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Commentary: It’s more than a wee problem if coffee shop toilets in Singapore are dirty

SINGAPORE: Singapore often plays host to high-profile conferences and prominent events like the Formula 1 Grand Prix in September. It is consistently voted as a top Meetings, Incentive Travel, Conventions and Exhibitions (MICE) destination.

On an international cruise last month, I listened to guest speaker and retired Canadian diplomat Terry Greenberg give a glowing picture of Singapore as an extremely clean and green nation as the vessel prepared to arrive in Singapore.

I couldn’t help but wonder if he’d be as enthusiastic if he had used one of our public toilets at a hawker centre or coffee shop.

A study by the Singapore Management University last month indicates that overall public perception of these toilets is that they are much dirtier than they should be, and no different from they were in 2020, despite heightened hygiene awareness prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

It is interesting to note that 91.31 per cent of customers rated them as “dirty” and needing a “major overhauling”. Employees at those locations seemed to have a slightly more tempered perspective, with 70 per cent rating the toilets as “dirty” and needing only a “moderate” degree of improvement. This raises a concern that workers may have a lower expectation of cleanliness.

The employees, perhaps familiar with the facilities at their working premises, exhibited a higher inclination to utilise them compared to customers: 89.13 per cent for workers compared with just 38.61 per cent for patrons.

What does it say if our hawker and coffee shop toilets are so dirty that customers avoid using them? If the places we gather, eat, and socialise have unclean facilities, are we inadvertently jeopardising our well-being?

NOT FOR LACK OF EFFORT

That public toilets remain unclean is not due to lack of promotional efforts.

The Public Hygiene Council (PHC), Restroom Association (Singapore) (RAS) and Singapore Kindness Movement (SKM) have strived to encourage good practices in keeping public toilets clean.

In 2021, RAS introduced a three-year Let’s Observe Ourselves (LOO) Campaign @ Hawker Centres, which aims to educate premises operators on good toilet standards and maintenance practices. It conducts toilet assessments and provides suggestions to rectify lapses, as well as trains cleaners on proper cleaning procedures to maintain good toilet hygiene in participating hawker centres.

In 2022, PHC launched the Neighbourhood Toilets Community Group (NTCG) initiative to encourage partnership between operators and the community and reinforce the notion of joint responsibility in keeping public toilets clean.

SKM has been promoting public toilet cleanliness in hospitals with eye-catching posters, interviews of cleaners and appealing videos.

From next year, primary school students will be roped in to clean their school toilets, under a pilot programme by the PHC.

That there is renewed interest in this matter is a good sign – we do want toilets to be clean for everybody’s sake, and not least of all, because it is a public health issue.

Our cleaners have encountered people who do not flush after defecating, those who wash their feet with bidets and users who leave faeces around a toilet bowl.

One would think that the pandemic would have taught us a lesson or two on hygiene, but as far as toilet cleanliness is concerned, we seem to have learnt little.

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LEADERSHIP AND ENFORCEMENT

It’s been 40 years since the first Keep Public Toilets Clean campaign in 1983, so what’s holding back the progress?

We have succeeded in dealing with spitting in public that was prevalent during my youth in the 50s and 60s. We have succeeded in dealing with irresponsible disposal of chewing gum, and more recently, we have moved the needle for people returning trays at hawker centres, coffee shops and food courts to more than 90 per cent since rules were imposed on diners to clear their tables.

What contributed to the success of those efforts? 

First, leadership. Our founding Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew was legendary for his genchi genbutsu, a Japanese concept meaning “go and see”. He walked the ground and observed the situation to understand the condition that enabled him to find a solution. And he was decisive in enforcement.

If public toilets are unclean because of the neglect of the operators and owners or misuse by staff, it is worth looking at whether these stakeholders should be held responsible and decisive actions should be taken. There must be a collective will to hold business leaders to a higher standard of public hygiene because it is a public health issue that cannot be compromised.

We know where the clean public toilets are – at the airport, hotels, shopping malls and iconic tourist attractions like Gardens by the Bay and Botanic Gardens.

The attention to detail by the boss matters – the late Mr Lee once asked for weekly reports on the state of cleanliness of the toilets at the airport. This prompted then Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore director-general Wong Woon Liong to ask his staff for a daily report, which in turn led the director of operations to ask for an hourly report.

Why should leaders in the coffee shop industry be exempt from such responsibilities? In fact, tainted food would affect consumers and the consequences could be dire for the nation.

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Second, enforcement. Tray return is the latest example that enforcement works.

But Singapore already has penalties for not flushing the toilet, only they don’t seem to be working, some might argue. That is not because enforcement does not work, but because the way it was enforced did not work.

Here, it may be worth considering if there are takeaways from the Driver Improvement Points System (DIPs) implemented by the Traffic Police. The DIP is a demerit point regime designed to identify and rehabilitate errant drivers through a system of rewards and punishments.

Since every hawker centre and coffee shop is owned or operated by someone, is it feasible then for them to be held responsible for the cleanliness of their toilet?

It should be easy enough to curate a checklist to include all the elements of a clean toilet and give demerit points for not fulfilling the requirements. Written warning and fines may be imposed accordingly, and suspension of operation may be necessary for a day or more until they satisfy the legal requirements of cleanliness.

With decisive leadership, we have been able to overcome other cleanliness problems. I believe hawker centre and coffee shop entrepreneurs can be enterprising and find ways to ensure that their toilets are clean.

It is time to give them that responsibility and support them to do it right. In the long run, it is cheaper than ending up in a worst-case scenario – a pandemic of food poisoning.

Dr William Wan is Chairperson of the Community Advisory Panel on Neighbourhood Noise and a senior consultant with the Singapore Kindness Movement.

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