Coronavirus outbreak: Why still so dirty, Singapore?

Diners still leaving dirty dishes and leftovers for workers to clean up

The perennial question of how clean Singapore is has once again come under the spotlight, with the Government last week emphasising the importance of public hygiene in combating the spread of the coronavirus.

The Republic might have a reputation of being a clean city, but a Sunday Times check at five hawker centres islandwide found that the nation still has some way to go in maintaining it.

Many diners are still leaving their dirty dishes and leftovers on the table for workers to clean up after them.

This, even though a number of customers were observed wiping the tables with hand sanitisers and disposable wipes before sitting down for their meals.

Ms Connie Chan, 49, a hawker at the Chinatown Complex Food Centre, said: "Many customers expect a cleaner environment, but it doesn't always mean they will change their habits."

On Friday, the multi-ministry taskforce leading Singapore's battle against the spread of the coronavirus announced the set-up of a new SG Clean Taskforce.

To be headed by Environment and Water Resources Minister Masagos Zulkifli, the taskforce aims to raise hygiene standards across the country and to change social norms so that they become Singapore's first line of defence against current and future infection outbreaks.

Managers of public spaces, such as the Chinatown Complex Hawker Association, have already stepped up their disinfection of public spaces. For instance, cleaners at the food centre in Smith Street now disinfect the premises once every two hours, up from once a day.

Last month, an SG Clean campaign was launched to raise cleanliness standards and safeguard public health during the corona-virus outbreak, under which hawker centres and food stalls that have met enhanced hygiene and cleaning standards can get a quality mark.

As of Friday, more than 2,200 stalls at hawker centres, markets and coffee shops, as well as 62 hawker centres and coffee shops, had been awarded the quality mark.

In addition to washing their hands frequently and not touching their faces - which health authorities say are key defences against the virus - customers can also help to make the environment cleaner.

 CHONG JUN LIANG People are still leaving their used crockery, leftovers and used tissue paper behind for workers to clean up after them,
People are still leaving their used crockery, leftovers and used tissue paper behind for workers to clean up after them, as seen in this picture taken on Friday at the hawker centre at Tiong Bahru Market. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

Health Minister Gan Kim Yong said that personal hygiene should be the country's first line of defence against the further spread of the virus, adding: "Even if you have restrictions on travel, you still have Singaporeans coming back... therefore, personal hygiene is the most important."


Mr Xu Chang Zu, 48, a cleaner at Tiong Bahru Food Centre, told The Sunday Times that at the start of the coronavirus outbreak, patrons became more considerate and hygienic. But, he added: "They quickly returned to their usual behaviour. Many diners still do not return their trays."

Mr Edward D'Silva, chairman of the Public Hygiene Council, said the key to preventing the spread of infectious diseases such as the coronavirus was ensuring that there were fewer sources where the virus could thrive - be it in hawker stalls or in used tableware left behind by customers.

 CHONG JUN LIANG People are still leaving their used crockery, leftovers and used tissue paper behind for workers to clean up after them,
Diners queueing up to wash hands at Tiong Bahru Market before eating or after returning used crockery. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

The coronavirus is currently thought to spread mainly through respiratory droplets.


Even pieces of tissue paper should be considered small "biohazards", Mr Masagos said last week, adding that people should dispose of these items themselves, rather than leave them to the cleaners.

Mr Colin Lim, 50, an information technology specialist who was dining at the hawker centre at Bedok Bus Interchange on Friday, agreed that people could be more civic-minded.

He said that since the Sars (severe acute respiratory disease) outbreak in 2003, he would clean the utensils with tissue paper or wash them at nearby sinks if possible.

 CHONG JUN LIANG People are still leaving their used crockery, leftovers and used tissue paper behind for workers to clean up after them,
Some diners at Tekka Market made it a point to return their trays and used crockery to the shelves meant for them. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

Mr Lim, who also carries with him a bottle of hand sanitiser to wipe the table, said it was important to practise good personal hygiene. "It's quite upsetting when other customers don't clear the table, and litter or spit on the floor," he added.


Mr D'Silva said hawker centres and other eateries are a good starting point for public hygiene campaigns, since they are spaces that many Singaporeans visit frequently.

He said: "The Public Hygiene Council has for years been urging people to practise personal hygiene habits, including returning their trays. Hopefully, the coronavirus outbreak would be a turning point in helping more Singaporeans realise this."

• Additional reporting by Terese Anne Teoh, Valerie Tay and Melissa Yip


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 08, 2020, with the headline 'Why still so dirty, S'pore?'. Subscribe