Rachel Chang

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

Liak Teng Lit, head of the Public Hygiene Council and Keep Singapore Clean movement. -- ST PHOTO: KEMBURAJU THANGARAJAN
Liak Teng Lit, head of the Public Hygiene Council and Keep Singapore Clean movement. -- ST PHOTO: KEMBURAJU THANGARAJAN

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.

Q: Do you think we have to bring down the number of cleaners in Singapore?

I certainly think so. Taipei, with a few million people, has 5,000 cleaners. Singapore, we have five million people and 70,000 cleaners. That’s two Singapore armies. It’s quite ridiculous.

Productivity is not just about sweeping very productively. Real productivity is when people don’t throw rubbish around.

Today, Singapore is rich, Singapore can spend. Singapore today is where Japan was 20 years ago. But what happened to Japan is that they splurged. And you know what is dangerous? The age profile of Singaporeans is almost what Japan was 20 years ago. So we will get older. Can we be so rich (forever) as to be able to afford this large number of foreign cleaners? Singaporeans will demand a higher wage.

No First World country serves you a cup of coffee for $1 (like here). Can we pay the cleaner $1,500 to $2,000 a month and then keep the service & conservancy charges (for residents) as it is?

So if we want to keep the charges low, we’d better clean up our act. It is a fairy tale that you can pay the cleaners more, have the same number of cleaners and not increase the charges. Anyway, why do we need so many cleaners to begin with? Other countries are not like that.

Q: Do you think Singapore can ever reach a Japanese or Taiwanese level of cleanliness?

I hope so. But we should do it soon. There are people who say, “Oh, you’ve to wait for another generation”. But another generation will be even worse.

Look at the Taiwanese. Their background is similar to ours, immigrants from the southern part of China. (The Public Hygiene Council) went to Taipei recently to see how they do it. We went to three schools and it was the same: There are no cleaners in the school. The children clean it three times a day – in the morning before they start, midday and then after classes.

And (the principals and teachers) were adamant it is part of education. It’s character education, teaching yourself to be self-reliant and teaching you to use your hands. And to respect labour, to respect people who use their hands. So, in Taiwan, the cleaners are not seen as doing a “low-down” job. Many are graduates. It is a profession. So, I totally agree that schools in Singapore should be bolder. I’m trying to persuade some of the principals to do it here and remove most of the cleaners.

Don’t have cleaning as a punishment for students (as it is done now). Cleaning is part of life. After all, you use the classroom, you clean the classroom.

Q: Most Singaporeans will say, I don’t litter! The problem is not with me.

The most important thing is that the majority of Singaporeans, who don’t litter, set that good example. But there is also the sin of omission. Which is that when we see people litter or we see people behaving badly, we choose to keep quiet. That itself allows ugly people to behave badly. So here’s the problem. If we choose to say nothing, you are the problem.

Whenever I see people leave a mess or litter, I make it a point to give a big smile and say, “Excuse me, Sir, I hope you don’t mind, I don’t think you should do that”. Out of every 20, 10 or 12 will be embarrassed and say, “Sorry, sorry”, and they will pick it up. About six or seven will give you a dirty look and ignore you. And one in 20 will give me a scolding: “Who are you to tell me that?”

But it’s okay because you’re able to influence people. Let’s face it, the problem is us, it’s our problem.