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The Big Read: As old habits die hard at hawker centres, Singapore seeks to fine its way out

SINGAPORE — A month into working as a cleaner at a hawker centre in the Boon Keng area, Ms Lakshmi (not her real name) considered quitting.

While cleaners look forward to a more manageable workload, some families with young children and the elderly say it would be challenging to obey the rule.

While cleaners look forward to a more manageable workload, some families with young children and the elderly say it would be challenging to obey the rule.

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  • The Govt announced earlier this month that it will issue warnings or fines against inconsiderate diners at public dining areas, beginning with hawker centres
  • Experts say that past efforts over the last 13 years to encourage tray return could have confused S’poreans over what should be the intrinsic motivation
  • Latest move could reinforce Singapore’s unwanted image as a “fine city” but there was no other way, say some observers
  • While cleaners look forward to a more manageable workload, some families with young children and the elderly say it would be challenging to obey the rule
  • Hawkers feel that their fees for cleaning services should be reduced


SINGAPORE — A month into working as a cleaner at a hawker centre in the Boon Keng area, Ms Lakshmi (not her real name) considered quitting.

With only 10 people on her team, the former hospital cleaner felt stretched thin during the peak dining periods of lunch and dinner, before new Covid-19 curbs kicked in on May 16, which ban dining-in at food and beverage establishments.

“Some customers don’t understand that we need time to clear tables and will demand that we clear theirs immediately, even if it is outside of our allocated areas. So when I move over to a different area to clean, I end up neglecting my own cleaning area and other customers will complain,” said Ms Lakshmi.

It did not help that diners left their tables strewn with chicken bones and tissue paper, which they could have easily left on their plates or disposed of in bins.

“When I worked in a hospital, I had to clean up the vomit and feces of patients, but I was motivated to do my job as I felt they needed the help. But here, I feel less motivated. The customers are able-bodied and can buy food themselves, so why can’t they just be more considerate and keep their areas clean?” said Ms Lakshmi, 50, who declined to provide her real name as she was worried that her employer might not like her talking to the media.

She said that the stresses of the job, coupled with the uncertainty over her pay during the Phase 2 (heightened alert) which lasts till June 13, had left her contemplating if she should look for a different job.

What might change her mind, however, is the announcement earlier this week by the National Environment Agency (NEA) that from Sept 1, diners at hawker centres risk being warned or fined if they do not return their dirty trays and crockery, and clear litter on their tables after a meal.

There will be an advisory period from June 1 to Aug 31, during which NEA will not take enforcement action.

However, first-time offenders after this period will be issued a stern warning, while second-time offenders will be slapped with a S$300 fine. Subsequent offenders may face court fines.

The rule will eventually be enforced at all public dining places, including coffee shops and food courts.

On top of making it mandatory for diners to return their trays, NEA said in response to TODAY’s queries that it is working on a revised table-cleaning workflow that is focused on table cleaning and sanitation, as well as tray and crockery return point management.

The revised workflow will allow tables to be cleared faster, especially during peak meal periods.

“Moving towards a ‘self-service concept’, where patrons clear their tables after meals, can help to alleviate the shortage of cleaners in the cleaning workforce, where their average age is 60 years old,” said NEA.

“These measures will help to improve the overall cleanliness of our hawker centres, provide cleaners with a more sanitary and safe working environment, and make the industry more sustainable in the long run.”

A poster at a bus-stop in Yishun informs commuters and passers-by of the NEA’s announcement earlier this week that from Sept 1, diners at hawker centres risk being warned or fined if they do not return their dirty trays and crockery, and clear litter on their tables after a meal. Photo: Ooi Boon Keong/TODAY

With dining-in expected to resume on June 14, Ms Lakshmi believes that the enforcement action will make the cleaners’ job easier.

“It’ll just take us a minute to wipe down the tables. At the same time, more people can come in to eat and this will bring in more business for hawkers,” she said.

The move to enforce the fines — which falls under the Environmental Public Health Act that already outlaws littering in public places — follows more than a decade of campaigns being  launched one after another to coax and cajole Singaporeans to return their trays at hawker centres, often without much success.

Many observers whom TODAY interviewed lament the fact that it has to come down to fines to inculcate civic behaviour in Singaporeans.

“With the amount of education Singaporeans have … I would have thought that we would have been able to at least take on a larger share of that social responsibility,” said Ms Cheryl Chan, a Member of Parliament (East Coast GRC) who sits on the Government Parliamentary Committee for Sustainability and the Environment. 

Nevertheless, some experts noted that fines are just among the many tools used by the Government to achieve policy objectives and should not be seen as a step backwards in this case. That said, at least one expert expressed worry that Singapore could breed a conformist, rather than civic conscious society, with fines.

Behavioural experts also told TODAY that the authorities’ efforts to instil civic consciousness among Singaporeans probably failed as they reinforced the idea that returning trays is a transactional norm or paid service, rather than a socially accepted norm that should be adopted because it is the right thing to do.

Campaign advocates, on the other hand, put it down to Singaporeans’ lack of ownership over shared, public spaces such as hawker centres.

Meanwhile, the impending “clear up or pay up” rule has drawn mixed reactions from various quarters.

Some patrons, particularly those with elderly or young children in their families, were concerned that the move would make eating out at hawker centres more difficult for them.

Even so, most of the patrons interviewed were in favour of enforcing fines since they felt that this is the only way to improve the cleanliness of hawker centres. Cleaners and hawkers, unsurprisingly, felt the same way.

But there were some cleaners who were worried that the move could translate to a pay cut.

Some hawker stall owners also suggested that the cost of cleaning services should be brought down now that cleaners would no longer be clearing trays. 

The move to enforce the fines follows more than a decade of campaigns being launched one after another to coax and cajole Singaporeans to return their trays at hawker centres, often without much success. Photo: Nuria Ling/TODAY

As diners prepare to clean up after themselves from next month, TODAY speaks to the various stakeholders and dissects the perennial problem, including why past efforts to get Singaporeans to return their trays have failed, and whether this is a classic example reinforcing Singapore’s unwanted image as a “fine city”.


Efforts to get hawker centre diners to return their trays date back as far as 2008 when the Singapore Kindness Movement (SKM) exhorted diners to return their trays at a food court frequented by the office crowd in Suntec City.

The same year, The Straits Times also launched its own “Goodness Gracious Me!” tray-return campaign to educate diners.

Since 2012, the Government has been ramping up initiatives to promote such behaviour, including outreach efforts in the community and schools.

It is now a common sight to see posters and stickers in hawker centres reminding diners to return their trays.

The Government has also worked with other organisations to improve the tray return infrastructure across hawker centres. This includes increasing the number and accessibility of tray return stations, and even encouraging diners to return their trays by requiring them to pay a deposit of S$1 or 50 cents in hawker centres such as Timbre+ near one-north MRT station.

Despite such concerted efforts, the authorities have had little to show for it. The final straw came recently when a little over three months into the new Clean Tables Campaign, the average return rate of trays and crockery rose by a mere 2 percentage points to 35 per cent across hawker centres here.

“While NEA has seen good results at some places, it is not as satisfactory as we would like,” the agency said in its press release announcing the enforcement of fines on May 14.

NEA had added: “With only slight improvements being achieved thus far after much effort on education and outreach, a stepped-up advisory and enforcement approach will help raise our public hygiene standards at public dining places, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic.”

The agency noted that the cleaning workforce, which is made up of mostly seniors, may be more vulnerable to the virus.

Efforts to get hawker centre diners to return their trays date back as far as 2008 when the Singapore Kindness Movement (SKM) exhorted diners to return their trays at a food court frequented by the office crowd in Suntec City. TODAY file photo

Experts said the failure of past campaigns could be because they may have confused diners over whether returning trays is a market service that is paid for, or a social act that is “the right thing to do”.

Economist Walter Theseira said that past efforts, such as requiring diners to pay a deposit for trays, reinforce the notion that returning their trays is a transactional act rather than a social responsibility.

“Incentives can backfire — if you return trays solely because of the money, you will be conditioned to see it as a market exchange. So you will say — if I can pay for someone to clean up, why should I return it?” said Associate Professor Theseira, who is from the Singapore University of Social Sciences.

The confusion is further compounded by the fact that hawker centres, coffee shops and food courts are legally considered public places. Thus, laws on littering apply to them just like any other public space such as void decks.

However, Singaporeans do not think of these areas as public spaces the same way they do parks or void decks, said Assoc Prof Theseira.

Rather, the function of hawker centres or coffee shops is more similar to private food establishments such as restaurants, where people pay to have their tables cleared.

As such, the same people who would not leave a mess in the void deck as they feel that it is wrong would feel it is normal to leave things behind at a hawker centre because there are people paid to clean up after them, he said.

Dr Serene Koh, who heads the Singapore arm of research consultancy the Behavioural Insights Team, said that evolving social norms on returning trays could be one reason hindering Singaporeans from changing their behaviour. 

Some people may still be unsure about whether their behaviour matches what other people are doing. This may prevent them from returning their trays even if they wanted to, said Dr Koh.

Dr Koh pointed out that reports emphasising the low rate of tray returns could make those who wish to return their trays hesitate as they might regard this as acting against the social norm.

Furthermore, Singaporeans may also not be motivated to return their trays as they do not believe there are consequences to their inaction, she added.

Unlike wearing masks to prevent themselves from contracting Covid-19, it may seem “inconsequential” whether diners return their trays or not.

“If I don’t return my tray, somebody else will. As far as I’m concerned, nothing changes in the environment as a result of me not returning my tray.

“This licenses people to continue to not do something. When it happens for long enough, it becomes a habit which is difficult to change,” said Dr Koh.

Sociologist Paulin Straughan also cited the preconceived notion among some members of the public that returning trays could deprive elderly cleaners of their jobs.

This makes people feel good about not returning their trays and gives them a compelling reason not to do so, said Professor Straughan who teaches at the Singapore Management University.

While experts questioned the campaign methods, tray return advocates pointed to people’s “self-centeredness and selfishness”.

Mr Edward D’Silva, who chairs the Public Hygiene Council, said that campaign messages have fallen on deaf ears as some “entitled” people believe that cleaners will clean up after them.

He felt that in Singapore, changes to behaviour are slow unless mandated by legislation. He cited the example of efforts to encourage safe riding of personal mobility devices (PMDs), before a spate of accidents eventually led to PMDs being banned from pedestrian paths.

Dr William Wan, SKM’s general secretary and co-chairman of NEA’s Hawker Centre Workgroup on Promoting Tray Return, said that while Singaporeans keep their dining areas clean at home, this same sense of ownership does not extend to public places such as hawker centres.

Many Singaporeans are also affluent enough to afford domestic helpers who could clean up after them at home, Dr Wan noted.

In the same vein, Singaporeans also believe that cleaners in hawker centres are being paid to clean up after them and there is no need to clear their own trays. Such attitudes, particularly among parents, have undone SKM’s efforts to educate students to return their trays in schools, he added.

Dr Wan described himself as a long-time advocate of education and engagement to change behaviour. But he came around to supporting enforcement methods, after realising that the soft approach was proving ineffective.

The fact that Singapore’s hawker culture was added to the Unesco Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity last year also made it even more important to instill a “culture of cleanliness”, Dr Wan said.

However, Dr Koh, the behavioural expert, questioned if the expectation of hawker centre patrons is fair.

“Realistically, when you’re using that table at the hawker centre for 10 minutes to 20 minutes, you have a transactional relationship with the place,” she said. “It’s not like a park where you can derive emotional joy from being there and its cleanliness is integral to your happiness.”

Singaporeans believe that cleaners in hawker centres are being paid to clean up after them and there is no need to clear their own trays, said Dr William Wan, SKM’s general secretary and co-chairman of NEA’s Hawker Centre Workgroup on Promoting Tray Return. Photo: Ili Nadhirah Mansor/TODAY


The enforcement of fines has been broadly welcomed by cleaners, patrons and hawker stall owners alike, although each group has reservations over its implications.

Currently, only a minority of diners return their trays or clear up the litter on their tables, said cleaners. Even if diners clear their tables, many still leave behind trash such as chicken bones and tissue paper.

This tends to attract many pigeons, which makes the tables harder to clear, said Mr Suresh Gunusunderan, a 35-year-old cleaner at Kim Keat Palm Market and Food Centre.

Ms Lakshmi said that used tissues left behind could also lead to the spread of illnesses.

“You don’t know what kind of illness the last person who sat there had, but you (the next diner) still have to sit near the tissue paper they left behind,” she said.

Mr Le Xuan Hung, 34, who works at Bendemeer Market and Food Centre, noted that with diners returning their trays, cleaners like him can be stationed at tray return points, reducing their need to walk around the premises. This would reduce interaction with other people and is safer for cleaners given the current Covid-19 situation, he added.

The cleaners interviewed also said they are confident that they would not lose their jobs as they are still required for other tasks.

Ms Lakshmi, for instance, said that her employer had already informed staff that they would be redeployed to focus on tasks such as sorting out crockery or wiping tables once enforcement starts.

However, while cleaners welcomed a lightened workload, there were some, such as Ms Zhang Bi Yu, who were concerned that it could lead to a pay cut.

Ms Zhang, 61, who works at Kim Keat Palm Market and Food Centre, currently takes home S$1,400 a month. With an unemployed son and three young grandchildren to support, she said that her biggest worry is that her pay would be reduced if her workload falls too.

Her worry appears unfounded, going by what the cleaning firms say.

Mr Ang Feng Yao, the business development manager of One Heart Cleaning which provides cleaning services to three hawker centres including Kim Keat Palm Market and Food Centre, said that cleaners in his company are unlikely to face a pay cut as they will still be occupied with other tasks.

When patrons clear up after themselves, cleaners can focus on sanitising tables and chairs, sorting out crockery and returning them to hawker stalls.

“Our cleaners definitely won’t have less work. Rather, their work will be different and more focused,” said Mr Ang.

A cleaner at a tray and crockery return point at Maxwell food centre on Sept 25, 2020. Photo: Ili Nadhirah Mansor/TODAY

Similarly, Mr Tan Hang Kian, the executive director of cleaning company Clean Solutions, which provides services to several hawker centres, said that with the enforcement, his staff will no longer have to be “scattered” all over the premises but can perform specific tasks.

Concerns that cleaners would lose their jobs when patrons start clearing up after themselves are also unfounded, said Mr Tan. Most cleaning companies are in fact facing a labour crunch, he pointed out.


A vast majority of hawker centre customers interviewed were supportive of NEA’s move, with many believing that it is the only way to change bad habits among Singaporeans.

Madam Tan, a 71-year-old housewife who declined to give her full name, said that even before the Phase 2 (heightened alert) restrictions were in place, she preferred to take away food she ordered at hawker stalls rather than dine in.

“Singaporeans eat very untidily. Even if there is no tray, you see bones, tissue paper and empty drink cans on the table, and the table is wet also. This puts me off.

“I’m glad they are going to enforce the rule asking people to return trays. That’s the only way for many of these people to learn,” she added.

Ms Claire Gwee admitted that she does not return her trays most of the time as her family and members of the public do not do so either.

However, the 35-year-old consultant agreed that the clearing of trays should be “basic behaviour”, especially in the light of the pandemic.

“It (the fine) obviously doesn’t bode well for Singapore’s image since there have already been other countries which have called Singapore ‘draconian’ but I guess the bitter pill has to be swallowed if necessary,” she added.

While most of those interviewed did not expect any difficulty in complying with the rules once dining-in at hawker centres resumed, there were nevertheless concerns that infrastructure would not keep up pace with the new ruling.

Ms Lilian Chua, a 60-year-old retiree, was concerned that tray return spaces would not be big enough to accommodate the number of diners returning their trays. She observed that currently, some hawker centres do not clear the tray return areas fast enough, causing patrons to leave their trays on the floor and birds to feed on the food scraps.

Those with young children and the elderly also said that it may be difficult for them to comply with the rules.

Mr Leong Weng Chuen, a 76-year-old retiree, said the new law is inconvenient for elderly like him who have to walk back and forth with a tray full of things.

“I’m already so old and don’t have much savings, and they still expect me to pay S$300 (as fine). It doesn’t make sense,” said Mr Leong, adding that it is the cleaner’s job to handle the trays.

Ms Sitti Fatimah Zahrah Muhamad, a part-time school counsellor with two daughters aged three and one, said that she and her husband usually return their trays at hawker centres and food courts to set an example for their children.

However, the 30-year-old acknowledged that families with many children or naughtier ones could find it challenging to keep them from making a mess on the tables.

A vast majority of hawker centre customers interviewed were supportive of NEA’s move, with many believing that it is the only way to change bad habits among Singaporeans. TODAY file photo

In response to TODAY’s queries, NEA reiterated that it will adopt a “pragmatic approach” towards enforcement.

“We understand that there are circumstances where patrons are unable or fail to return their dirty trays and crockery or dispose of the litter, such as the less-abled, frail elderly or young children under the age of 12.

“Family members or dining companions of these groups should help to dispose of the litter and return the dirty trays and crockery when clearing their own,” said NEA.


While many hawkers whom TODAY spoke to said that the move will improve the cleanliness of hawker centres, some were concerned that diners may be deterred from visiting their stalls once enforcement kicks in.

The owner of a claypot stall at Marsiling Mall Hawker Centre, who wanted to be known only as Mr Neo, said that his diners typically buy several dishes at one go. Given that many of these are served in claypots, it would be rather heavy for diners to return their trays and clear their tables, he added.

He was worried that once the enforcement kicks in, his regular customers will patronise coffee shops instead as the rule will only be enforced there later.

At the same time, Mr Neo and several other hawkers interviewed felt that there should be a reduction in their fees for cleaning services given that the cleaners are no longer primarily responsible for the cleanliness of the tables.

When asked if the price of cleaning contracts would also drop with diners returning their own trays, Mr Tan of Clean Solutions said that this would depend on several factors.

A reduction in labour opens up the possibility that cleaning costs can go down as well. Administrative charges involved in implementing the tray deposit system at some hawker centres can also be reduced since it will be redundant.

However, under the Government’s Progressive Wage Model for the cleaning sector which seeks to improve the pay of cleaners in tandem with an upgrading of their skills, the pay of cleaners may rise as well, said Mr Tan.

Mr Ang of One Heart Cleaning reiterated that cleaners will continue to put in the same hours and their wages will also need to be adjusted for inflation.

In response to TODAY’s queries on whether the cost of cleaning contracts will be reduced, NEA noted that table cleaning service providers at hawker centres are engaged by either NEA or by stall holders through their Hawkers’ Association.

Even with patrons clearing their tables after meals, the service providers would still need to make sure that the tables are well-cleaned and sanitised, and the trays and crockery are sorted and cleared from the return points in a timely manner.

The agency pointed out that the workload of cleaning companies has also increased as they step up cleaning and disinfection work at dining places, especially in light of Covid-19.

A cleaner working to clear trays and crockery from a tray return station in Marsiling Mall hawker centre. TODAY file photo


For so long, Singapore has struggled to shake off its ‘fine city’ moniker. The latest move does nothing to help that cause.

Prof Straughan said the enforcement of fines is “a step back” towards creating a more gracious society in Singapore.

“It just says it’s a conformist society where you are afraid of breaking the law,” she added.

She disagreed that Singaporeans are only capable of changing their behaviour through legislation, citing how queue systems at MRT stations have been ingrained as a habit for Singaporeans through markings on the ground and the presence of train staff to remind commuters to queue before entering trains.

Resorting to fines is also not sustainable in the long run as it requires money and manpower to enforce the law, she added.

Dr Koh and Assoc Prof Theseira, on the other hand, felt that enforcing the fines are not necessarily regressive.

Dr Koh said that meting out fines is simply one of many policy tools to achieve a desired behaviour among people.

“Just because we are enforcing a fine doesn’t mean it’s a step in the wrong direction…Fines in or of themselves are not always bad, and not imposing a fine isn’t always good either,” she said.

Assoc Prof Theseira noted that while it is unlikely that Singapore has more fines than the average city, the “fine city” label has stuck because there are signs everywhere to govern people’s behaviour.

He added that Singaporeans too may have imbibed and self-perpetuated the belief that they only respond to fines.

For now, it remains to be seen if enforcing the fines will finally get Singaporeans to adopt socially acceptable behaviour at hawker centres.

“You will get compliance, but you won’t get social acceptance,” said Assoc Prof Theseira.


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NEA trays litter cleaner fines public hygiene hawker centres coffee shops

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