Norms or Rules

There are different ways to grow a society; and also at different rates. We can take the longer path that is often messier, but potentially kinder, leaves less people behind; or we can take the shorter path that is forceful, that relies on clear boundaries and metrics, that might marginalise some groups. NEA announced that they will be enforcing penalties on those failing to clear their tables at hawker centers. They publicly announced that their extensive efforts at public education and awareness have not yielded results so they decided to take the harder stance.

And thanks to the Phase 2 (Heightened Alert) restrictions on dine-in, Singaporeans haven’t quite have a chance to try getting slapped by a fine. Perhaps the Safe-Distancing Ambassador can get extra allowance from NEA by helping with enforcement of people who leave food and trays on the tables at hawker centers.

In any case, I think we are just continuing the story of Singapore, being a ‘fine city’ and using formal incentives and disincentives to govern its people. I think that these formal rules can be ways to pave the way towards better norms but it is important to recognise that the goal in these instances, is not really about having the clean table as an output. It is ultimately about normalising the return of trays, about a clear reallocation of responsibilities. We need to be more creative at thinking of pathways towards this normalisation beyond just setting of formal rules.

The case is the same for recycling – and this is taken care of by the same government agency, NEA. We need to normalise that amongst Singaporeans and if the decision is simply to use rules to normalise the behaviours, they could have done it long ago, but they were perhaps trying out other pathways. It might not be long before they default to their rule-making ways.

The question we want to ask is; whether this rule-making way is sustainable. Does it really become a norm culturally? Especially when the rules are lifted. Because clearing tables, recycling, like being polite, have positive social benefits and are virtues in themselves. Do we, as individuals, value that contribution to society more than the ability to avoid a penalty? If we don’t, then what are we building up in the society? Order, at the expense of mental health, culture of fear and compliance? Is this the way we want to move forward?