As a cleaner for more than nine years, Ms Li Xiu Mei, 56, has seen it all.
She has mopped up trails of faecal matter that has hardened on the toilet floor, unclogged toilets choked with waste left without flushing overnight and scraped off lumps of toilet paper stuck on the walls by naughty youngsters.
“Some users wash up inside and leave footprints everywhere, and sometimes the toilets are choking with toilet paper,” said Ms Li, an employee at the One Punggol Hawker Centre, in Mandarin.
“Each toilet normally takes around 10 minutes to clean, but these kinds of mess will take us anywhere up to an hour to clean.”
It seems that Singapore still has some way to go to make it a habit to keep public lavatories clean – an issue the National Environment Agency (NEA) aims to address in the fifth edition of its Clean Public Toilets campaign since 2018.
The 2023 campaign urges the public to be responsible even when no one is around, and make sure that the floor and toilet seats are dry and to use the flush.
Titled “Are you nice when no one’s around? Do it right for everyone”, the campaign is backed by the Public Hygiene Council, the Singapore Kindness Movement (SKM) and Restroom Association Singapore.
Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Sustainability and the Environment Baey Yam Keng visited the campaign’s launch on Nov 21 afternoon at One Punggol Hawker Centre, and made rounds to promote the campaign to diners and food stall operators.
He said he hopes the campaign will remind toilet users to be responsible and for operators to keep them well-maintained.
Mr Baey said: “There’s this interesting phenomenon – when a place is dirty, people don’t mind making it dirtier, but if it is clean, we won’t want to make it dirty. So we are trying to create this virtuous cycle… and that’s where everyone plays a part.”
The campaign comes on the back of souring sentiment about the state of public toilets here.
A study of more than 9,000 Singaporeans by the Singapore Management University in 2023 found that two-thirds of respondents said public toilets in hawker centers and coffee shops either remained as dirty as they were three years ago or had become dirtier.
About 60 per cent of them said that efforts in cleaning up toilets there were mostly futile, while only 6 per cent of Singaporeans felt that clean toilet campaigns were helpful.
Responding to the survey, Mr Baey said: “I think the survey gives us a good indicator of the state of play today.”
He noted the finding that coffee shops in particular were struggling to keep their lavatories clean, and added that this could be due to manpower constraints.
As part of the campaign, NEA will reach out to at least 2,000 locations across the country, including food centers, parks, schools and sports facilities to promote the campaign message.
SKM director of programs and operations Michelle Tay said toilet operators can do their part to ensure flushes and other equipment are working, while the campaign can encourage the public to be mindful of their own cleanliness.
Mr Yuen Kok Yeow, 50, one of two cleaners assigned to clean toilets at the One Punggol Hawker Center daily, hopes people will look after public toilets as if they were their own.
Besides the toilets, he is also responsible for keeping the hawker center clean, but often finds himself stuck in the loo for hours to clean up the mess left behind by visitors.
Mr Yuen said: “People always think there is someone else who will clean up after them. But I hope people will treat it like it’s their own home. We’d feel much more relaxed.”