Paying for water in restaurants: Yay or nay?
Bring on Watergate
There's a groundswell that's been steadily growing, from isolated whispers to what's now become a steady roar of discontent, as Malaysian diners vociferously voice their disgruntlement at being coerced into ordering expensive mineral water or paying for tap water with their meals. I could make like Switzerland and play the impartial observer, but I most emphatically won't, because I am, first and foremost, a diner and consumer like the rest of my dear readers, and it's high time we stood up for what's morally right, so bring on Watergate, I say.
Before the food and beverage industry rains a hailstorm of wrath upon my head, let's get it clear from the outset that restaurants are not legally obligated to serve free water with their food. But what's legally not required isn't necessarily what's ethically or morally right. If a diner has, in good faith, ordered wine and non-alcoholic beverages for her party, and then decided she needed some good old tap water to cleanse her palate, it's fairly evident what public sentiment would be towards the establishment that says no to that request. And yet a growing number of restaurants have hopped onto that bandwagon, citing water that's not fit for consumption as being one of the key reasons why said eateries have stopped serving tap water. Now call me obtuse, but doesn't the food act require tap water in restaurants to be of a certain standard? And if the water isn't good enough to drink, aren't the ice cubes it produces—which restaurants blithely serve without comment—just as impure? It never ceases to amaze me that restaurant staff who insist their water isn't clean enough then ask if I would like ice with my grudgingly ordered mineral water (which, ere I digress, isn't just financially wasteful in these dark days of economic uncertainty, it's also environmentally unsustainable).
But it gets worse, as it invariably does. It's quite one thing to refuse to serve tap water, it's another to charge, especially at extortionate prices that aren't reflected in the quality of the water, which really brings me full circle to my initial point. When you figure that it currently only costs dining establishments in the Klang Valley no more than RM2.30 for 1,000 litres of water, and they're charging you RM1, say, for each 250ml glass of water, think about the profit margin to be gained from such a practice and suddenly the whole free water argument becomes crystal clear. A certain duck restaurant in Bangsar Village One which I used to patronise with unerring frequency is guilty of just such a practice. Each time we ordered water after we had all finished our menu-listed drinks (sugar cane at approx RM7.80 a pop, say), we would be slapped with a RM1 charge per skinny glass of water that had a disconcerting tendency of tasting like dirty dishrag. When called up on it, the manager simply shrugged her shoulders and said, "It's our practice." Sure, legally she's absolutely right, but ethically she has, in one fell swoop, breached a fistful of service industry cornerstones. Net result? I've stopped going whenever I am in KL, which means that me and my approximately RM800 per week worth of business is now going to another more cordial establishment, like Ashley's in Bangsar (11, Jalan Telawi 3, Bangsar Baru, +6017-325 3663), which, apart from serving top-notch raw and whole foods, also happily provides customers with unlimited free water whether or not they order other drinks. Best of all, there's not a whiff of dirty dishrag to their water, but that's not surprising, considering their blissfully clean alkaline water comes from a Kangan filter.
If you, like June Low ("Why can't Malaysian restaurants serve free water", cilisos.my), are frustrated by the brick wall that seems to loom each time you try to find a solution, then I suggest you join the Free Water Forever page on Facebook and take a stand. Even if free water isn't a law, it's a basic human right and one which we should absolutely defend, every last one of us.