World Toilet Day: Let's clean up our act first

SINGAPORE - This week's news that the UN has adopted Singapore's resolution to designate November 19 as World Toilet Day did not sit well with people here.

Some acerbic online comments included: "... We cannot even maintain our toilets in this country better than the western or eastern world. Thus, to suggest it to the world is like slapping your own face. Go clean up our dirtiest toilet first than talk more."

"It's hard to understand why we want to do this at the UN. We are the only country where it's an offence to not flush the thing after use. Pity the enforcement officer," read another.

But ironically, it was the toilet cleaners in the heartland who had the most to say, and their comments were possibly the most cutting, considering they deal with the matter day in and day out.

When told that Singapore is suggesting a World Toilet Day for the world, Madam Lim Ah Keng, a toilet attendant at a wet market in Bedok North, breaks into derisive laughter, then asks in Hokkien: "Zhun bo (Are you sure in Hokkien)? Our own users cannot even keep the toilets here clean."

She should know. The 58-year-old is marking her 11th year in the job.

The toilet culture in Singapore "has not changed a single bit", she says. Despite World Toilet Day and the Restroom Association's Happy Toilet Programme launched in 2003, or its more recent LOO (Let's Observe Ourselves) Awards in 2009.

Men don't aim properly and women distribute the urine between the toilet seat and the floor.

Madam Lim and I first spoke in March last year, right after students from Ngee Ann Polytechnic's School of Business and Accountancy released the Toilet Survey Study on local loos.

The study found that about half of the 500 respondents polled were "very unhappy or unhappy with users' efforts".

And from Madam Lim's point of view, the situation has not changed much.

Mr Kwong Jieren, 54, a toilet cleaner in a neighbourhood shopping mall, is sick of cleaning up after inconsiderate users.

He mocks the idea of a World Toilet Day.

"I don't know about what is happening in toilets around the world, but I can tell you that we cannot even be proud of our own public toilets. And if we cannot be so, it sounds, to me at least, quite silly that we have pushed - successfully some more - for one (World Toilet Day) on an international level," he says.

"Eh, maybe we should introduce a programme, like 'A Day In The Life Of A Toilet Cleaner In A Really Dirty Toilet'?"

I was at a food outlet that sells frog leg porridge in Geylang over the past week, when the toilet hygiene situation hit home.

Mr Dennis Khoo, 40, a property agent, spotted me heading for the loo.

He warns: "Don't even walk in. You'd throw up your food."

I decide to risk it since I had not had my dinner. And let's just say, I should have heeded Mr Khoo's advice.

He chuckles, then says: "See what I told you? Someone did the 'big' one and forget to flush."

I stop one of the stall assistants and highlight the stench.

Miss Chen Meiyun, 28, apologises with a shrug of her shoulders: "I am sorry but what we can do? We are shorthanded and my boss does not want to spend money on a full-time cleaner.

"We have to take turns to clean it but sometimes, it gets too busy, especially during peak hours."

She hurries off to clean the dirty cubicle.

Now, let's be reasonable.

The Singapore-championed resolution calls for greater attention to be paid to the global sanitation crisis through the commemoration of World Toilet Day.

The UN estimates that 2.5 billion people worldwide still lack access to improved sanitation.

And it is a worthy cause.

Except it's highly ironic since we also can't seem to keep our public loos clean.

Miss Amelia Kng, 22, an undergraduate, shares how she and her group of friends "laughed at the dumbness" when they first read the news.

She blames toilet users for the bad sanitation here.

"I feel that the cleaners generally do their job well," she says. "But some of the public female toilets are in such an appalling state that you wonder what happened in the brief three to five minutes that someone was inside."

Miss Kng says that sometimes when she walks into a cubicle right after a user leaves it dirty, she confronts the person.

"Most times, I get excuses such as the flush is not working properly, or that it was dirty even before she walked in," says Miss Kng.

"Then there are those who would tell me to mind my own business or that I should just tell the cleaners."

While this Heartland Auntie reckons the 40 people I randomly approached this week may be too harsh in their views of the sanitary condition of loos here, their grouses are not without basis.

The point is, we need to take the initiative to work on our toilet etiquette, and not depend on campaigns such as the Happy Toilet Programme and LOO Awards.

Isn't it even more cringeworthy that we need any kind of "outside" help or government prompting to remind us about proper personal toilet habits?

(For that matter, isn't it cringeworthy that, despite our relative modernisation and development status, we need campaigns to remind ourselves about politeness or speaking a certain language well?)

If the Mayflower Market and Food Centre in Ang Mo Kio can be named last year's Best Happy Toilet - that indicates that it's not a mission impossible, right?

A recent newspaper report said that most cleaners clean their toilets at least twice a day, while toilets at MRT stations are cleaned at least three times daily.

So it's not like the cleaners are not doing their jobs properly.

Let's grow up and act like proper adults, shall we? Let's get the most basic courtesies right, without the need for anyone to chivvy us.

Good hygiene should start with our young ones at home.

Public Hygiene Council (PHC) chairman Liak Teng Lit told The Straits Times: "They (parents) should remind children to clean up after themselves, instead of telling them it's okay to leave it to the cleaners."

Indeed. "It's leading by example," says Mr Gopalan Ravishankar, 51, an auditor.

When he takes his six-year-old grandson out and they have to use a toilet, he insists that the boy "treat it like our toilet at home".

Mr Ravishankar adds wryly: "But sometimes, my grandson will ask me, 'Grandpa, why is this toilet so dirty?'

"My answer is simple, 'Ah, the person's parents or grandparents probably didn't teach him the right thing.'"

"I don't know about what is happening in toilets around the world, but I can tell you that we cannot even be proud of our own public toilets."

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