SINGAPORE - Despite a vow to never take up membership at a store, I have somehow amassed a stack of plastic cards. I don't know how they got there. I must have been in a retail trance.
Memberships make relationships with corporations strange. Before I had that card, I used to buy things because I wanted them. It was simple. Now I have to go through a checklist: Am I a member?
Is the card with me? Am I using every privilege to which I am entitled? Will I hate myself if I find out that I missed out on a perk, so that when I look at the card in future, all I see is a reminder of my life as a series of missed opportunities?
Looking at it another way, a store membership is like being forced to spend time with odd family of someone you like.
When there is a problem with the card - what with renewals, points and rebates, problems are just a matter of time - I have to go to Customer Services, a place usually located in a forgotten corner of the building, in a room criss-crossed with ropes to show me where to queue, because that is what I do there mostly, staring at cream-coloured walls bearing posters declaring that oven toasters are 20 per cent off this month.
Recently, I had to visit one such centre because of a card problem. I had been at the cashier point, saying that sentence I take far too much pleasure in saying, "Wait, I'm a member", then flashing the proof.
I don't know why, but I need that woman at the till to be impressed. I half-expect her to gasp and look wide-eyed, as if a prince has emerged after shedding his peasant's disguise. It hasn't happened yet.
But this time I searched the wallet and found cards for a dozen other shops, just not the one I needed. The items I wanted to buy were put aside - there was no way I was not getting my 5 per cent rebate - and I stalked off to Customer Services to ask about a replacement.
After waiting in line with people redeeming points for Special Complimentary Free Gifts, I was told that it would cost $10 to replace a card. No exceptions, no excuses.
To be penalised for such a minor crime was upsetting. I felt betrayed by the very organisation that claimed in its newsletters that I was special. I mean, what is membership for if not to say, hey, you goofed but we forgive you, you handsome devil?
Before I became a member, I would have spent money there without a second thought. Those days were over. I had tasted the heady wine of rebates, grown accustomed to the luxury of free keychains. They were snatching all that away and I resented them for it. Like a Disney villain, I slunk away, vowing to never return.
Perhaps I expect too much. I am too needy. There is a line between being a customer and being a friend and I did the thing clingy people do - wanting too much, too soon.
But I place part of the blame on the corporations. They flirt outrageously with me and do nothing to establish clear boundaries and everything to blur them, as long as they are getting what they want.
And when I do something they don't like, such as lose a card, they smile nervously, take one step back and act as if they are meeting me for the first time.
It's as if they suddenly develop amnesia when I am not carrying their issued piece of ID. That is quite strange because they know all about me - their thick mailers land in my postbox every month and they constantly send e-mail invitations to their customer events.
They beg me to like their Facebook pages and retweet their tweets. They keep in touch with me more often than my friends. Or, come to think of it, family.
These days, when online stores have the technology to stealthily track and send customised ads to me without any action on my part, or even my knowing about it, I find it hard to fathom why brick- and-mortar store ID cards are a necessity. I feel that one of the privileges of membership should be my not having to constantly prove I am who I say I am.
It's not just stores that turn the meaning of "membership" and "club" on its head. I am a member of the KrisFlyer frequent flyer club. I've learnt that a club with about, oh, a billion members, is not a club at all.
It should be called "everyone". This is why, when the boarding announcements are made, Elite members go first, followed by "everyone".
The aristocratic Elite tiers are "Gold" at the top, then "Silver". Below them is my group, which isn't named after a metal or anything at all, actually. Perhaps they couldn't find a metal that symbolises "you're really valuable to us", mixed with a subtle hint of "but don't expect us to make a big song-and-dance about it".
I have looked up what it takes to be an Elite member because, frankly, I am a bit fed up of being part of everyone. I want to be part of Those People, the ones I see behind the glass in the Elite club lounge, free chocolate eclairs in their smiling mouths.
All it takes to be Elite, according to Singapore Airlines, is that I fly Elite miles. I have no idea what they are and after reading the fine print, I am even more confused. I have a suspicion that they made it that way on purpose. It's some kind of Elite test, to separate the worthy from the unworthy.
Until I crack that ceiling and enter the world of private lounges and free pastries, I'll have to use the airport cafes. I think I have the membership cards for some of them, somewhere.
- John Lui
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.