Delivered in Parliament on 5 October 2020
The Covid pandemic that is still affecting our lives has brought home the importance of keeping to high hygiene and cleanliness standards, and ensuring that these standards are upheld, at the risk of becoming threats to public health and safety.
The bill before us implements mandatory cleaning standards for specified premises, and will indeed go towards ensuring that premises which have poor hygiene standards may result in operators being held accountable. The aim is to provide enough of a stick that we would see improvements to our living spaces when they fall below acceptable levels.
Yet, while Singapore has an international reputation as a clean city, and despite years of clean and green campaigns, I believe it is still important to ask ourselves if we are a ‘clean city’ or a ‘cleaned city’. Are we truly a nation where individuals take responsibility to ensure that our environment is clean and hygienic, or do we instead see it as ‘someone else’s problem’? Do we make messes in our living environments and expect cleaners to ‘do their jobs’ to clean up after us?
We all agree that there is a big distinction in a society which is able to maintain high hygiene standards because people do their parts to keep clean, compared with one where low wage, low status workers are employed to ‘do their jobs’ to clean up messes that others have left behind without a second thought. What does it say about us as a nation when we leave our food dishes and rubbish strewn all over the table after a meal, and justify it by ‘not wanting the poor cleaners to lose their jobs’?
Like many point out, we also have much to learn from the experiences of societies such as Switzerland, Japan and Taiwan, which maintain high levels of cleanliness, with hardly any litter bins and street sweepers in sight. Such societies have evolved and have high levels of social consciousness, where residents take pride in their surroundings. This extends to having a culture where people who are sick automatically wear surgical masks to avoid infecting other people, without being mandated to do so by law. Residents also automatically sort their rubbish into different categories to facilitate recycling, rather than rely on workers in waste processing centres to do it for them. While living in Germany, I also remember being extremely conscious about how I would sort out my rubbish, for fear of accidentally placing the recyclable materials in the wrong bin and possibly contaminating the material in that entire bin. On a weekend trip to Switzerland, stopping for breakfast at a café, we witnessed a man at an adjacent table carefully sweep up the crumbs of the croissant that he just ate, before meticulously dusting them onto his plate and returning it to the waiter behind the counter.
Back in Singapore, our environmental services industry is estimated to employ approximately 78,000 workers, with almost two thirds of employed residents in the sector aged 55 and above. It is one of the industries targeted by our much- vaunted progressive wage model, which tells us that these are low pay, low status jobs, a future which parents threaten for their kids if they do not study hard enough.
The reality though, is that the pandemic and associated lockdowns around the world have shown that cleaners are key frontline workers, keeping economies
running while running risks to their own and their families’ health. The stigma associated with what is traditionally seen as an unskilled, unimportant job, can undermine how we view public health and hygiene, and lead to underinvestment in the industry. This prevents the implementation of new technologies and digitalisation initiatives that would otherwise raise productivity and make such jobs less physically demanding on our older workers, while also removing some of the stigma associated with being a cleaner.
The wider point here is also one of sustainability: environmental, economic, and societal. We are now facing an uncertain future where the planet is fast running out of time to deal with limited resources and the effects of climate change are becoming more real. We can ill-afford to use and consume as if our resources were unlimited. Likewise, our ageing demographics also tells us that there will come a point where it will become unrealistic to keep relying on low wage, low status workers – often either foreign or elderly – to maintain cleanliness standards while we continue to treat them as being unimportant and invisible.
Even as the cleaning industry looks to more long-term, sustainable solutions to provide the services expected of them, we as a society must start developing the type of social consciousness required for each one of us to adopt a clean lifestyle.
We could do so by having another look at our clean and green campaigns over the years, to figure out what has been effective in the past. Have these campaigns overly-emphasised fines, penalties and shaming for specific behaviours with less regard to the reasons behind our actions, rather than address wider issues relating to shifts in awareness that everyone has a role to
play in keeping our shared spaces clean? A coherent, multi-faceted approach that starts from a young age and is tailored to fit our changing society, needs to be taken, from punitive measures for those who litter and dirty the environment, to public education campaigns at all levels about environmental protection driving the need to reduce and better manage waste, and to foster a pride in our shared spaces.
Youth voices would be extremely important in this, and we should fully involve the young from the start in our efforts to effect such changes, in driving home the message that our reliance on cheap and elderly labour to clean up after us has to go.
Perhaps it is time we look to the wisdom espoused by Goethe, who wrote: Let everyone sweep in front of his own door, and the whole world will be clean. This is a shared philosophy that I hope will be one of the legacies that we leave behind for future generations of Singaporeans to come.