Liak Teng Lit: 5 million people, 70,000 cleaners...that's ridiculous!

Liak Teng Lit: 5 million people, 70,000 cleaners...that's ridiculous!

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong ticked off Singaporeans earlier this month over the trash left after the Laneway music festival. Cue Mr Liak Teng Lit, 61, chairman of the Public Hygiene Council, which leads the Keep Singapore Clean Movement.

The group chief executive of Alexandra Health System tells Rachel Chang that his interest in cleanliness started out as a fear of communicable diseases spreading. Now, he fears that the disease is in Singapore's societal values.

Q: Earlier this month, the Prime Minister, referring to trash left behind by festival-goers at Gardens by the Bay, said that Singaporeans had to strive to be a "clean" city, not just a "cleaned" one. You were the one who first came up with that phrase. How did you feel about the episode?

The reality is we actually look clean because we have 70,000 cleaners cleaning up after us. Singaporeans don't think much about cleanliness because it looks okay. But, ironically, it hides our problem.

Your neighbour dumps something at the lift lobby, you saw the guy do it, but (you think), "never mind lah, the cleaner will come and pick it up". Now it's very different if this were in Japan or in Taiwan. Your neighbour dumps something, nobody is going to clean it and when you come back from work it's going to be there, the next day it's there, by the third day it will start smelling. You're never going to forgive a neighbour who does that.

But here, if the place is not clean, it's not your neighbour's fault, it's the cleaner's fault. "Town council no good."

Q: When did Singaporeans' standards on cleanliness start to drop?

My memory of the 1980s was that Singapore was perfect. And we truly could be proud of being a clean city. Things were by and large okay for the next 10, 15 years. But slowly, it gradually deteriorated. My own impression is that the last couple of years were particularly bad. Behaviour began to shift, people no longer worried about being caught for littering.

The lack of enforcement (in catching litterbugs), or the sharp decline in enforcement, probably has escalated the problem but it's also the whole society changing. There are a lot of people who take it for granted that people will pick up after you.

A couple of years back, when they started having cleanliness as a Key Performance Indicator for town councils, it became that every time (one) didn't do a good job picking up litter, they got a scolding.

And the public started gaining experience (on how public servants reacted). You litter because you say, "Oh, I can't find a dustbin". And some public servant actually responded by saying, "I will go and put more dustbins". It is like (when) somebody gives an excuse, however unreasonable, you accept it and you start responding to it. So after a while that excuse sounds reasonable.

I like to ask, have you been to Japan? Korea? Taiwan? Name me one city that has got more dustbins than us. We probably have the highest density of dustbins anywhere in the world and still there are Singaporeans who claim they litter because there are not enough dustbins.

Q: Who's at fault for this state of affairs?

I blame some of the parents. I have seen it more than once that the kid drops something and he wants to pick it up, the parent says, "No. Dirty. Let the cleaner do it".

So they are teaching the children the wrong thing. I think the self-awareness is a problem. First, we don't even see the rubbish. Then when we see the rubbish, we don't see it as our problem. We see it as the cleaner's problem, we see it as the foreigner's problem (for littering), we see it as education system's problem.

But the fundamental problem is a lack of consideration for one another. In health care, we say a rash on the skin is a symptom. This is a symptom. The disease is actually our values and our lack of consideration for one another.

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