The Ministry of Consumer Affairs’ recent notification clarifying that a restaurant’s service charge is discretionary, and not mandatory, makes one stop and think about one’s restaurant bill – particularly at those few rows at the end of it.

The issue goes back to 17th-century London, when newfangled coffeehouses would strategically place ceramic pots marked “To insure promptitude” in order to encourage customers to drop coins into them. Or so one school believes. Writer Samuel Johnson noticed one such pot at the coffeehouse he frequented – so the legend goes – and that inspired him to introduce the word tip into the language. The idea might have come, along with the coffee houses themselves, from the traditional Middle Eastern practice of paying baksheesh, a practice that later crossed over into Eastern Europe (becoming baksisi in Greece, for example).

The custom of tipping in restaurants gradually caught on in Europe, and in the 1870s, the first wealthy Americans travelling through the continent began to take the custom back with them as a sign of sophistication and social superiority. As a result, tipping became very unpopular in America at the time, seen as a violation of the nation’s deeply held belief in democracy. So widespread was the movement against the practice that various states passed laws banning it. However, over time, tipping became prevalent across America, especially since restaurant workers do not generally receive a minimum wage, and are dependent on tips to make their living. (I learned this the embarrassing way, when I went to a restaurant in New York with an American friend, paid the bill, and left an evidently inadequate tip. As we left, I noticed my American friend discreetly adding a couple of notes to the meager tip I had left on the table.)

The custom however varies from country to country, and from society to society. In Japan, for example, leaving a tip causes confusion, and they think you have made a mistake. In Singapore, leaving a tip is considered an insult to the waiter. In Nigeria, on the other hand, service staff expects to be tipped – and in case you forget, they remind you with the rather curious request, “What about something for Christmas?”

So why a service charge?

Over time, the practice of tipping in restaurants led to the concept of a fixed “service charge”, because it was argued that the waiter was merely the tip of the service pyramid which, in fact, went all the way down to the kitchen staff – and which therefore deserved a share of the gratuity. Sometimes it is argued that a service charge was added by restaurants to compensate for customers who were not in the habit of paying a tip. In any case, a service charge is typically just 5% in India, and the correct etiquette is to leave a tip for the waiter over and above that. But India is one country where people tend to be reluctant tippers, and let’s face it, the typical reaction, even among the wealthy, is “OK, they’ve added a service charge, so we don’t have to leave a tip”.

With the new government edict, however, the customer can justifiably refuse to pay the service charge, unless he is satisfied with the restaurant’s service – and the restaurant industry, given its past experience with tipping, is worried about what this is going to mean for them. As one restaurant spokesman angrily put it, “If you don’t want to pay the service charge, don’t eat here.”

But the issue of making the service charge discretionary could set a dangerous precedent, which the government obviously has not quite realised.

If we get into the habit of thinking about the service charge – and whether we are satisfied enough with the restaurant’s service to pay it – will it lead us into thinking more deeply about those other last few rows of the restaurant bill as well, which list value added tax, sales tax, etc.?

And if we can refuse to pay the service charge because we are dissatisfied with the restaurant’s performance, can we with equal justification refuse to pay the VAT, sales tax, etc. because we are dissatisfied with the government’s performance?

Maybe the Ministry of Consumer Affairs would like to rethink the Pandora’s box it might be opening up.