Singapore children learn social graces - for a fee

Don't spit in public. Throw your litter in the bin. Pee into the urinal, not on the floor. Speak proper English. Singapore has become famous for government-funded campaigns designed to rid society of nasty habits from its impoverished past, but parents in the city-state have taken self-improvement a notch higher.


Pricey etiquette classes designed to turn little girls and boys into proper ladies and gentlemen are becoming popular among Singaporeans who are not content with traditional ballet classes and piano lessons for their children.

"I feel that it is best to train children before bad habits have a chance to develop, and such skills will also stay with them for life," said Eunice Tan, a trainer and consultant at the Image Flair Academy of Modern Etiquette.

Tan, 37, says "please" was the first word her own daughter Ethel, now six, learned to speak when she was just one year old.

"The skills they learn in the social graces classes will stay with them as they mature and will influence them in all areas of their lives," she told AFP.

After breakneck economic growth turned Singapore into one of the world's richest societies in just one generation, commentators and government officials admit Singaporeans have yet to catch up on the etiquette front.

One government campaign urges Singaporeans to make it a point to show small acts of kindness in their everyday lives.

"I think the soft skills are something that parents do see as important," said Jonathan Goh, an associate professor at the National Institute of Education of Singapore.

"I do see a lot of benefits," he added, stating that children well-versed in social graces would have a "special advantage in the working world" when they grow up.

Typically held during the school holidays in June and December, children's etiquette classes don't come cheap, with hourly rates ranging from 30 to 48 Singapore dollars (about 22 to 35 US).

But many parents can afford it. Singapore's per-capita gross national income stood at 35,924 US dollars last year, making it the world's 33rd richest society, according to the World Bank.

Tan, who conducts classes of 10 students each, said she had to open a new class during the month-long June school holidays as all lessons were fully booked, a far cry from her company's quiet start four years ago.

Lessons are divided into three levels, with the introductory grade teaching children as young as three how to meet and greet people.

Level two teaches telephone manners as well as anger management techniques, and the most advanced course imparts values such as honesty and responsibility in a step-by-step method.

"The quiet encouragement they receive when they do well and the extra coaching given to quieter children makes them good learners," Tan said.

"After the sessions, children are eager to showcase their new graces in front of parents, family and friends, be it their newly-acquired dining skills, tolerance for siblings or sensitivity to their pet!"

But not all parents pay as much attention to their children's social graces, said Elaine Heng, founder of a self-named image consultancy firm which offers similar classes as well as one-on-one etiquette consultations.

"Nowadays, parents send their kids to lots of enrichment classes to discover their musical, artistic talents and focus more on academic results, but many forget that their kids require coaching in social graces," Heng said.

The former beauty queen also conducts etiquette and grooming sessions for schools and organisations, and says she has taught more than 2,000 youths so far.

"It is much easier for a third party, like us, to teach the students on the proper social graces as parents may not know how to go about doing this."

Agnes Koh of training firm Etiquette and Image International suggested the attitudes of some children of double-income parents could be attributed to growing up with foreign maids as their main companions.

Lack of social graces also resulted from over-emphasis on academic work, Koh said.

"Parents are competing among themselves on making their kids score on education and achievement-oriented results. The basic modesty of humanity has thinned," she said.