I arrived at the rather colonially named Ministry of Manpower a few minutes before my appointment and was greeted by a furtive young Thai-looking man who told me I was late. He asked me to follow him quickly while making a gesture which I understood as ‘stay here’. Unsure what to do, I opted for what in hindsight was the most ridiculous option — following gingerly until he turned around, whereupon I would affect an attentive, though stationary, nonchalance.
This left us hovering awkwardly in front of an unattended counter. “I need to see your Visa, passport or MasterCard”, he told me. Looking him carefully in the eye while processing this information, I countered with “It’s all here in this file” and produced a credit card. “You haven’t paid yet?” he exclaimed. He took my documents to a lady around the corner, making the same ‘stay here’ gesture while telling me to follow and muttering “very bad, very bad.”
I should mention here that the young man’s behaviour seemed very out of character with the rest of the place, which was quietly bustling with proprietary efficiency. MoM is well signed, easy to find, and perhaps most surprisingly for a Saturday afternoon, open.
I took all this in while waiting in a comfortable chair near a little sign that read ‘Your sunshine, our support’ — a familiar customer service message delivered in that quaint and understated way that is so characteristic of Singaporean English.
The lady beckoned me over and gave me an invoice to take over to the payment counter. Having dutifully returned after doing this, she gave me my papers and an information wallet and told me to return to the front to actually commence my appointment.
“Just in time, you’re still late!” said the young man, presumably with access to knowledge of temporal matters I did not possess. “Where’s your photo?”. I looked at him blankly, so he said, by way of clarification, “you need a photo.” When I told him it hadn’t said that on my forms, he had a look through the papers and finally said “there, look”, pointing to the new document I’d just been given by the lady seconds ago. “Ah”, I said, getting the hang of it by now, “my mistake.”
He directed me around the corner to a photo booth where I paid another lady six dollars and was given a receipt, which I took immediately to the photo attendant sitting next to her. After a few minutes I emerged with a set of passport photos in which I look slightly puzzled, which I took back to the greeter.
“Quickly”, he said, printing me an appointment slip, “go wait for your name to show up on the screen and then see anyone.” Finding a seat and waiting as quickly as I could, I had another look around. On the far wall were booths decorated with stuffed toy animals and playful lighting. My hopes were dashed when I realised these were for kids, though what business they have with the MoM I’m not sure.
Seeing my name, I found a free counter and talked to a lady (a quick survey found almost all the staff of the Ministry of Manpower appointment centre were so inclined) who took my fingerprints and various signatures. Now it seemed, we knew all about each other.
When all was done, she gave me an invitation to return to collect my actual physical pass in a week or so. I asked if all the other documents would be sufficient for my employer in the meantime and was told yes that’s fine, they don’t really look at them.
I said goodbye to the furtive young man on the way out. He looked a bit taken aback when I gave him a big grin and a thumbs up — perhaps the gesture means something different in Thailand.