It is a suggestion that sounds perverse: keeping Singapore clean by cutting the number of cleaners here and cleaning up after Singaporeans less regularly.
But the head of the Keep Singapore Clean Movement Liak Teng Lit is convinced that this is what needs to done to make people think twice before they litter or leave a mess in public areas.
The Government is cleaning Singapore so efficiently that people are conditioned to behave badly, he told The Straits Times, ahead of the Keep Singapore Clean conference on June 29.
“We rely too much on cleaners. It is because they are cleaning so much that people don’t even feel it when they litter.
“You find litter everywhere, but most Singaporeans don’t see it because it is cleared at dawn.”
Singapore has about 70,000 cleaners, a third of whom are foreigners. Those contracted by the National Environment Agency and town councils clean public areas and estates up to three times daily, beginning at dawn.
Mr Liak said that Singaporeans’ reliance on cleaners extends to many families with domestic help and those who eat out.
“In hawker centres we eat like pigs, with food and tissue all over the tables. It’s a disgrace. We don’t eat like that at home.”
The group of Alexandra Health is leading by example at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital, which his group runs. There, cleaners vacuum offices just once every few weeks, leaving staff to ensure their own spaces are hygienic and tidy. Staff and members of the public are also encouraged to return their own trays at the food court.
So far, he estimates that about 30 per cent of staff have taken his message to heart. Some even pick up litter thrown by members of the public.
He is drawing other similarly civic-minded organisations such as schools and malls to the cause and is planning to start a ground-up movement which begins with personal responsibility.
For example, students could be made responsible for keeping their own classrooms and common areas clean, leaving cleaners to take on the heavy-duty work.
More than 50 organisations have already committed to the initiative he calls “Bright Spots”.
It will be featured at the conference and include pre-school chain NTUC First Campus, the Ascendas group and several government agencies.
Singapore Kindness Movement general secretary William Wan noted that Singapore is already struggling to recruit cleaners because of low wages.
“The day will come when we will have not enough cleaners. Who will we rely on? It is only good sense if people do their part and don’t litter,” he said.
But National University of Singapore sociologist Daniel Goh was not persuaded.
“Those who pay conservancy fees for cleaning common areas would expect that it be done. This won’t automatically stop the litterers,” he said.
However, volunteer neighbourhood watch groups are an example of people uniting and taking responsibility for their community. “The difference is, littering doesn’t carry the same sense of urgency as security,” he said.
Ultimately, people first have to care if anything is to change, said Mr Liak. “It’s all about being considerate to the next person.
“Wherever you are, don’t leave a mess behind. We need to create that vision. Hopefully there are enough people who feel the current state of affairs is not good enough.”
First published in The Straits Times – June 11, 2013