If all else fails, Singapore could turn to Section 17 of the Environmental Public Health Act to ensure that diners at hawker centres clean the tables they have used and put away the dirty plates, said the general secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement, William Wan.
In a commentary published by Channel NewsAsia on Tuesday (6 Apr), Dr Wan cited the Clean Tables Campaign, which was launched by the Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment in an effort to remind diners to clear up used tissues, wet wipes and disposable crockery and return their trays to the designated shelves after eating at a hawker centre or food court.
Commenting on whether such campaigns have been effective, Dr Wan quoted former chairman of the National Environmental Agency (NEA), Liak Teng Lit who had described Singapore as a “cleaned city” not a clean city.
Dr Wan wrote, “We are dependent on cleaners to keep our city spick and span. In 1961, Singapore had a “broom brigade” of 7,000 day-labourers. Last year, there were 58,500 registered cleaners.”
This same issue is true for public dining tables, he said.
While Singapore’s reliance on cleaners plugs a societal gap and creates jobs for people who may need them, Dr Wan questioned why there is such a gap in the first place.
“Why do we, in Singapore, have such an entitled mindset that we need someone to clean up after us?” He asked.
Dr Wan went on, “There is a clear disconnect between what respondents believe they ought to do, what they think they would do and what they actually do.”
He referred to data from the NEA which showed that 90 per cent of diners think they should clean their tables where tray return facilities are available, but only 75 per cent said they would actually do it.
Even worse, the NEA noted that the average rate of tray return is only at a dismal 30 per cent.
A survey by the Singapore Management University in 2019 also showed that one-third of respondents were not sure if they should return their trays or if it was the responsibility of cleaners.
Another one third said that they were certain it was indeed the responsibility of cleaners.
The question then becomes whether diners cleaning up after themselves at hawker centres would take jobs away from cleaners.
Dr Wan wrote “In 2017, a hawker centre cleaner interviewed by The Pride, a publication of the Singapore Kindness Movement, said “some people are unhappy because they feel that as paying customers, they shouldn’t need to return their trays.” Four years later, things haven’t changed.”
Dr Wan argued that cleaners would not lose their jobs if more diners started cleaning their tables, as the employed cleaners would still be responsible for maintaining the general cleanliness of the space and sorting out the used crockery at the designated tray return points.
“In fact, keeping tables clean after our meals will make their jobs easier, by reducing their workload in having to make frequent rounds to the tables and providing a more sanitary working environment,” he added.
Dr Wan went on to point out three things that need to happen for this level of change in social behaviour to occur. First, to have proper tray return facilities at all public dining spaces.
Second, he noted, was to have a dedicated and sustained engagement of diners to nudge them towards that behaviour. This can include training cleaners to encourage patrons to keep tables clean.
Third, and if all else fails, Dr Wan proposed stricter enforcement of already existing law which makes it an offence to leave refuse in any public place except in a dustbin or other receptacle.
He noted, “This is where campaigns are useful to increase awareness because direct education will sensitise people to the consequences of their inaction.”
Dr Wan also extolled the need for education to take place at all levels—from schools to public spaces, officers, housing estates, community centres and more.
Anticipating some feedback, Dr Wan also explained that while it does not seem kind to suggest strict legalistic adherence to the law—which may appear draconian and surprising coming from an advocate of kindness—it is puzzling how it is kind to “leave dirty tables behind for others – cleaners or other patrons – to clear”.
Many netizens, however, do not seem to agree with Dr Wan’s stance.
They still opined that if diners start clearing away their tables, it would “deprive” cleaners—some of whom are elderly people—of jobs.
“Employers such as the cleaning companies will look at cutting cost in order to give a lower quotation for this “outsource” in order to win the job,” said one commenter.
Many also shared instances of when they were told off by cleaners themselves for clearing up, as the cleaners felt their jobs were being jeopardised.
Others who were coming from the financial angle noted that if diners are expected to return their trays themselves, then hawkers should not be charged such high cleaning fees.
In fact, one person said food prices should be reduced as well if diners were to be refused the luxury of not cleaning up after they are done eating.
There were also several netizens who were not thrilled about the “carrot and stick” approach to changing social behaviours by imposing fines.
One netizen noted that it is a matter of “integrity” of people in Singapore and that kindness should be taught by example, not punishment.
Another noted that using fines to drive behavioural changes shows Singapore’s “failure”.