The Fine rules all: Are diners in SG returning their trays?

Singaporeans’ most abhorred F-word, an almost-profanity that we shun more than any other, has got to be the holy ‘Fine’. Virtually any corner of Singapore, is a no man’s land, where the Fine lurks around. And yet perhaps, it’s simply needed for the improvement of our functioning society, to right the wrongs that have been plaguing us. Of course, I’m referring to the tray return situation.

From 1 September 2021, diners who fail to return their trays and clear their table litter for the second time onwards will be slapped with fines. But till 31 August 2021, no enforcement action would be taken, and diners would just be advised to do their due duty of returning their trays. It’s to help them adjust; basically, some mental preparation for the existence of a new fine because it usually never sits well with anybody. While I try not to shudder at this lavish grace period of three months, and since I strive not to be an armchair social justice warrior (the worst kind), I headed out to some hawker centres, hopeful to see an improved situation in July 2021.

Hawker centres

Indeed, the hawker centres I’ve visited seem to have undergone a transformation; cleaner tables, more tray return stations and constantly empty ones. Most astoundingly, an orderly scattering of diners who voluntarily clean up their tables and pick up their trays to the station.

This is truly 2021. Call me dramatic, but I felt a small source of pride.


Perhaps the eventual fine has caused diners to stop taking cleaners for granted, where entitlement was peaking. I mean, we even needed an Automated Tray Return System to encourage tray returning. Maybe it’s a herd mentality too. A visibly cleaner-looking hawker centre with clean tables rehashes the idea and habit of clearing your own tray, as everybody else is doing. 

Hawker centres

Also, the searing reminder of semi-lockdown periods, that heighten the necessity for being responsible for hygiene is etched in us. This pandemic truly made cleaning up after ourselves outside a thing. While long-lasting changes stem from within, the external implementations have been a great help as well, with return stations close by thus curbing laziness. 

In a span of a few metres come one to two tray return stations, with even new ones popping up. It’s not surprising, with 75 more stations added to the existing 900. What I needed to get used to, was more of how the cleaner aunties and uncles are stationed near each tray return station, resting, eating, and clearing the trays pretty often during meal times. It’s a system running in a coherent fashion. That also includes pushing the trolley of trays to the designated area to handle even more tasks like clearing the food, sorting our crockery, and pushing the trolleys back to the station, for a rinse-and-repeat routine.

Cleaner uncle

Cleaner aunties


Indeed, there is a substantial upgrade in tray-return infrastructure and a new cleaning workflow that seems to work on the premise of efficiency. The overcrowding tray return station situation in 2016, thankfully, no longer stands, as surprising as it even existed in the first place, given our general reluctance to return trays.

More Tray Return Stations

Also, may I add that observing social situations is, ironically, not the most socially acceptable behaviour you want to be showing in a hawker centre? At least not when you’re staring at each tray return station like a new mandated ambassador. But due credit needs to be given to diners for stepping up our game, righting our wrongs and treating our cleaners better.

Tray return station

From the 2016 photo of an overcrowding tray return station, tray returning isn’t new. It’s just far from often, as it should be. In June 2021, we now have bigger spaces and better systems to improve the general cleanliness of our hawker centres. And a very heartening discovery: we are finally returning our trays.

In a borderline caustic way to put it, the Fine has wielded its magic. After all, Singapore is, and hopefully always will be, a fine city (pun very much intended).

Other articles you might like: 

‘Tapau Please’ by Epi #037 — SG government to fine those who refuse to return trays

Will NEA’s new automated tray return system make Singaporeans less entitled?