Cleaning up after yourself

I just went to lunch at a subway near my house and was treated to a sad, sad display of laziness.

Let me start by saying that this particular form of laziness is a pet peeve of mine, which I bitch about way too much to my friends. So maybe if I rant about it here I can stop nagging about it to them. At this point I should say I’m going to pick on Singaporeans and while the laziness that I am going to describe is in no way unique to Singaporeans, I live here, it’s where I observe it on a daily basis so I pick on them. Also I think it’s part of a bigger issue in their society and so they are predisposed to this particular laziness.

To set the scene: when I arrived at the Subway there was one other customer in line ordering, one customer seated at a table by herself and one table occupied by a group of three. The other 15 tables were empty (yes I counted). An additional, very important piece of information is that the customer sitting alone was not eating; she was obviously with the customer ordering in front of me and the table she was sitting at was covered in the trash of the previous customer(s) who sat there — cups, napkins and sub wrappers. Another empty table was also similarly covered. Why was a customer sitting at the dirty table when there were so many? Because both dirty tables were bench seats, which are cushined, also the other occupied table was a bench seat, people would rather sit at a dirty table then sit at the hard seats. It should be noted that the trash bin was less than three steps from the either of these seats. This is the laziness I want to rand about; the seeming inability of a vast number of people to cleanup after themselves.

Now here is how it played out. The customer ordering in front of me finished ordering and joined their companion at the trashy table. The two of them pushed the trash to the side and ate their sub, drank their drinks and enjoyed their cookies. Then they got up and left.

That’s it. Now my Singaporean friends might not find anything wrong with this scenario, except perhaps that the customers pushed the existing trash aside rather than moving it to an unoccupied table near at hand which is the common practice here. To be fair they most likely would not even notice what happened and if it was pointed out they might say, yes they should just throw the trash away. It’s so common that people don’t notice.

What’s wrong with this from my foreign — American’ ang moh — point of view is that subway is a fast-food restaurant, where customers are expected to deposit their trash in the provided trash bins which have “thank you” inscribed on them. That way the table is clear of debris when the next customer needs a place to sit, thus facilitating the quick turn over that enables the restaurant to provide it’s goods at high volume and a low price.

Why Singaporeans don’t fulfil this social contract has, I think, a logical source: hawker centers. Long ago in a less prosperous Singapore the government corralled all the street food vendors into centralized food centers with seating, restrooms, lighting and such. Even today most of the food served in Singapore is served by hawkers in such government food centers or in their more commercialized private offspring the “coffee shop” or kopitiam as they are often called by locals. And, to be honest, the best food mostly comes from these hawker centers. It must also be said that for the most part hawker center meals are cheaper than fast-food.

Since hawker centers and coffee shops are composed of a collection of individual stalls selling food the government or coffee shop owner provides the cleaning staff who collect and return the various plates, cups, utensils and other things customers eat off of; dispose of trash and leftovers; and clean the tables.

Hawker centers were so successful that the behavior that is acceptable in them has become the common denominator; not cleaning up after oneself is simply accepted at any eating establishment — even at places, such as the Ikea restaurant and some coffee shops where there are large signs screaming at customers to return their trays to specific locations. And let’s not talk about other hawker center behaviour like piling up all your shrimp shells that you spit out or the bones from your chicken or fish onto the table that you then leave for someone else to cleanup or that it is perfectly acceptable to not provide napkins or hand towels (consider yourself extremely lucky if you find a bathroom in Singapore that keeps towels in stock, the dispenser is there just to trick non-locals.)

All of this is of course not really a problem or much of a bother to locals. It’s just me, it’s a pet peeve, but this is my personal soapbox so I’ll rant if it damn well want to.

My problem with this is that people have become so used to not cleaning up after themselves through this hawker center mentality (and add in the fact that many cannot even clean up after themselves at home because they have a personal house slave — but that’s a separate, though related, rant) that they are passing this laziness on to their kids wholesale. Maybe my mom grew up too poor or my dad too southern or maybe it was the Boy Scouts hammering home their slogan of leaving a place in better condition than you found it, but I think that cleaning up after oneself is a core part of being a responsible productive member of the human race, and a trait of utmost importance to pass on to ones children to equip them for success in the wider world. We had a name for people who’s parents never taught them this or who had maids their whole life: spoiled brats. Spoiled as in the Singlish definition: broken.