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.