A tough problem to lick: Why it's so hard to return a tray

A sense of entitlement and the hawker-centre environment are what make diners resistant to returning their trays.

Are you a tray-er or a quitter? That question comes up now and again, and it is one that I tend to ignore because it makes me feel bad about myself and my disgusting tray habits. I suspect you, like me, don't like my impeccable personal hygiene becoming the subject of public debate.

Singaporeans woke up one day a few years ago and were told these things: We are running out of hawker centre cleaners. The centres will become pigsties if we don't pick up after ourselves ("yes, Madam principaaaal," we chant). So there will be tray collection points set up, let's be tray picker-uppers (cue catchy campaign song).

The reasoning is absolutely correct, of course. Cleaning up your chicken bones and spilled soup is no one's idea of a dream career, and as backup career plans go, handling stuff that has been in someone's mouth is far, far down the list of last resorts.

But it has been tough going. Singaporeans find ways to get around, block, drag their feet and ignore everything that has been tried (it's how most of us get our exercise, actually).

So away with the carrots, here comes the stick. Centres at Marsiling Mall and Bukit Merah Central tried the one-dollar-tray-deposit plan.

And as in Jurassic Park, nature - or rather, Singapore nature - finds a way, and up to 90 per cent of people decided to go without trays, preferring to leave their bones and tissues on the table - tiny, sad, chewed-up symbols of defiance.

So angry about it are some that there is a Facebook page named Say NO To Tray Return In Singapore with about 650 Likes. It wants to sum up the feelings of the trayer-stayers, which I paraphrase as: I get nothing from doing it. Food prices won't come down anyway. It puts cleaners out of a job.

They sort of had me on their side until I read those complaints, which makes trayer-stayers sound a little bit like whiny idiots. And I am not an idiot (despite what my family thinks).

If you do things only because you get something out of it, then stop paying taxes, which fund things such as schools outside of your district. Dig a hole and live there with your doomsday cult.

And if you want a price cut for every little thing you do to make an operator's life easier, then a) see above, and b) you should be paying nothing, given how much you stop yourself from littering or spitting, or force yourself to act like a normal decent human being.

As for the heart-rending plea to think about the jobs of cleaners - well, hats off to you and your kindness, because I'm sure if you lived a few decades ago, you would have fought for the job rights of child shoe-shiners and unlicensed doctors.

Wait: Aren't you the same people who shout about the presence of foreign workers on public transport? What do you think they do for a living? Yup, they pick up your nasty chicken bones.

A lot of the anti-picker-upper rage comes from the sense of entitlement we have towards cheap, hygienic, tasty food and the furniture on which to eat in comfort. Our hawker centres were a 1960s solution to the issue of street vendor-related garbage and food safety, one that has worked for half a century, but which is running into the realities of the 21st century labour shortage.

And by that, I mean nobody wants to clean up after you, even if you offered them more money, which you won't because people want chicken noodles with a Michelin star for $2.50.

There's another problem with trays that makes it resistant to social conditioning. We behave differently when we are in a hawker centre compared to elsewhere. As a Straits Times story points out, in workplace canteens, such as in the Khoo Teck Puat Hospital, we tend to be nicer people. That is also true in my office canteen here in Toa Payoh, where only newbies leave trays behind.

The story attributes the returner behaviour to what it calls "unwelcome glances", which I guess in polite circles must sting like Cersei's naked walk of shame across King's Landing (for those who don't watch Game Of Thrones, it was very humiliating for Cersei).

Tut-tutting works and it is how I became a returner. An auntie, a cleaner mind you, told me off (funny, she didn't think that she was tut-tutting herself out of a job, mainly because she knows when a 100 per cent return rate has been reached, her boss will move her to where her tuttage is required).

So many of us know how to behave, we just don't know how, or want to, generalise that behaviour to hawker centres. There is something about those places that makes Singaporeans treat them like public conveniences.

Complicating all this is the coffee shop, which is a fully staffed private business that looks, sounds and smells like a hawker centre. One environment, two different sets of behaviour expected of diners, so they pick the easier one.

That is why, I suspect, that we can be trained to queue up to board MRT trains and stand to the left on the escalator and give up reserved seats - because the MRT experience is unique. There is no other cheaper, more rowdy MRT system that lets passengers act like prats.

On top of that is the fact that it is so darned easy to just walk away from a mess. It is not only easy, it is a perk.

All this is why changing tray behaviour puts us on the edge of something new in campaigns: The usual carrot-stick approach of $1 trays is easily dodged, we see tray-leaving as a consumer right and the hawker centre is a large anonymous place, rather than an intimate one like an office canteen, where people we know can judge us.

It is going to be a tough problem to lick for all these reasons.

In my head, I have an image of a man who, finding himself in a tray-deposit place, balances a bowl of soup on his head, with a plate of chicken rice in one hand and one plate of prata in the other. Around him, impressed diners give a slow clap. You know that day is coming.

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