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  • Writer's pictureThe Convergence

Cleanliness of public toilets: A personal responsibility

By Chua Swee Kune, Editor

Photo: Chua Swee Kune

Since the outbreak of Covid-19, the issue of hygiene has become more pertinent than ever. Due to the heightened importance placed on maintaining good personal hygiene, many have begun to actively adopt strict sanitary practices to curb the spread of germs and viruses.

However, there is still one protracted issue of hygiene in Singapore, which is the poor cleanliness in public toilets. This brings us to the topic of public hygiene - the cleanliness of public spaces, which tend to be ‘high-touch’ areas easily prone to bacteria contamination.

Given the lessons learnt about maintaining good personal and public hygiene during these Covid-19 times, there is therefore much value in examining the state of public toilets in Singapore for improved public health.

Inadequacy of Campaigns

In a study titled “Waterloo”, Professor Rosie Ching and 157 Singapore Management University graduates studied how public toilets, like those in hawker centres, have become comparatively dirtier since 2016.

This is despite consistent campaigning by the National Environment Agency (NEA), which has aimed to educate citizens on how they can contribute to cleaner public toilets. This year, NEA also published a video titled ‘Loo Jam’ on Facebook to reach out to netizens as part of its ‘Public Toilet Cleanliness’ initiative. [1]

Yet, the cleanliness of public toilets has shown little signs of improvement and it has instead worsened. Considering this decline, it can be inferred that campaigns launched by the NEA have not met their intended objectives.

This suggests that while such campaigns could raise awareness, education on public health alone is insufficient in mobilising the citizens to take the necessary cleanliness actions.

Looking beyond the government implementations, a comparison between a similarly ‘clean’ country could explain why Singaporeans are reluctant to clean up after themselves in public toilets. An analysis on Japan and its collectivist culture could hence shed some light on possible strategies to mitigate the national persisting problem.

Japan and Collectivism

Japan is commonly viewed as a country with extraordinary standards in public hygiene. [2] Japan also serves as a good comparison due to its socioeconomic indicators that are similar to Singapore’s - life expectancy, nominal GDP per capita and fertility rate per capita. [3]

However, the differences in culture between Japan and Singapore could explain the divergences in public toilet conditions in both countries. Here, I point to Japan’s culture of collectivism - this refers to the strong identification of Japanese citizens with their community and their culture of ‘community before self’.

The Japanese are also well-regarded for their politeness and discipline, and such traits have contributed to their sense of public-spiritedness and decreased selfishness on matters that could affect the larger community. [4]

Additionally, cleanliness has been deeply ingrained in Japanese society and can be seen from the common practice of students holding the responsibility of cleaning their schools since their early education years. [5] Therefore, the Japanese may feel obligated to keep their environment - including public toilets - clean as a result of these community-oriented values they uphold.

In contrast, Singapore citizens can be perceived to be more individualistic despite state efforts at instilling collectivist values. [6] Unlike Japan, there are no collective mandatory routines among citizens in keeping Singapore clean. This responsibility has been delegated to cleaners who clean up after the citizens in public spaces.

Thus the habit of cleaning after oneself is not particularly evident in Singapore. The upkeep of public hygiene in Singapore is being treated as a commodity in the market, whereby the responsibility of it lies in the hands of low-wage cleaners. Singaporeans have grown heavily dependent on these workers as a result and feel little obligation to clean their communal environment.

Singapore - A cleaned city

As former chairman of the Public Hygiene Council Mr Liak Teng Lit notes, Singapore is not a clean city but a cleaned city. [7] Singapore’s cleanliness is heavily attributed to the blood, sweat and tears of cleaners who engage in the backbreaking labour of daily public cleaning.

While the labour of hired cleaners is a necessity, cleanliness cannot be solely up to them. The general population needs to step up and play their part in ensuring public cleanliness too.

How do we promote this? The most effective way to spur the general public is to change their current mindset on public cleanliness and instill such values from young. For instance, we can encourage users of public toilets to show a sense of public-spiritedness in maintaining good public hygiene, and drive the idea that it would in turn benefit them in terms of their next use of these public facilities.

While the idea of cultivating public-spiritedness may sound difficult to achieve in the short term, I am hopeful as a Singaporean that in time to come, more citizens will readily make the cleanliness of public toilets a personal responsibility.


[6] C. J. W. Lee – “Asian Values”, Singapore, and the Third Way: Re-Working Individualism and Collectivism


Swee Kune is a Year 3 political science student who is currently an Editor for The Convergence. She desires to spark constructive and meaningful conversations regarding current affairs through the publication in hopes of a more informed and kinder society. She spends most of her time catching up on her German homework while experiencing withdrawal symptoms from her K-Dramas (Shout out to Crash Landing on You). Occasionally, she sings Thai songs in an attempt to embrace her mixed-blood identity.


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