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The ground is always a little wet, the tables are always a little grimy and the place is always a little too crowded for comfort.
Wet wipes and tissue brandished, you navigate your prospective table. For the less concerned, you’ll simply push away the half-eaten orh jian and take a seat anyway.
When your chicken wings and hokkien mee arrive in disposable styrofoam plates, the bones, the prawn shells and all the things you pick out of your food go strewn on the table.
After all, you don’t want to clutter your plate, you’ll confuse what’s to be eaten with what isn’t.
The table is more than a little grimy when you’re done. But that’s okay, you’re already done with this space which will then go on to serve another.
Anyway, there’s a cleaning aunty in a green uniform coming your way, moving slowly down the aisle with her cleaning pushcart.
This is the quintessential picture of Singapore’s hawker scene.
Ironically, the chaos and the filth make for a flavourful culture -- apparently UNESCO World Heritage material too. Perhaps it is the dirty haphazardness that adds to the experience and forms a vital part of the hawker culture.
The New Hawker Regulation: Why Fix What isn’t Broken?
Just last week, the National Environment Agency (NEA) announced changes to hawker dining norms, making it mandatory for diners to return their trays and clear their table litter post-meal, from Sept 1. This met with a flurry of mixed sentiment on forum pages and on social media.
In the wake of the announcement, speaking up about this issue, seemed to be the ultimate signal of your moral standing, for one to earn his ticket to moral high ground, a striking parallel to the Shopping Cart Theory.
But one overarching question on everyone’s minds is, why now?
Contrast the typical hawker experience with this ‘new normal’ we are struggling to accept today.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a much-needed wake-up call for Singapore and her hygiene practices, in more ways than one. Before this, sick people never wore masks, neither were food handlers made to wear masks or gloves.
The virus scare has struck enough fear that public health now remains constantly and prominently on the radar. And yet, one year on, we seem to have come full circle.
It is no wonder, and perhaps long overdue, that hawker centres, in all of its noisy, filthy glory, should be top on the agenda, partly so we can protect elderly cleaners from the nightmares of public irresponsibility.
What This Means for Our Cleaner Uncles and Aunties
Protecting them in this way, many fear, would cause these elderly low-skilled workers to lose their jobs -- a harder hit especially in these volatile, uncertain times.
The pandemic itself has been a curious phenomenon in driving two opposite effects: first, the creation of jobs in the expanding gig economy, and second, the realisation that automation can in fact power so many viable alternatives in daily life but while siphoning jobs from those at the bottom of the food chain.
For our elderly low-skilled workers, this means a few things.
Yes, the gig economy assures some that they’ll find jobs elsewhere.
Yes, more time, effort and resources will be needed to help them transition more easily into other employment opportunities that fit into today’s changing economy.
But this is a knowledge-based, high-skilled gig economy that’s rapidly evolving and, from the looks of it, will likely wind up crowding out these workers.
As we see, technology’s already doing the things people used to do.
The current direction forward is for our cleaner aunties and uncles to focus on the wiping down of tables and management of the tray return areas, rather than clearing trays.
As the world continues to brace itself against COVID-19, these key roles will become even more important.
But for overhead hawker operators, cost is of key concern. Long-term investment in automation, that will in turn produce manpower cost savings, will be the way forward for them.
So when technology can fill these gaps and chip away at our cleaners’ job scopes, where do these aunties and uncles go then?
The Ol’ Carrot and Stick
In many ways, the intention behind the amended Act is clear, but Singapore has had one too many paternalistic interventions that leave something of a sour taste in your mouth.
They push Singaporeans into motion merely out of extrinsic motivation, rather than social responsibility.
Unlike the shopping trolleys to be returned after a grocery run (usually just for the one precious dollar inside), there is usually no incentive for Singaporeans to clean after themselves a table that the previous user did not clean for them and so need not be cleaned for the next.
If the motivation is a patrolling NEA officer with the authority to slap you with a $300 fine, then Singaporeans have a lot to reflect on.
Nonetheless, the age-old carrot-and-stick principle has proven to be endlessly and crudely effective in Singapore, a ‘fine’ city, even in the most basic areas that should be governed by social responsibility.
The caveat remains that, only when either carrot or stick is actively present do people fall in line.
Without the discipline of the public supplementing these efforts, something like clearing table litter and returning trays will be an administrative nightmare to monitor and enforce.
After all, when the cat’s away, the mouse comes out to play.
And when it does, the stick only works when there is an identifiable wrong-doer against whom it is dealt. For an uncleared table with no perpetrator in sight, whose responsibility will it be to clear it then?
It isn’t fair to neither the next user nor the cleaner whose job this is no longer.
But it is a dispute that will happen frequently and without much resolution -- a consequence of one person’s irresponsibility that will only frustrate everyone involved.
In lieu of the stick and the difficulties it brings, some eateries have experimented with extending the carrot instead.
To produce the same outcome, Kopitiam’s Return Tray for Reward scheme and Timbre Group’s payable trays have been novel ways to induce tray return but only for short periods of time. This would entail an internal weighing between convenience and the carrot.
But often for Singaporeans, the former seems almost always to triumph easily.
The Singapore Way: Old Habits Die Hard
Singapore has fundamentally become a market society where monetary value is tagged to everything, but which continuously depreciates against the priceless, timeless notion of convenience.
The reality is, dollar-coin trolleys today still do get abandoned, as will the trays eventually, the single coin deemed a worthy sacrifice to save a trip to the return point.
A recalibration of the carrot-and-stick strategy is clearly in order, if we hope to change current hawker norms. Such an approach should only be the beginning of a lesson on social grace.
Over the years, campaigns and movements for this cause have met with little success. Tray return rates spike for a short while and then lapse when Singaporeans grow tired of the same message that has lost its novelty and subsequently, any traction.
The fact that this cause has entered and shamefully exited public consciousness repeatedly, says too much about the state of Singaporean society.
Here, societal ills have always been cautioned against with the looming fear of fines at our heels, from chewing gum to littering. It is no wonder Singaporeans haven’t really internalised these lessons and made habits of these social graces.
If social responsibility can come naturally to the Japanese and the Koreans without complaint, why do Singaporeans always need the threat of fines to start taking care of our spaces?
Maybe it’s time to rethink the fine, so we’ll truly learn what it means to be a gracious citizen.
Ownself Check Ownself: Will We Ever Learn
A cynical few mark this as the government’s attempt to divert attention and responsibility, from their own abysmal response to the pandemic to the need for Singaporeans to be accountable for public health.
But what’s wrong with that? It is a dual effort, after all.
Arguably, it’s time Singaporeans learn to take responsibility for their own wellbeing too, even if it means the government has to start the ball rolling first.
Perhaps not with the fear tactic, but with something a little more long-term and thoughtful.
After all, we used to do this in school automatically. The occasional slip-up would mean nasty glances cast our way, until we sheepishly corrected our steps.
It’s baffling that so much has changed.
Do we simply lean into our privilege as we grow older?
Perhaps our perception of the social divide has widened. Or maybe our awareness of it and where we stand on the hierarchy grows, so that cleaners (or helpers at home) are meant to clean up after us.
The generation before us is well-accustomed to this too, which means there is often little in place of a role model when it comes to lessons on social graces.
This new regulation comes in direct conflict with Singapore’s maid culture -- a challenge long overdue -- but fear is unlikely to be an effective long-term driving force.
For a privileged lot like Singaporeans, we need more sustainable measures that not so much scare us into compliance, as teach us their value.
One thing’s for sure, we are a group that succumbs to peer pressure.
We see this in the monkey-see-monkey-do notion in Singapore: the growing queues outside a shop popular by ‘hearsay’ and the growing group of metal straw advocates in 2018.
Social media, as well as its legion of influencers with their own massive following, is one untapped and underestimated resource. More fluid, strategic campaigns, that appeal to social and self awareness, will make for a more viable long-term approach.
It’s difficult to say if Singaporeans will eventually learn. But in good faith, I’d like to think we will, maybe the hard way at first as Safe Distancing Ambassadors and NEA officers make their rounds at our favourite makan spots.
I like to believe these pandemic times have made us all a little more conscious, a little more cautious and a whole lot more concerned for our spaces, our peers and our actions.
I like to believe our generation's a little more aware than the generation before us. Maybe this generation is what we need to drive true, organic social change.
For a beloved place like our hawker centres, I like to think we’ll learn to care a little bit more, with or without the looming threat of a hefty fine.
Baby steps, Singapore.