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Commentary: Tougher action needed to get diners to return trays

Beyond the financial pinch of fines, penalties for those who fail to clean up could include deterrence, says William Wan of the Singapore Kindness Movement.

SINGAPORE: In February, Dr Amy Khor, Senior Minister of State for Sustainability and the Environment, launched the Clean Tables Campaign

This was yet another concerted effort to remind diners to keep tables clean, by clearing used tissues, wet wipes and disposable crockery, and returning their trays.

We had campaigns from the 1960s to keep our country, our water supplies and even our hands clean. In 1983, we had the Keep Public Toilets Clean campaign, not to mention 2013’s Tray Return Initiative.

But were they effective?

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As Liak Teng Lit, the former Chairman of the National Environmental Agency (NEA) pointed out, Singapore is a cleaned city, not a clean city.

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.  

The same is true of our public dining tables. They are cleaned by workers, many of whom are seniors.

Creating jobs for people who may need them while plugging a societal gap is not a bad model. But it also begs the question, why the gap in the first place? Why do we, in Singapore, have such an entitled mindset that we need someone to clean up after us? 


There is a clear disconnect between what respondents believe they ought to do, what they think they would do and what they actually do.

(Photo: Mediacorp)

Nine out of 10 diners at public dining places opined they ought to clear their tables where tray return facilities are available, according to NEA. 

As to whether they would do so, only 75 per cent gave a positive answer. However, as NEA observed, the average rate of tray return is at a lowly 30 per cent.

Yet, in a 2019 survey conducted by the Singapore Management University, more than a third of respondents (36 per cent) were unsure if they should return their trays after eating at food and beverage outlets, or if it was the responsibility of the cleaners. 

An almost equal number of respondents (37 per cent) felt certain that it was the latter.

READ: Strong support for diners clearing tables at public eating areas, but practice lacking: NEA

READ: Commentary: Why is it so hard for us to return our trays at the hawker centre?

Speaking to patrons of hawker centres, an oft-mentioned concern – or excuse, depending on how cynical one is – is “If we clear our trays, what would the cleaners do?”

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.

How many Singaporeans would bus our trays, complete with dirty crockery and food scraps, when in our own words, “there are people to do that for us”? 

NEA’s survey also found that close to half (47 per cent) of respondents felt clearing their own table after eating will deprive cleaners of their jobs.

A cleaner clear dishes as people dine at a hawker center in Singapore as the city state reopens the economy amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, June 19, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su

This is simply not true. Cleaners will not lose their jobs just because diners have become more responsible and gracious. They are still needed to maintain the general cleanliness of dining places, including sorting 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.

(Was COVID-19 the jolt we needed to raise standards of public hygiene? Find out on CNA's Heart of the Matter.)



I remember a time when there was a spittoon under every table at our coffee shops.

Now the spittoon is no longer ubiquitous. Our younger Singaporeans wouldn’t know what a spittoon even looks like. 

This outcome was not for the lack of legislation: There were laws against spitting since the colonial days, culminating in the Environmental Public Health Act of 1969. 

The Act was one of several measures to enhance legislative efforts to improve public health standards. The subsequent campaigns involved “soft” approaches to changing social behaviours.

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However, in 1984, 128 people were fined for spitting, with another 139 the next year. 

By 1991, then-DPM Lee Hsien Loong, in his speech at the 70th anniversary celebrations of the Foochow Coffee Restaurant and Bar Merchants’ Association, could allude to the removal of the “traditional spittoons from under the tables”.

A coffee shop in Toa Payoh sees the return of lunchtime crowds on Jun 19, 2020, the first day of Phase 2 of Singapore's reopening. (Photo: Jeremy Long)

It seems that firmer enforcement measures made for stronger outcomes.


Today, the challenge we face is to keep tables at public dining places clean. 

As Dr Khor said during the launch of February’s Clean Tables Campaign, “behavioural change” is challenging, but the “only sustainable way forward”. Speaking in Parliament subsequently in March, she made it clear that, if necessary, the Government will consider moving “beyond education to some form of regulation” to reinforce the Clean Tables Campaign.

READ: What would make Singaporeans return their trays? How about a siren?

If our anti-spitting campaign is any indication, the Government needs to do the following.

First, we need to have proper facilities to return used crockery at public dining places. The INSEAD campus in Singapore, for example, does this quite well as they have a dedicated system for people to return their plates and utensils, and discard leftover food.

Second, there must be dedicated and sustained engagement of diners to nudge them towards such behaviour. Cleaners, for instance, need to be trained to encourage patrons to keep the tables clean, whereas manpower must be employed to enforce regulations consistently. 

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Third, we must be educated about the law. Section 17 of the Environmental Public Health Act (Cap 95) makes it an offence to leave refuse in any public place except in a dustbin or other receptacle.

Patrons of F&B outlets must know that cleaners are not there to excuse them from this law but to help them adhere to it.

A dirty table at a hawker centre in Singapore.

Leaving bones, food particles or swill on the table where they may be carried by the wind elsewhere is covered under this section. Leaving behind a bottle, can, food container, wrapper, tissue or wastepaper is also an offence. 

The penalty for such offences is clearly spelt out. First offenders may be fined up to S$2,000, second up to S$4,000, third and subsequently, up to S$10,000.  

This is where campaigns are useful to increase awareness, because direct education will sensitise people to the consequences of their inaction.

READ: Leaving behind trays, food debris at hawker centres could expose others to diseases: Health experts

Education should take place at all levels. Schools aren’t enough – we must bring this message to public spaces, offices, housing estates, community centres and wherever people congregate. 

Of course this can only work if the law is enforced rigorously and consistently, which doesn’t seem to be the case currently. 

Beyond the financial pinch of fines, the penalties must include adequate deterrence. 

Consider the Corrective Work Order served to those convicted of littering. Perhaps a day or two working as a cleaner might teach recalcitrants some empathy. Another idea: For those who don’t clear their trays, notices of such offenders at specific dining places could be put up.

READ: Commentary: Hawker food isn't what it used to be. And it’s partially our fault

Until the public is convinced that cleanliness and public hygiene must be taken seriously, and there is political will to deploy adequate manpower and financial resources to keep Singapore clean, we will not get anywhere.

This approach may appear draconian to some. Others may be surprised to hear such strong sentiments coming from someone who promotes kindness – it does not seem kind to suggest a strict legalistic adherence to the law.  

But how is it kind when we leave dirty tables behind for others – cleaners or other patrons – to clear?  And how is it kind to jeopardise public health, especially amid the pandemic, through our inconsiderate and irresponsible behaviour in public eating places?

Dr William Wan is General Secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement.

Source: CNA/el


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