Should you tip in Penang

Should you tip?

This question was posed to me by my friend Amanda who blogs at  I had to do some research and asked around in my neighborhood.  This is what I’ve learned about whether or not you should tip in Penang.

North Americans have a hard time navigating the “tipping issue” when they start living in Penang and in Asia in general.  We are used to tipping.  Even when we are given poor service, we feel obligated to tip 15%.  We’ll tip 10% when we feel like insulting the server.

The other part of the equation is how small the numbers are.  If you have a roti canai and a coffee for breakfast, and your bill comes to a whopping RM 3, why not tip 60 sen as a thank you?

Tipping is not cultural

Look around you, as you eat.  What are the other patrons doing?  Do you see money on the tables after people leave?  It is simply not part of the culture to leave a gratuity in restaurants.  I think the important take-away from this is that the tip is not expected.  They will not be offended if one is not left.

The idea of the gratuity as a thank you is a very western concept.  It is starting to come to Asia, but it isn’t there yet.  If you want to express thanks, verbally communicates very well.  If the service is exceptional, rave.  I will say something like “I’m going to tell my friends about this place.”

Service charge already on the bill

Some restaurants have a 10% service charged added to the bill already.  I never add a gratuity to a bill that already charges me a service charge.  Now it should be noted that the service charge goes to the owner of the restaurant, not the service staff.

What are you communicating?

In general, leaving a tip will probably confuse people, if you are lucky.  It can be insulting as well.  Some might see it as a handout – that you are treating them like a beggar.  They see you as underlining or emphasizing the class divide.

Some have also said that by tipping when it isn’t expected, you are artificially driving up the local inflation.  You are telling the sellers that their prices are too low and should be charging more.  That can be a detriment to the other people in the neighborhood that cannot pay more.

Other services

One travel book has these other recommendations:

  • Taxis: round up to the nearest ringgit.
  • Hotel porter: 1-2 ringgit.

Final thoughts

It seems like most people already over-charge the foreigners, so you don’t need to add to it.  Having lived here a little longer, and having become a regular at several places, I am starting to get the “local” price for certain services.  For example, I am now getting the local rate for my haircut at my barber’s.

Since these rates are usually negotiated, I figure I am “tipping” simply by taking the first price, and not bargaining.

Please comment below.  Are you tipping?  Are you going to stop?