Monday 17 May 2021

Hey, NEA, how do we return our trays when we’re not even allowed to eat out now?

Dear National Environment Agency,

It was one of the most humiliating experiences in my life.

And I wrote Phua Chu Kang The Movie, so I am very familiar with public humiliation.

I was having lunch at a staff cafeteria that I had never been to before.

This was a number of years ago, so I don’t recall exactly where it was and why I was there even though I wasn't a member of the staff.

What I do remember is after finishing my meal, as I started to walk away from my table, I was startled when the cafeteria suddenly erupted with angry shouting.

It was alarming how quickly the previously civilised office workers calmly eating their food just a second ago turned unhinged and rabid.

What was even scarier was realising that their feral rage was directed at me. It was as if I asked them a question about editorial independence or something. They looked like they were about to rip me to shreds.

What did I do?

Eventually, I figured out from the angry shouting that my fellow diners were taking rather extreme umbrage at me leaving behind my tray of dirty dishes on the table.

I looked around and saw signs reminding people to return their trays, which I hadn’t noticed before. I felt like such an idiot.

I swiftly picked up my tray and searched for where I could return it.

The shouting finally died down and my fellow diners let me live.

How was I to know that returning trays was part of the workplace culture there?

Talk about peer pressure. I wonder how many noobs were similarly traumatised into compliance like I was.

Yes, there were signs, but in most places where I have eaten, the signs are ignored and no one cares.

Whatcha gonna do?

And that’s probably why you announced last Friday that you are making it mandatory for diners in hawker centres to return their trays and clear their table litter from June 1 with the threat of fines up to $2,000 for repeat offenders.

Wait, but on Friday, it was also announced that from yesterday, dining out is banned until June 13 because of the surge of Covid-19 cases in the community.

So as much as we would love to return our trays and clean our table litter after we eat in the hawker centre from June 1, unfortunately, we won’t even be allowed to eat in any hawker centre from June 1 to 13.

This throwback to tighter Covid-19 restrictions must have caught you by surprise. Like Bennifer, it’s a sequel or reboot no one asked for.

I get it. The Government is a huge place. Sometimes the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. This just slipped through the butt crack. It happens.

All I’m asking you for is this.

You announced that there will be a grace period of three months from June 1 for people to adjust to this new return-your-tray rule. You will start enforcement only from Sept 1.

But since we will only be permitted to start eating in hawker centres again from June 14 (fingers crossed), can you also start enforcement from Sept 14 so that we get the full three months of the grace period?

Thanks. We need all the time that we can get to adjust to this new new normal.

Don’t you wish Miss Universe Singapore had “Return your tray” written on her national costume instead of “Stop Asian hate”?

Did you try to get Phua Chu Kang to do a “Don't play play, return your tray” video? I guess he’s too busy promoting Shopee and Covid vaccination these days. Did I mention I wrote Phua Chu Kang The Movie?

Anyway, it’s really too bad you have to resort to fines to force people to return their trays.

If only angry shouting could work nationwide.

Or can it?

- Published in The New Paper, 17 May 2021