Relying solely on cleaners to maintain public cleanliness is not sustainable

The session is part of NEA’s Public Cleanliness Conversations, held under the Forward Singapore exercise’s Steward pillar.

Amanda Tan

Published: 14 March 2023, 12:09 PM

How can the different segments of society come together to make Singapore an even better home to live in, particularly in the area of public cleanliness?

As part of the Forward Singapore exercise’s Steward pillar, the National Environment Agency (NEA) engaged citizens to discuss how Singapore can work together for a clean, green and sustainable Singapore.

The first of two dialogue sessions was held at the Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment (MSE) on Saturday (Mar 11), and saw around 80 participants from all walks of life. 

Moderated by CNA presented Steven Chia, the session was helmed by Senior Minister of State Dr Amy Khor, Assistant Honorary Secretary of the Environmental Management Association of Singapore Ms Faith Wong, Principal Research Fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies Dr Mathew Mathews and Chairperson of Kindred Community Dr Suen Chun Hui.


The panellists represent different segments of our society, from the cleaning industry to academia to those involved in community clean-up activities. PHOTO CREDIT: NATIONAL ENVIRONMENT AGENCY


Various aspects of public cleanliness, such as the current state of cleanliness in Singapore and potential challenges, as well as what the Government, businesses and the community can do to contribute to keep Singapore clean were among the topics discussed.  

Here are some key takeaways from the hour-long discussion:

Keeping Singapore clean goes beyond the efforts of cleaners

Mr Chia kicked off the session with findings from a Public Cleanliness Satisfactory Survey done by the Singapore Management University (SMU) in 2021, which had over 2,000 respondents.

About 98 per cent agreed that all Singaporeans should be involved in keeping the environment clean, but only 55 per cent indicated that they were willing to do so. The study also found that 73 per cent felt that it was the Government’s responsibility to keep Singapore clean while 90 per cent agreed that the nation’s cleanliness is much thanks to the efficiency of cleaning services.

Dr Khor brought up that the cleaning industry is faced with not just an ageing workforce, but also manpower shortages. As such, depending significantly on cleaners is not sustainable.

“Even with automation, there is still a limit… therefore, the reality is that we can’t depend on cleaners to keep Singapore clean,” she said.

She did agree that the cleaning industry is still important in providing essential services, that it still serves as a first line of defence, as proven during the COVID-19 pandemic. But for Singapore to be kept consistently clean, it will take a whole nation’s efforts.

Singaporeans should empower each other to keep Singapore clean

In the same vein, Ms Wong said that self-policing and nudging others is important.

She acknowledged that keeping Singapore clean is a constant work in progress because we’ll have to constantly see how to upkeep the ever changing standards of cleanliness. There will also always be a group of individuals who won’t be as socially responsible. 

“We can never let go and say we have achieved,” she said.

Dr Mathews added that if we wish to enforce something, we need to know how to stand up and speak up, “firmly but gently”.


Dr Mathews said that Singaporeans need to take pride in every part of Singapore, not just tourist spots and ensure that they are held to the same standards of cleanliness. PHOTO CREDIT: NATIONAL ENVIRONMENT AGENCY


He said that Singaporeans also need to – for a lack of a better term – rid of their sense of entitlement. We can’t expect someone else to constantly clean up after us just because the food we pay for isn’t the cheapest.

“You don’t just live inside your house – take ownership – Singapore is your home,” said Ms Wong.

Education is crucial to change negative perception of cleaners

With regards to the public discrediting cleaners, not treating cleaning as a real job, Dr Suen believes that it all boils down to the lack of education and hands-on experience. 

“(It’s) difficult for people to understand how difficult cleaning is unless they try it themselves,” he shared.

He related to his experience working with volunteers who go down to the ground and help to clean spaces like beaches. 

He shared how even within a small space of one metre, it can take an individual a whole hour just to clean because of “the way things are littered”. Especially with cigarette buds, it takes a while to search for them due to their small size.

After such a gruelling experience, the volunteers then realised the sheer effort needed to keep the environment clean.

“The act of volunteering will help us internalise that mindset change,” said Dr Suen.


Kindred Community is a volunteer-based community service organisation under Great Glory Church Singapore. PHOTO CREDIT: NATIONAL ENVIRONMENT AGENCY


Dr Mathews also noted that currently, when we think about what’s reputable, we think about high salaries and refined skills. Thus, there’s a mounting need for a redefinition. There are many roles in society; without cleaners, the number of diseases will increase substantially.

He added: “I don’t think we have enough in terms of education.”

Teaching students to clean up after themselves would help as well, said Ms Wong. Without a need for so many cleaners, it allows for the reprioritising of the cleaning industry’s limited human capital.

Upskilling and image refreshing might help to attract younger generation to join the industry

Ms Wong talked of the difficulties in getting people – especially young people – to take on cleaning jobs. It proved particularly challenging during the pandemic due to the risk cleaners had to face as frontline workers.

Previously, there were mostly people in their 60s, beyond retirement age, coming forward to work. The age of these applicants has only been increasing since then.

In a bid to attract younger people, Dr Khor shared that NEA is in the midst of working to transform the industry through ways like digitalisation, tapping on technology to make the job less manual. In the future, cleaning will go beyond manual labour but also include managing robots. She added that this will also help to maintain existing workers.

Other ways to uplift the industry include recognition through awards like the ES Star Award and “good uniforms” which they can change every few years.

“Good image plays a part,” said Ms Wong.


On manpower, Ms Wong also said that we should be preoccupied with the future, not the headcount as that does not guarantee a good cleaning outcome. PHOTO CREDIT: NATIONAL ENVIRONMENT AGENCY


One participant also suggested a branding change, tweaking the job title “cleaner” to “clean ambassador”. Ms Wong agreed, saying that NEA can review the title to hygiene specialist or steward as well. This is another way of professionalising cleaners who will take on more roles as they build up their competencies through upskilling.

Mapping out career progression programmes and progressive wage models will also make the job more respectable, noted Ms Wong.

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