It’s Really Not That Hard To Return Halal Trays Where They Belong at Hawker Centres
Top image: Complaint Singapore / Facebook

Putting things where they belong is a no-brainer—or is it? 

Even before we learn how to write, most of us learn the concept of sorting (square pegs, round holes, all that jazz). But it seems as if some aren’t on board with this. 

A recent post on Facebook group Complaint Singapore (home to Singaporean grouses big and small) exposed the sorry state of a Joo Koon hawker centre’s tray return area. 

The issue was that despite the presence of labels at the tray return stations, Halal and non-Halal trays had been jumbled up. A number of green Halal food trays were left haphazardly at the non-Halal tray return station. Non-Halal crockery and utensils also appeared to be left on Halal trays. 

Nasir Uddin, who’d shared the photo, opined on the unsightly mess: “We should return the tray accordingly and respect religious [matters].”

When it comes to the issue of Halal food and utensils, though, things aren’t that straightforward. 

‘Halal’ originates from Arabic and means lawful or allowable, per the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS). Any food or drink that’s Halal is A-okay for Muslims to consume. Anything that’s non-Halal, or Haram, is forbidden. 

Should this distinction extend to utensils, trays, tray return areas, and even washing areas? Or is this considered pedantic, as some commenters argue?

Singapore halal tray return
Image: Stephanie Lee / RICE File Photo

The Argument for Separate Tray Return Areas

For some Muslims, separating crockery is the rule. No two ways about it. 

According to the Shafi’i school of thought in Islam (of which most Muslims in Singapore subscribe to), utensils that have been used with pork should be ritually cleansed before they’re used for Halal food. This process, also known as sertu, entails washing the dish once with water mixed with soil and six times with water. 

Rather than go through the whole sertu process at a likely already shorthanded hawker centre, it only makes sense to separate utensils to avoid cross-contamination in the first place. 

The Argument for Unified Tray Return Areas

For some, the separation of utensils isn’t a must. 

Muslims who follow the Hanbali school of thought would argue that ritual cleansing of dishes and utensils that have been used for non-Halal food is encouraged but not mandatory

Absolute purity is impossible to achieve. Should we even try? 

The divergence between the schools of thought boils down to different ideas of impurity. Is a tray that carried a non-Halal dish considered impure? What about potential contamination from placing the Halal tray return station directly beside the non-Halal one? And what if someone consumes items from both Halal and non-Halal stalls in the same sitting? If contamination is inevitable, then is separate tray return areas just a performative measure? 

It should be noted, however, that food that’s been contaminated unintentionally, and in trace amounts, is still permissible in Islam, says media platform Keyword: Unintentionally.

Singapore halal tray return
Image: Stephanie Lee / RICE File Photo

They’re all washed together anyway, right? 

Some internet commenters said they’d seen Halal and non-Halal crockery collected and washed together, which renders separate tray return stations nothing more than an arbitrary gesture.  

According to MUIS regulations, though, Halal crockery should have its own washing area. Whether this is practised at food establishments is another question. At some food courts where there are only one or two Halal vendors, the Muslim vendors would typically wash their crockery themselves, according to netizens. 

Everything In Its Right Place

All that’s to say that this isn’t a black-or-white issue. And while we can argue over the practical value of separating utensils till we’re blue in the face, one thing is for certain: Putting things where they belong is basic etiquette. When it concerns the beliefs of a religious group, it’s basic respect.

‘Protesting’ by leaving your tray in the wrong spot isn’t going to do anything besides inconveniencing the cleaning staff and the Muslims patronising the establishment. Just because there’s no more space on the non-Halal rack doesn’t make it automatically okay.

And if you’re just carelessly chucking your tray on the nearest empty tray return slot, maybe some sorting practice with one of those baby toys is in order. But hey, at least we’re all actually returning our trays. 

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