by Edmund Chua
In conjunction with the third phase of Heightened Alert, the policy on mandatory tray return was also formally launched on 21 June.
Looking back the developmental journey from street-side hawkers to stalls packed into the hawker centres, we have over time cluttered the basic issue of cleanliness (tray return) with purportedly ethical behaviour, such that even legislation is passed to punish those so-called ‘unlawful’ diners.
I am disgusted and disappointed that policy makers rely on legislation or fines to resolve issues, just like how we see Panadol as the elixir to solve any pain problems.
Walking down the memory lane of the development of hawkers, we can observe:
- Street-side vendors each fully equipped with their own tables and chairs, and provided full customer service from serving, to clearing of used tableware.
- In view of sanitary conditions, hawkers were moved indoor from the 1970s to hawker centres built by the government. Although seating are already commonly shared, the hawkers are still responsible for delivering food and cleaning the table used for their food served. This is the reason why all tabletops are assigned table numbers for the convenience of food delivery and dish retrievals.
- Due to manpower problems, authority requested diners to queue and self-serve for own meal collection. This was the beginning of serving with trays.
- Eventually, again blaming on manpower constraints, authority began centralised dish collections and required hawkers to contribute pooling of sanitation fees and tasked Hawker Associations (noting they are run by hawkers volunteers with no contract management experiences) to champion the tender calling and supervision of such contracts. This becomes today’s norm in the hawker centres.
Cleanliness problem in hawker centres has been persistent and the authority is running out of wit to resolve.
The root cause became blurred over a long time and eventually, instead of trying to establish why the contractors have been failing their contractual duties, it has become a moral-guilt and compassion issues, when the authority and public are taking high moral ground (Western-standard moral system) to criticize our “unscrupulous” people for failing to do their part to help out those poor old and frail cleaners.
What an irony when we hope to keep these heavy duty jobs for the eldering and at the same time to keep them from performing their cleaning tasks! Instead of addressing the issue as a failed contractual delivery, it has morphed into a weird moral issue (will touch on employment for the elderly at later part of the essay).
In fact, who set the moral rules for tray return at hawker centres? Is there precedence or historical past practices? Or simply a blindly followed practice perceived to be ‘Atas’ from the Western civilization?
If it is following Western civilization, why do they stop at try return but expect to be served at gourmet dining? Why don’t they also return or even wash away soiled dishes after meals?
Cultural diversities impact on the different way each societies enjoy their dining experiences. If one compares the western style 3-course meals versus the local hawker food with Claypot Rice or Zhi-Ch, one can imagine how even the cleaning process differs.
Let’s be honest, if the contractors carry out their due diligent in cleaning contracts; if NEA carries out their enforcement works properly, would we still end up like now, when the Authority needs to mobilize the whole nation to return trays; and to criminalise those who don’t comply?
Is this productive (getting all diners to work instead of the few equipped with the necessary tools and competencies to do the works)? Is this serving the goal of nurturing the civic consciousness of the people via stringent laws?
During an academic forum, Elon Musk shared how he created the most successful Tesla and SpaceX companies in history by reducing the cost of regenerated batteries and re-usable rockets. He revealed that the secret of his success lies in the application of “First Principle”, to dissolve and dissect complex problems into simple elements and to deal with them properly; in other words, return to the basics of originality and simplicity.
If we apply the “First Principle” to the try returns problem, we can make the following observations:
- Cleaning job is physically demanding and is not suitable for frail seniors.
- Without sufficient fund to operate with, it is challenging to expect cleaning contractors to carry out cleaning job effectively. Without sufficient budget, one can expect the contractor to hire the elderly (cheaper) and insufficient staff to match the demanding tasks.
- When hawkers are to contribute cleaning fees, given their thin profit margin and limited scopes, it is Catch-22 and inherent stalemate in securing matching budget for effective cleaning task.
- If NEA insists on hawkers making larger cleaning fee contributions, food prices may increase; and it is another Catch-22 situation if it causes public umbrage.
Operationally, NEA could hold the cleaning contractors accountable for the cleanliness; but such failure-cause could be traced to hawker associations, hawkers, and eventually even NEA. After all, NEA is the champion for hawker affairs and owner of hawker centres.
Therefore, the root cause of poor cleanliness is insufficient cleaning funds, whilst perceived manpower shortage is the derivative problem. With proper remunerations, younger workforce currently employed in food delivery and private hires can perform more competently enhanced by technological means (think of airline push cart onboard aircrafts handled by the elegantly dressed air stewardesses).
Accept reality that strenuous cleaning jobs are not suitable for The elderly. Instead, Government should proactively identify other sectors matching their actual physical ability and experience (eg, previously in the taxi industry before the private hire).
Is hawker affair a PUBLIC or MARKET GOODS? If we agree that hawkers provide ‘public goods’ to the daily needs of Singaporeans, then besides playing its role as landlord, ENV also has the public duties to ensure cleanliness in the hawker centres, also the ‘public places’ no different from roads, and airports.
Some Singaporeans argue tray return is basic social mannerism expected out of a developed country like Singapore. This view sounds noble but is flawed, as it defines those who return trays as ‘righteous’ whilst those who don’t as ‘criminal’ (thus the penalty).
The laws basically defines the behavior as only “Right” or “Wrong” while not acknowledging the basic free choice of the people. Between black and white, there are at least 50 shades of grey.
For doing good deeds, I acknowledge and encourage but I will not hastily punish those who do not do good deeds with the “criminal” label. I do not feel proud or sense of achievement by the so-called “success” in seeing more diners returning their trays coerced by the threat of statutes.
During the 1970s with lower public education, the Government deemed legislations as effective mean to enforce public behaviours such as to cease spitting and littering. Today, after 50 years of nation building when more than 30% of our population have at least college degrees, I feel sad and disgusted for the Government to still rely on harsh legislations to force diners to return trays. This is the classic example of excessive legislative interference, a legal abuse with sledgehammer approach.
I yearn for self-discipline (慎独); if indeed one day we endorse tray return as our social morality standard (I am of the view this is a personal choice of dining habits) and we have reached the stage when we all practise tray returns voluntarily instead of coercion by fear of punishments, then we have arrived.
At present, even if NEA brags about how successful the campaign is in making diners to return trays, it is not internalised behaviour shaping, but just the fear and coercion similar to the period practised by the Emperor Qin during Qin Dynasty.
I read with interest of the story published in Zaobao on 12 June (“Which is the fuss in the mandatory tray return“) with aligned messages I made in my previous article published on 10th April. Notwithstanding our attempted efforts to present our cases, we appear nagging to the wrong party and the matter remains status quo.
When Phase 3 of Heightened Alert is to be lifted in mid July with more diners allowed, I drag to think of quarrels and bickering over cleaning matters such as “Who left the dishes?” and “Who didn’t wipe the table clean?”.
The so-called social vigilantes would upload videos hunting down the personal details of the ‘culprits’ and the social fabrics will be further torn apart, just shortly after the recent sagas over mask wearing and racial discrimination.
Like a dirty public toilet issue, it is about time to resolve the tray returns issue sensibly.
This is an opinion piece from a member of the public, and does not reflect TOC’s position on any matter.