No kopi kia, no Tiger Beer Lady

This story was first published in The Straits Times on April 1, 2013

Today, I want to bring your attention to a crisis brewing in coffee shops across the island: The ban on the use of plastic bags as a container for coffee.

Scientists have apparently discovered that the low-grade plastic, typically used to construct those little plastic bags with a string on top that you can use to hang the said bag on a bicycle handle, dissolves when subject to prolonged exposure to acidic liquids such as kopi-o-peng.

In experiments, traces of melted plastic were detected in kopi-o-peng just two minutes after the liquid was first poured into one of the plastic bags.

Scientists say that people who take an average of five minutes to drink one kopi-o can consume as much as 700g of plastic a year, enough to manufacture about 30 Lego men or about one-third of Joan Rivers' face.

As a result, all coffee shops will now no longer sell you coffee in a bag and, instead, will provide it in disposable cups like they do in Starbucks.

Are you enraged by this destruction of a Singaporean institution? Well don't be, because I was just kidding. April Fool!

But that doesn't mean you shouldn't be enraged at all because there is another treasured Singapore coffeeshop institution that might be going extinct - the kopi kia.

I wish I was making this one up but this is a true story. Last week, news emerged that the Foochow Coffee Restaurant and Bar Merchants Association and the Kheng Keow Coffee Merchants Restaurant and Bar Owners Association were considering asking the 1,300 coffeeshops they represent to do away with their kopi kia.

They suggested the radical move as a way to deal with the ongoing labour crunch in Singapore.

If they go through with it, it will mean the end of a true Singaporean icon, not to mention the great inconvenience put upon consumers like me who will have to get off their butts, walk to the counter to order a drink, pay, wait for the drink to be prepared and then carry the drink back to the table.

I don't know about you but I am just not prepared for this level of hardship when I go to a coffee shop. The coffeeshop experience for me is all about the service.

And there are several other very real First-World problems that longsuffering customers will have to put up with if kopi kias are taken away.

For instance, if we are dining alone, our brief foray over to the drinks counter might mean someone swooping in and stealing our table. I mean, not everyone has a packet of tissue at hand all the time. Don't you think that tissue-less people deserve to drink too?

And even when people are dining in a group, there is the issue of who has to be the one who gets drinks for everyone. The first person to move will surely be bombarded with a whole barrage of orders from the free riders.

Anyone who has to memorise a whole series of drinks and then buy them for people also know that people always stiff you when it comes to payment. They will make excuses about not having enough small change and then short you 20 cents.

And the thing is, if you come asking for the 20 cents later, people in the office will accuse you of being cheap.

So really, this whole idea of doing away with kopi kia is a non-starter. I need to stress that this is not just because of the whiny, self-serving reasons I have just pointed out (although they are very valid) but because, if we let them take this away from us, it will be the start of a slow but certain descent down the slippery slope of coffee-shop gentrification.

If we let them do away with the kopi kia, it is but a small step before the Tiger Beer Lady is also sacrificed at the altar of increased productivity.

After that, it's no-holds-barred and before you know it, we could be faced with the dystopian future I am about to describe to you.

Soon we would see the rise of the super efficient and productive self- service coffee shops. The whole coffee shop will be run by a single person - Singaporean, of course - who is in charge of overseeing everything and making sure people don't steal the food.

All the food will be pre-cooked in a central kitchen by robots and then packed into little disposable containers.

The favourites will still be there though. There will be containers of chicken rice, char kway teow, wanton noodles, carrot cake and so on.

Patrons will just go there, pick up the container they want, scan the barcode at a machine, pay and then collect a token that can be used to activate a microwave oven. Every new-style coffeeshop will be equipped with a bank of microwave ovens.

So people will heat up their little disposable containers of food, eat it while looking at their mobile phones and then dispose of them and leave without ever having to deal with a single human being unless he tries to make a run for it with his container of char kway teow

I suppose you will be wondering about drinks. There will be no drinks counter at this new-wave coffeeshop. Instead, there will be a vending machine which will dispense Milo, kopi-o and ice lemon tea all out of the same tube.

The drinks will all taste as if they came from a machine that dispenses Milo, kopi-o and ice lemon tea all out of the same tube.

And you just know the machine won't be able to dispense the coffee into a plastic bag.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on April 1, 2013

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