sales price is $14.95 – $0.97 = $13.93.

In the second case, the sales price is $14.90 / 107 * 100 = $13.93 (rounded from 13.925). And so the GST amount is $14.90 – $13.93 = $0.97

So far that seemed fine. Both calculations give the same results. Aahhh, but what if the government don’t care to accept values not in multiples of 5 cents? Or what if the business fudges the calculations a bit?

If you round the GST amount $0.97 to $1, then the final sales price is $13.90.

If you round the sales price $13.93 to $13.95, then the GST amount is $0.95, which makes the GST rate as $0.95/$14.90 * 100 = 6.38%. Not quite the 7%.

I’m not saying businesses do this manipulation (which is easy if you have transaction history and just tilt calculations in your favour), but rounding is the bane of financial applications.

10% service tax

Because Singapore (or Asia in general) don’t have a practice of tipping the wait staff, I think that’s why businesses set a 10% flat service charge. Basically, 10% of the meal price work as tips.

While I don’t have a complaint about this, I do complain that a $14.90 meal can become $17.45 (rounded from $17.433). How? Because the service tax and GST weren’t included. Thus the final price is $14.90 * (10% + 7%)

I don’t care if there’s a big asterisk or ++ at the end of your price. I hate reading footnotes directed from asterisks. And ++’s? They just scream clever/obnoxious/brilliant/crafty to me. Why do you think programmers prefer pre-increment (++i) than post-increment (i++) for readability?

Making it easier for me

I was telling this to my mom, and she had an answer (she’s a sales person). Businesses don’t include all those taxes into one price because it’s easier for them to calculate their service tax and GST.

If $17.45 was the listed price, they’d have to back-calculate. The GST amount would be $17.45 / 117 * 7 = $1.04. The service tax would be $17.45 / 117 * 10 = $1.49.

If they only work with $14.90 as the only price, then it’s a “simple” matter of $14.90 * 10% = $1.49 for service tax, and $14.90 * 7% = $1.04 (or $1.05?).

I don’t really care. Your business probably handles hundreds and thousands of transactions every day. You’re not going to do this by hand. You have a fancy financial application that does it for you. Your financial application doesn’t care if it needs to do one more arithmetic operation per transaction. Computers crunch numbers for breakfast. Your financial revenue report will still look pretty.

You know, I don’t really know the point of this article. Probably a rant. Make it easier for me, ok? Or at least be more honest with your prices. I might just patronise your eating establishment more frequently.

Query bundling – an interruption handling tip

Ok, I feel really bad about this. Months ago, when I first had the idea of writing a self-help ebook *gasp*, I asked Ben Barden for a tip on how he handles interruptions. He gave one, and I’m ashamed to say it’s been sitting in my todo list for, well, months.

I’m often asked to do something when I’m already busy with something else. One way I deal with this is to request “query bundling” – basically, if someone expects to have a number of queries, it is far better if they collate the tasks and send them to me in one go, than to interrupt me every time they have a question. In some cases, certain requests can be related to others, so it’s actually quicker and easier to do a few of them at once.

– Ben Barden

I can understand this. When I first started working, I had tons of questions. How did this program work? Why are the programs scheduled in this order? When do we tell the users their reports are ready? What, why is that again?

After a while, I had this feeling that I’m interrupting my senior colleague too much. So without prompting, I started bunching questions together, and when I had to ask, I’ll unleash a few of them at one go. I’d also try to wait to ask when he’s not too busy, but that’s kind of subjective. He’s always busy. And not the useless kind of busy either.

Ben Barden is a musician, blogger and PHP developer. Find out more about him at his site www.benbarden.com