The Big Read in short: Fining inconsiderate hawker centre patrons — how did we end up here?
Each week, TODAY’s long-running Big Read series delves into the trends and issues that matter. This week, we examine why past efforts to get Singaporeans to return their trays have failed and the implications of a new fine regime. This is a shortened version of the full feature.
Each week, TODAY’s long-running Big Read series delves into the trends and issues that matter. This week, we examine why past efforts to get Singaporeans to return their trays have failed and the implications of a new fine regime. This is a shortened version of the full feature, which can be found here.
- 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.
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,” 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 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, and alleviate the shortage of cleaners, said NEA.
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.
FROM CAMPAIGNS TO FINES IN 13 YEARS
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.
Despite concerted efforts to engage and educate the community on returning trays for over a decade, the authorities have had little to show for it.
The final straw came this month 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.”
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 from the Singapore University of Social Sciences 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.
Dr Serene Koh, who heads the Singapore arm of research consultancy The Behavioural Insights Team, said that 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.
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 pinned the blame on Singaporeans’ “self-centeredness and selfishness”.
Dr William Wan, Singapore Kindness Movement’s general secretary, said while Singaporeans keep their dining areas clean at home, this same sense of ownership does not extend to public places such as hawker centres.
CLEANERS WELCOME MOVE
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.
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.
WHAT CUSTOMERS SAY
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.
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.
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.
NEA reiterated that it will adopt a “pragmatic approach” towards enforcement.
It acknowledged that those who were less-abled, frail elderly or under the age of 12 may be unable to clear their tables.
“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,” NEA said.
Among hawkers, some expressed concerns that diners may be deterred from visiting their stalls once enforcement kicks in.
For instance, a hawker at Marsiling Mall Hawker Centre who only wanted to be known as Mr Neo said that it would be difficult for his diners to return heavy claypots.
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.
REINFORCING THE NOTION OF A FINE CITY?
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.
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.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY JUSTIN ONG
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