Graciousness out of whack

I was having lunch at the Kopitiam near my office recently when I noticed hanging all over the ceiling were banners titled “Goodness Gracious Me! Please return your dirty tray”. Apparently this is a joint project by the Straits Times and Kopitiam to promote “graciousness”.


So it seems that clearing your trays in food courts is the new “in” thing for government campaigns. Never did I hear this mentioned as part of the “kindness movement” until PM Lee made it an issue during his National Day Rally speech last year. The PM had quoted an email he received from a lady on making Singapore a better place:

“Actually we should feel quite embarrassed to leave our dirty plates and dirty table for the next diner. In my mum’s house, after eating, we will clear our plates and clean the table…this is a good habit we should adopt outside the home.”

And of course soon after the words left his mouth, government agencies, government-affiliated community organisations and businesses keen to gain favour with the government lined up to promote this new and important campaign.

Don’t get me wrong. I have no problem with promoting kindness and graciousness in Singapore. In fact, I think our lack of civic consciousness is one of the many things that makes us very Third World, despite our First World infrastructure and education.

But I think this emphasis on returning one’s trays shows a complete muddling of priorities. In fact, given the numerous areas in which we lack graciousness, I don’t even consider tray-returning as something we need to give attention to.

Firstly, should we be returning our trays? My answer is: It depends. In school canteens, army camps, company cafeterias, I think we should, because costs need to kept down. But in commercial establishments like Kopitiam and MacDonalds, I don’t think it is necessary. These establishments usually have cleaners who are hired to clear plates. If everyone (or most of us) were to clear our plates ourselves, there would be no reason to keep so many of those cleaners. And even with Jobs Credit, these workers are likely to lose their jobs (since they are mostly contract workers). In fact, at another Kopitiam near my house, the cleaner already looked very free despite most diners ignoring the tray-returning campaign banners.


Having said that, I always make the effort to place all my bones and dirty tissues onto the plates before leaving the table, just to make their lives a bit easier.

So if we don’t focus on tray-returning, what should the Kindness Movement focus on?

Giving up seats on the MRT and buses for a start. This is likely to make a bigger impact on people who need the kindness, like the elderly and pregnant moms.


A few months ago, I came across a bunch of NTU (or is it SMU) students, who had initiated a campaign called Project KLOE (Keep left on escalators) in MRT stations. This is a good, ground up initiative that would help commuters who are rushing to and from work.


Ultimately, I believe most of our bad manners is a result of poor upbringing in a very self-seeking and competitive society. If we want to improve our graciousness, we have to target children and parents. When I see schoolkids happily chatting with each other on MRT seats while an old lady stands in front of them, I wonder if their parents and schools ever told them that they should give up their seat in those situations.

Author: Gerald Giam

Gerald Giam is the Member of Parliament for Aljunied GRC. He is a member of the Workers' Party of Singapore. The opinions expressed on this page are his alone.

10 thoughts on “Graciousness out of whack”

  1. When the return your own tray succeeds, the foodcourts would have every reason to cut down on the number of cleaners employed. So is this a good thing?

    I would be doing my part to help the cleaners keep their jobs, which is the lesser of the two ‘evils’.

  2. I agree with the writer’s views on clearing up and not clearing up the table for certain places. Although I would prioritise on good values, I would also want the cleaners to keep their jobs.

    Nevertheless, there are some who are just really lazy and proud to clear the table and therefore, hide behind the veil of “keeping their jobs”. This is really unhealthy of a society to have such people.

  3. I think it’s pointless to initiate the Kindness Movement now.

    We are already a very self-centred society. So much so that there is nothing wrong with not giving up seats to the people who needed them most, or not giving way to pedestrians, or not helping the old lady cross the road.

  4. Pardon me. I’ll like to add one more comment.

    It’s also pointless to initiate the Kindness Movement, because, look! We need students to remind us to keep left on escalators/travelators during rush hour.

    Students, for Pete’s sake! It’s already humiliating for us to be reminded to be kind; it’s doubly humiliating for us to be reminded by students.

  5. firereaver – you have a point there. But where should we draw the line on clearing trays? Why is clearing your trays at Kopitiam gracious while not clearing your plates at Lawry’s is classy? Because one is more expensive than the other? A $4 char kway teow at Kopitiam could be just as expensive to a retiree as a $50 prime rib is to a CEO.

    Sometimes I wonder whether eating establishments are so keen to join this campaign because it could eventually help them reduce costs by shedding workers.

  6. The campaign should more accurately be called “Retrench and elderly Singaporean cleaner Campaign”.

    Why not take it one step further, allow us to govern ourselves, make our own decisions, then we can save a lot of money on ministers etc

  7. I went to the nearby Kopitiam this evening again. My wife asked the cleaner what she thought of this campaign. Her reply was that it would mean less work for her, but might also mean she would be out of work.

    So who really are we helping if this campaign takes off?

  8. Here’s a letter from the Straits Times forum today:


    Tray return in food centres: More prominent signs needed

    I READ Wednesday’s article, ‘Tray-return drive yields good results’, and have this to add.

    I believe most Singaporeans are gracious people, and will generally return their food trays after a meal.

    The problem is that most food centres do not position their tray-return stations prominently enough, nor do they have clear signs asking patrons to return trays.

    Singaporeans are generally well-mannered and most will not just leave after eating if the signs ask them to return their trays.

    So food centre operators, bring out your tray-return stations and make the signs big and easily seen.

    Let us work together to make Singapore that little bit more gracious.

    Sam Yeow


    I really can’t see the link between returning trays in commercial food establishments and graciousness.

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