Singapore's hawker centre and coffee shop toilets dirtier since 2016: SMU survey

Coffee shop toilets are deemed significantly dirtier than hawker centre toilets.
Coffee shop toilets are deemed significantly dirtier than hawker centre toilets.ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

SINGAPORE - Never mind the endless exhortations to keep Singapore's public toilets clean. The country's toilets have got only dirtier since 2016, according to a new island-wide study of 1,000 lavatories in hawker centres and coffee shops released on Tuesday (May 26).

And this might boil down to two key factors: a continued lack of good public hygiene habits, and creaky toilet facilities such as taps that don't work and clogged toilets, said those behind the project conducted by the Singapore Management University (SMU).

"Public awareness needs to be raised in abundance, and the operators of coffee shops and hawker centres need to step up their game if they care about public hygiene," said project coordinator and SMU senior lecturer of Statistics Rosie Ching.

The study, titled "Waterloo", was conducted by Professor Ching and 157 SMU graduates from Jan 10 to Feb 7 this year. They polled some 6,000 patrons of 104 of 114 hawker centres in Singapore, and 1,181 out of the 1,330 coffee shops across Singapore, asking them 100 questions in aspects such as mirrors, taps, sinks, soap dispensers, toilet paper, toilet bowls, flushes, floors, rubbish bins, sanitation bins, urinals and ventilation.

This follows a similar survey done in 2016 by Prof Ching and her then students.

The 2020 version found that the dirtiest public toilets are in Tuas, Telok Blangah and Bukit Batok. Marina South topped the list for having the cleanest public toilets, followed by Tanglin and Changi.

Coffee shop toilets are deemed significantly dirtier than hawker centre toilets.

But the latter also saw their cleanliness standards drop significantly compared with four years ago, based on respondents' feedback. Coffee shop toilets remained as filthy as those in 2016.

The National Environment Agency (NEA), which is in charge of managing hawker centres in Singapore, told The Straits Times more measures are being planned to improve and sustain the standard of public toilet cleanliness in Singapore, including getting premises owners to take greater ownership of their toilets. 

"NEA will study Singapore Management University’s survey results as we continue with our efforts to support owners and operators of premises to maintain good public health," its spokesman said, urging stakeholders to intensify their existing sanitation and hygiene measures.

Users should also play their part to keep toilets clean, the NEA spokesman said.

 
 
 

Said Prof Ching: "It disheartening to see statistical analyses reveal a marked regression in toilet hygiene from 2016, and furthermore, in almost every single attribute of toilet cleanliness on average."

The students interviewed 8,217 customers and hawkers about the state of toilets in coffee shops and food centres across all postal codes in Singapore.

Over a quarter of 5,948 customers polled said they would not use the toilets at hawkers and coffee shops, with three in five saying there was a need for an overhaul of the state of Singapore's toilets.

Accountant Jennifer Ng, 27, said she often patronised the hawker outlet at Block 308 Clementi Avenue 4, but was turned off by the "revolting" sight of the toilets.

"I refrain from using the toilets at any hawker centre or foodcourt, because I'm really disgusted by what I see and smell in the bathrooms," Ms Ng said. "It can be very gross and it spoils my appetite completely."

Meanwhile, hawker Evan Tan, 46, who works at a stall at a coffee shop in Bishan, said that the toilets he uses have always been dirty, but not much has been done in the last five years to improve its condition.

"I don't have high expectations of cleanliness since there are so many people working at and patronising hawker centres with high footfall, but it's hard to think of our food as being prepared with 100 per cent cleanliness, with the communal toilet being so dirty," Mr Tan said.

ST also spoke to several cleaners, including Madam Low Loke Heng, 67, who said that she cleans the toilets four to five times during her 12-hour shifts at a Eunos coffee shop but it "just isn't enough".

"Just an hour after I finish cleaning, I come back to find unflushed toilets, water pooling around the basins and sometimes puddles of urine on the floor," she said. "I wish people would be courteous enough to clean up after themselves, as it would make our jobs easier."

 
 

The National Environment Agency (NEA), which is in charge of managing hawker centres in Singapore, said  it conducts regular checks on public toilets, while working with the Singapore Food Agency to implement measures to upkeep good public hygiene at food establishments. Enforcement actions are also taken against errant toilet operators or owners for non-compliance with hygiene standards. 

“The NEA will study Singapore Management University’s survey results as we continue with our efforts to support owners and operators of premises to maintain good public health,” said an NEA spokesman. 

“We urge collective efforts by all stakeholders to intensify existing sanitation and hygiene measures, so as to safeguard the well-being of occupants and visitors coming through their premises.”

Beyond habits, public toilet infrastructure needs to be upgraded, said Prof Ching.

"Dry floors, odourless areas and adequate ventilation will help. But maintaining the basic necessities alone - like unchoked, flushable toilets or taps that work - this is the bare minimum," she said.

Meanwhile, Mr Edward D'Silva, chairman of the Public Hygiene Council, proposed a "carrot and stick" approach. This would involve giving coffee shop and hawker centre operators a one year grace period to upgrade their toilets with modern, working facilities such as hand dryers or paper dispensers, clean mirrors, new and unstained urinals and toilet bowls .

He suggests making mandatory a system that rates public toilets in terms of their cleanliness.

If hygiene standards fall consistently below a certain ranking, fines could be imposed, he added.

"This will help improve personal and public hygiene, particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic and beyond," said Mr D'Silva.