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story Jessica Teng Sijie
Yale-NUS College is preparing for our move to the new campus. As such, there is a renewed urgency to discuss sustainable solutions that address the slew of problems threatening the habitability of our environment. Our kitchens are a case in point. Since last semester, angry Facebook comments denouncing the insidious draining of milk cartons and miraculous disappearances of protein powder have become an “inevitable” part of our residential culture. Greasy stoves, unwashed crockery and rotting food are daily struggles for those determined enough to use this space, even as the rest of us avoid it by buying our own mini-fridges or throwing in the apron altogether.
Dennis Chiang ’17’s radical proposal (footnote 1) of banning irresponsible students from accessing common spaces may be unfeasible, but highlights simmering discontent. Thus far, trumpeting the ideals of “collective responsibility” and “a community of trust” have produced little tangible result beyond rejuvenating our feel-good factor. With only one kitchen facility per Residential College (RC) next year, and an increase in student numbers, failure to do so can only result in more mess, more mold and more thefts. It is time to look at pragmatic solutions that can actually improve kitchen cleanliness and safety.
Student Government representative Nyang Bing Lin ’18 mentioned that solutions for kitchen cleanliness will likely differ from RC to RC, as determined by the Residential College Activity Committee. She shared preventive measures that Vice-Rector Chew Suyin suggested for Elm, such as a booking system to track kitchen use. Although this might deter students from leaving their mess for the next user, its enforcement needs to be further discussed. Will we stop students from using it without a booking? How can we ensure that all students book it before use without making facilities less accessible?
For retrospective solutions, Benjamin Leong ’17 suggested a schedule that ropes in the entire community by assigning suites kitchen cleaning duty (footnote 2) . This can result in cleaner kitchens, but it is unfair to impose a mandatory cleaning duty on every student regardless of their kitchen usage. Although mandatory cleaning can be a mutually agreed transference of duty among individuals under the ideal of “collective responsibility”, its imposition on students without kitchen usage is effectively a punishment under the burden of “collective guilt”. Furthermore, while the community expects students to clean up after themselves, there should not be an obligation for individuals to clean up after others. The altruistic can form a volunteer kitchen-cleaning army if they wish, but they should not distort altruism from a freely given act that it is for the pursuit of “collective responsibility”.
Ultimately, some sacrifice of ideals is necessary to pave the way for result-oriented solutions. Irresponsible individuals will always exist, but an effective way to increase cleanliness despite them is to request that cleaners integrate kitchens into their daily cleaning routine with increased compensation if necessary. School policy indicates that common spaces, such as toilets and laundry rooms, fall under their job scope (footnote 3). It is not clear why kitchens are excluded. Although this solution does not encourage personal responsibility, the trade off in our ideals gives us efficacy. Solutions that directly encourage personal responsibility either incentivize or punish. If a habitable kitchen and the community’s gratitude are not compelling reasons for the irresponsible to keep kitchens clean, it is unlikely that other incentives will work.
CCTVs should also be viewed more positively as tools that not only deter thefts but increase kitchen safety. The inevitable intrusion into our privacy is justified if it encourages more responsible behavior, since the perpetrators of crimes can be easily traced. The myth that surveillance is not allowed in the kitchens is just that—a myth. In an email interview, Rector Brian McAdoo stated that there is currently no official policy but he believes the problem is “better solved by discussing community standards and building an atmosphere of mutual trust”.
It is understandable for the administration to favor such methods. However, they have yet to provide satisfactory solutions to the scarily frequent cases of kitchen theft. Restricting lift access to offices and locking the main doors at night both operate on the comfortable assumption that culprits cannot be from our community. If thefts continue, stronger measures must be taken. Otherwise, it sends the signal that the school prizes idealism over tangible improvements to student life. Moreover, CCTVs are a simple solution that surpasses troublesome booking systems. Although a multifaceted approach is needed, their mere presence tackles both security and cleanliness problems by removing anonymity and creating the pressure that produces socially desirable behavior.
In making our residential experience more enjoyable, we should not quickly dismiss “draconian” solutions that undermine our ideals. All solutions come with their limitations. Nevertheless, even if it is under the watch of a CCTV, a kitchen that is safe and clean, where all students can leave their items in the common fridge without qualms, arguably does more to foster community spirit than anything we have right now.
1. This suggestion was mentioned on Yale-NUS Ideas Facebook page: www.facebook.com/groups/868935636498064
2. This suggestion was mentioned on Yale-NUS Ideas Facebook page: www.facebook.com/groups/868935636498064
3. “Students are responsible for cleaning their own rooms and the common kitchens. Although bathrooms and commons spaces will be cleaned by housekeeping staff, students are advised to help keep these spaces clean.” Taken from the Yale-NUS website under “General Housing Guidelines”: http://studentlife.yale-nus.edu.sg/residential-living/housing-guidelines