Don't give incentives to get people to do what is right

I was in Singapore recently to learn about its city planning and urban development, when I came to know of how some hawker centres require customers to pay a deposit to use trays.

While the intention is good - getting Singaporeans to clean up after themselves - the effect might be counterproductive.

In Michael Sandel's What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits Of Markets, he made a distinction between market values and moral norms.

When market logic is applied to things that ought to be outside of its reach, it corrupts those behaviours, thus undermining moral norms.

Cleaning up after finishing a meal at a hawker centre (or flushing toilets, putting rubbish in bins, giving up seats to the elderly or pregnant women, not talking loudly on trains) should be the norm of any civilised society.

Using deposits to nudge people to do the right thing teaches them the wrong value: That doing the right thing must be tied to money; that one must pay others to be kind and, conversely, punish them financially for being unkind.

When I went for lunch at Maxwell Food Centre one day, the place was crowded. After spotting two empty seats at a table with three young women, I asked them if I could use those seats. They replied that the seats were taken. But, even after 15 minutes, those seats were still empty. And, not long after, they left. Clearly, they did not want anyone to use those seats while they were enjoying their meals.

Singapore has accomplished so much compared with its neighbours. Its gross domestic product has grown, it has world-class infrastructure, low crime, huge green spaces, and an educated and productive population. Surely, it can find ways to get its citizens to be civic-minded and considerate of others, without resorting to financial inducement.

Start by putting up visible signs for people to clean up after finishing their meals. Have rubbish bins spread throughout.

Once this habit sets in, people who do not clean up after themselves will naturally be frowned upon. Educate children early on the value of helping one another without any financial expectation in return. Charity begins at home.

There is a time to be competitive. And there is a time to be considerate of the collective interest and the welfare of others, even if that means waiting in queues longer.

Edward Kitlertsirivatana

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 09, 2018, with the headline Don't give incentives to get people to do what is right. Subscribe