During the debate on the Environmental Public Health Act (Amendment) Bill, Workers’ Party (WP) Sengkang MP Raeesah Khan expressed concern that with more guidelines and the potential hiring of more cleaners to keep Singapore clean that “we start relinquishing our responsibility in caring for the environment and the people we share our surroundings with.”
Stressing the importance of empowering Singaporeans with a sense of ownership and civic mindedness towards the country, Ms Khan pointed out that the number of cleaners in working in Singapore dropped from about 7,000 in 1961 to just 2,100 in 1989. However, as the country became wealthier and had more access to cheap labour, that number exploded to 58,000 workers in the cleaning industry now.
She added, “Mr Liat Teng Lit, former chairman of the National Environment Agency reportedly once expressed that SG is not a clean city, it’s a cleaned city.”
The MP went on to also note the remarks of the chairman of the Public Hygiene Council Edward D’Silva who said that the reliance on cleaners is now entrenched in the mentality of Singaporeans.
“And thus, it is worthwhile to consider that the overall cleanliness we have in Singapore may not be truly reflective of a collective civic mindedness on the part of individuals to keep Singapore clean,” she explained.
On that note, Ms Khan raised two clarifications on the specifics of the bill, starting with Section 62A, subsection 2(b) which empowers the NEW to designate certain Publicly accessible premises as specified premises under the act—done for premises where an environmental sanitisation program is assessed to be necessary.
She asked, “I would like to seek a clarification on how these assessments will be carried out? What are the parameters and principles underlying such assessments?”
Next, Ms Khan also stressed the need to consider a “broader landscape” of which the country’s public hygiene and sanitation operates.
“The question of who will take ownership for good quality of public health comes to mind,” she notes.
“During the pandemic, we saw how dependent we are on foreign labour as a country to keep SG clean. Is this model sustainable? What happens if there is another situation that arises where we don’t have access to them?”
Encourage citizens and youth to take ownership of their surroundings, encourage civic mindedness
She went on to suggest how citizens can be encouraged to take ownership for their environment, particularly among youth.
“To encourage citizens to take ownership of their surrounds, we need to encourage civic mindedness in youth by exposing them to more community based programs and weaving the themes of community building into our schools,” she said.
Beyond that, Ms Khan also urged the need for more encouragement to recycle and for the state to improve recycling facilities in residential area.
Singaporeans lack a sense of responsibility over the country’s cleanliness
Fellow WP Sengkang MP He Ting Ru touched on similar points in her remarks on the amendment bill, specifically pointing out the sense of responsibility over Singapore’s cleanliness that many people seem to lack.
Ms He said, “The bill before us implements mandatory cleaning standards for specified premises and will indeed go towards ensuring the premises which have poor hygiene standards may result in operators being held accountable. The aim is to provide enough of a stick that we will 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, as a few of my colleagues have pointed out earlier.”
She asked, “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 and clear up after us?”
Talking specifically about the workers who do the hard jobs of keeping Singapore clean, Ms He noted that these are often ‘low wage and low status jobs’.
She questioned, “What does it say about us as a people when we leave out 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?”
Pointing to other countries that maintain a high standard of hygiene—such as Switzerland, Japan, and Taiwan—the MP said, “Such societies have evolved and have high levels of social consciousness where residents take pride in their surroundings.”
More cleaners in Singapore now more than ever
Going back to the those working in this industry here in Singapore, Ms He highlighted that the environmental services industry is estimated to employ approximately 78,000 workers with almost two thirds of employed residents in the sector being aged 55 and above.
“It is one of the industries targeted by our…progressive wage model which tells us that these are possibly low pay, low status jobs. A future which parents threatened for their kids if they do not study hard enough,” she explained.
She went on, “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 in our older workers, while also removing some of the stigma associated with being a cleaner.”
Ms He noted that the wider point is one of environmental, economic and societal sustainability. Given the uncertain future ahead of us due to the planets limited resources and the effects of climate change, the MP stressed, “We can ill afford to use and consume as if our resources were unlimited.
“Likewise, our ageing demographics also tell 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 as we continue to treat them as unimportant and invisible.”
Review clean and green campaigns from the past
Noting that Singapore has to start developing the social consciousness required for each person to adopt a clean lifestyle, Ms He suggested: “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 addressing wider issues relating to shifts in awareness that everyone has a role to play in keeping our shared spaces clean?”
“A coherent, multifaceted approach that starts from a young age and is tailored to fit our changing society needs to be taken.”
Ms He also, like Ms Khan, stressed the importance of including the youth in this process. She said, “Youth voices would be extremely important in this and we should fully involve the young from the start in our efforts to affect such changes and driving home the message that our reliance on cheap and elderly labour to clean up after us has to go.”
She ended her remarks with a quote from 18th century German statesman Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who wrote, “Let everyone sweep in front of his own door and the whole world will be clean.”