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Eat your fill, leave table clean - Oct 04, 2008 (ST)

BackOct 04, 2008

The Straits Times / The Business Times News On SPH

Eat your fill, leave table clean

The Straits Times spearheads move for more graciousness.

By Kimberly Spykerman
Oct 04, 2008
The Straits Times

SMALL steps can lead to a more gracious nation.

The Straits Times is hoping to nudge Singaporeans in the right direction, by getting foodcourt customers to take a few extra steps, and clear their own trays after a meal.

'Clearing your own tray is a simple act. But if everyone does it, the difference it will make to the place will be huge,' said ST editor Han Fook Kwang.

'It's these little things we do which matter because they show that we care for the next person. That's what being gracious is about - looking after and being considerate to fellow Singaporeans,' said Mr Han, who conceived ST's tray-return project, called 'Goodness Gracious Me!'

The effort, starting today at five Kopitiam foodcourts, will eventually be extended islandwide, under the umbrella of the Singapore Kindness Movement (SKM).

Each outlet will be festooned with colourful posters, stickers and hanging mobiles, reminding diners to return their trays.

The hope is that tray-returning will mushroom into even more considerate acts, and lead to people treating one another better.

Sociologist Paulin Straughan said that extending small acts of courtesy beyond the foodcourt would help Singapore grow to become a more gracious society.

'It becomes normal behaviour to be mindful and responsible stakeholders in the environment we live in. It's not just about trays but about protecting our shared public space,' she said.

The issue even made its way to this year's National Day Rally speech. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong described the common sight of uncleared trays at foodcourts, when he highlighted the need to improve social graces.

The well-being of Singaporeans depends not just on bread-and-butter issues but also on how people behave and relate to one another, said PM Lee.

Singapore Kindness Movement chairman Koh Poh Tiong said he was delighted at the news of The Straits Times' tray-return project.

'We need to expand our pool of like-minded Singaporeans who genuinely care about the environment and want to make Singapore a better place,' he said.

The ST initiative comes after earlier attempts to get people to return their trays failed.

The National Environment Agency (NEA) tried it five years ago at its Zion Road hawker centre, with poor results. A similar attempt was made earlier this year at the Suntec City Fountain Food Terrace by owner Chesterton International Property Consultants, again with little impact.

'It's a mindset problem,' said NEA hawkers department director Chan Wai San. 'People think they go to hawker centres to eat, not clean up.'

But leaving a clean table after eating your fill can help make the hawker centre 'more efficient', because it cuts down on waiting time for patrons, noted Ms Chan.

With 1.3 million readers, Mr Han is confident that ST is in a good position to take this message to a larger stage.

Mr Han, who frequents foodie haunt Chomp Chomp in Serangoon Gardens, said that he was galvanised into action because of the 'terrible mess' that was always left behind on the tables.

While there is currently no tray-return policy at the hawker centres here, Mr Koh said that plans are under way to establish such a system.

NEA will relaunch the Tray Return Movement @ Zion Road Hawker Centre at the end of this year, with plans to extend it to other hawker centres and fast-food restaurants, under the SKM's 'Kindness in public places' initiative.

Echoing Mr Koh's sentiments that 'civic-mindedness must become second nature for all Singaporeans', Mr Han said that it is important to understand what the act of clearing your own tray implies.

'When you see a place that is clean, with no leftover food on the table, you are more willing to play your part in keeping the environment clean. If it's a dirty place, you just accept it,' he noted.

Fixing the problem requires a drastic change in mindset.

In many office canteens, including the Singapore Press Holdings canteen at Toa Payoh North, it is standard practice to clear the table and return the trays, or face being chided by colleagues.

The secret to this, said Mr Han, was the need to build a clear sense of community. 'Or maybe it's because of peer pressure,' he quipped, with a laugh.

Kopitiam managing director Alden Tan said that the foodcourt was the ideal place to take action on 'community and social issues'.

He said of ST's cause: 'I believe it will gather strength and momentum. Social change does not happen overnight but this small step represents a huge leap for Singaporeans.'