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Time Running Out for Arriving Late

March 3, 1993

SINGAPORE (AP) _ When it comes to getting to work or to school, the citizens of Singapore are models of efficiency.

But when it comes to weddings, they are models of the fashionable delay - to the dismay of a government known for prying into even the most trivial aspects of daily life.

Toh Weng Cheong could not help but be gratified by the media’s response to the news conference he called to announce the government’s latest punctuality campaign.

All the reporters were seated by 10:29 a.m. on Monday, a minute before the session was scheduled to start.

″If everyone were like you and I, we wouldn’t need a punctuality drive, but they’re not,″ said Toh.

Toh who heads the August-to-September campaign, a busy period for wining and dining linked to National Day celebrations, the Seventh Month festival and auspicious dates for weddings.

″Singaporeans are not tardy by nature, but somehow when it comes to wedding dinners, the culture is such that people come late,″ Toh said.

″Not being punctual impinges on the economic sector, If you have 200 guests who are late by an hour, that’s 200 man hours lost,″ Toh told reporters. Man hours lost?

In addition to publicity, restaurants and hotels offer incentives to guests who finish the 10-course wedding meals with dispatch. They find few takers.

Previous drives have made little headway against a deeply ingrained habit that seems oddly out of place.

Business and industry are not unduly troubled by tardy workers. School classes and sports events keep to the clock. Traffic jams are not tolerated.

The subway runs on time and most flights depart from Changi Airport on schedule.

Chronic tardiness at banquets is usually attributed to Chinese tradition, a belief that older and more important guests were expected to make an entrance after the others.

The habit was reinforced over the years, even among non-Chinese, as people became secure in the knowledge that the meal would have to be served after most of the guests arrived - late.

A booklet on local etiquette, subtitled ″What Not To Do In Singapore and How Not To Do It,″ sponsored by the American School warned:

″If invited to a wedding dinner, it is not considered polite to arrive on time as this may be taken as a sign of greed. It is best to arrive about 20 to 30 minutes late.″

Not any more.

″The objective of the Punctuality Drive ’93 is to help Singaporeans understand that being punctual is a social grace and being late is no longer an acceptable behavior,″ says the campaign manifesto.

Singapore has long been an object of curiosity for its unique blend of social engineering, open economics and authoritarian politics.

The manufacture, sale and import of chewing gum was banned last year in an attempt to keep subways and streets cleaner. And those who neglect to flush public toilets after using them can be fined.

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