When I moved back to Singapore from California, one of the things that I noticed about being back was that Singaporeans like to buy each other meals. Now, this doesn’t mean that we pay for each other’s food all the time, but in general, it really doesn’t have to be your birthday for someone to buy you lunch/dinner.
When someone offers to pay for lunch, the standard protocol is to say, “Noooo lah!” and then attempt to chuck your credit card/cash into the waiter’s hand before your lunch companion does so. This usually results in both parties spending a good five minutes arguing over the bill and a confused waiter who doesn’t know whose money to take (and is probably thinking “wtfbbq can these people shut up and pay already?”). Sometimes, Singaporeans who are more advanced in the art of Paying for the Bill resort to Sneaky Paying, a common tactic used by tai tais and Singaporean Moms.
One time, we were having dinner and my Singaporean Mom bumped into an old friend a couple of tables away (My Singaporean Mom bumps into people all the time. She’s popular like that.) As we moved on to dessert, my Singaporean Mom motioned for the waiter to come over, and then pressed her credit card into his palm, telling him (rather forcefully, if I do say so myself) to charge her friend’s bill to her card. The waiter looked at her blankly and then shuffled away slowly. My Singaporean Mom, upon seeing that her friend was about to leave, started to get edgy and marched up to the counter pay before her friend found out about her attempt to pay for dinner. The number one rule of Sneaky Paying is to never let the person whom you are paying for know that you are about to pay for him/her. It’s like saying, “Hey look! You got a surprise mystery present! Maybe it’s a cookie! Oh wait… actually, I got it for you. And it’s not a cookie.”
You see, arguing over the bill really isn’t only about being generous…it’s about having face. The thing with Singaporeans (and Asian people in general), is that they’re all about saving face. They are also really competitive, so they probably won’t back down when you say, “No no, I pay! I pay!” and will instead, push, shove and claw until they get ahold of the bill in their deathlike grip. My Singaporean Mom likes to stick her card into the bill holder and snap it shut, before pressing it into some unsuspecting waiter’s hands and telling him to go quickly, very much in a manner resembling how Gandalf told Frodo to make haste on his journey to Mordor. Except instead of entrusting a cursed ring into the waiter’s hands, it’s a credit card and the bill. Anyway, my point is – Singaporean Moms are hardcore about paying the bill, and you will never win in the battle of Who Pays the Bill.
Be warned, however, that you should never immediately say, “Okay, cool!” when someone offers to pay for the bill. You must always put up a fight, or at least attempt to shove some money into his/her palm. Otherwise, you will lose face and be labelled as being kiam (Hokkien term for cheapskate/stingy/salty, depending on the context).