“Can anything be done to improve things? Certainly. For a start, stop relying on lame excuses such as job creation for the cleaners at foodcourts for what is essentially selfish and lazy behaviour” (Celebrate Our Hawker Culture by Cleaning Up Our Act First, Tan Ooi Boon).
Against a background of persistent exhortations by politicians as well as a plethora of policy initiatives to encourage Singaporeans to return their trays in hawker centres (ST, Sept. 4) – such as monetary incentives, smart robots, and automated tray-return counters – the observation that students have always been doing so in the schools and in the universities is often overlooked. In most primary and secondary school canteens schoolchildren return their crockery and cutlery into bins placed in front of the food stalls without being prompted to, and in most institutes of higher learning and universities students do the same when they return their trays at centralised stations. And while there are questions about how such behaviours or attitudes shift over time, working to maintain these practices appears most practical.
Because thus far, campaigns have been focused on making it easier for Singaporeans to return their trays – having “ample bins and racks for serving trays to be returned to after meals”, for instance – and on rewarding or penalising acts, instead of understanding the reluctance of some diners, and the extent to which they can be motivated to do otherwise. Emphasising the overall design of hawkers centres and food courts or that of the specific facilities for crockery and cutlery is a good start, but at some point the conversation should shift to making sense of how older Singaporeans think about the practice. Do they really cite job creation for cleaners as the reason for their apprehension? If not, what are the other explanations (or excuses)? And more importantly, why have they deviated from a habit which came more naturally when they were schooling?
Perhaps beyond the suggestion for parents to act as role models – so that their child does not “grow up to be a thoughtful and caring person or an uncouth one with filthy habits and one who expects elderly people to pick up after him” – it may make more sense, in the context of the family, for children to keep their parents in check. That is, for children to remind or to even chide their parents if a mess is left on the tables, and not just when items are left unreturned. Appealing to broader civic-mindedness is noble, though nudges from one’s past experiences and from loved ones could be more effective.
A version of this article was published in The Straits Times.