Did you know that toilets in Singapore have star ratings?
For 14 years, the Restroom Association (Singapore), or RAS, has assessed toilets across the country for their cleanliness, maintenance, effectiveness, user satisfaction and design.
Each year, the best toilets are recognised with the “Happy Toilet” award, given out on World Toilet Day on November 19.
The best toilet in Singapore in 2017 was at Sentosa’s Beach Station. It also earned the highest ever score in the history of the “Happy Toilet” awards.
Four other toilets were recognised for being the best in their category. They were:
Coffee shop: 21 Street Eating House at Blk 201 Tampines Street 21 (won for the 3rd year in a row)
Food court: Kopitiam at the National University Hospital Main Building Lobby
Market & food centre: Our Tampines Hub Hawker Centre
Shopping centre: The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands, Galleria Level Basement 1
The Happy Toilet award was the brainchild of RAS founder Jack Sim. The 60-year-old has said in past interviews that he had been inspired to start the RAS in 1998 by the words of then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, who said that the graciousness of a society could be measured by the cleanliness of its toilets.
But while his initial goal was to improve the state of Singapore toilets, Sim’s “toilet evangelism” has now had a global effect.
In 2001, the social entrepreneur started the World Toilet Organisation (WTO). Part of the WTO’s mission is to provide third-world countries with greater access to toilets, and improve sanitation standards in washrooms worldwide.
For his work with the WTO, Sim was named one of the “Heroes of the Environment” by Time magazine in 2008. And on July 24, 2013, the WTO achieved a key milestone when the United Nations (UN) General Assembly agreed to adopt a resolution put forward by Singapore – co-sponsored by 122 countries – to mark November 19 as World Toilet Day. This was Singapore’s first-ever UN resolution.
The state of Singapore toilets
Yet despite his growing international profile, the father-of-four remains deeply committed to the local toilet scene.
Jack believes that toilets here should be a source of pride for Singaporeans. According to him, the overall cleanliness of Singapore’s toilets, barring some anomalies, can even be compared to those in Japan, which “also has some dirty toilets across the country”.
“If we compare ourselves to the entire world, our toilets here are modern and world class, and the vast majority of Singaporeans have good toilet etiquette.
“I think Singaporeans don’t know how good we have it. You don’t have to travel far, just around the region, to see what bad toilet behaviour really is like,” he tells The Pride.
Jack estimates that only “a small 5 per cent” of Singaporeans lack good toilet etiquette. Furthermore Jack notes that the rise of globalisation has seen many tourists and foreign workers arrive on our shores, some of whom may not have the same toilet etiquette as Singaporeans.
“You have to understand that many of the foreigners here come from third world countries that don’t even have access to toilets. There is a learning curve when they come here,” he notes.
As such, what Jack wants to change is the mindsets of Singaporeans about themselves. Sim believes that Singaporeans these days are too “negative” and quick to point the finger at their fellow citizens for dirty toilets, and the actions of the minority of the population have, quite wrongly, come to represent all Singaporeans.
“Over the years I think our public messaging has been wrong. The campaigns have mostly been negative… pointing out all the bad behaviours, saying Singaporeans are bad because they dirty the toilets.
“I think what we should be doing instead is to praise the 95 per cent of Singaporeans who practise good toilet etiquette. The psychology of this is that by saying Singaporeans are good, those who don’t do as well will want to improve themselves,” Sim says.
The social activist though acknowledges that his work alone cannot shift the public perception about Singaporean behaviour.
“I cannot do it on my own. The Government and the media especially must be doing more to spread the message that ‘Singaporeans are good’, so that we can all take pride in our actions,” Sim says.
“We must be proud of ourselves, and not continually try to shoot down our entire society because of a few bad eggs… Let’s start being kind to ourselves.”
The coffee shop ‘problem’
Besides shifting the public’s mindset, Sim also sees another issue that hinders further improvement in Singapore toilets.
“Singapore, in general, has world class toilets, but there is still room for improvement.
“The worst toilets in Singapore are those in coffee shops and hawker centres. And this is because the coffee shop associations and independent coffee shop owners just don’t care because to them it’s all about one thing: Money.”
According to Sim, coffee shop owners believe having clean toilets is a loss-making exercise. Their position is that customers come to their establishment solely for the food, and having clean toilets would just encourage people to stay longer (thus depriving other potential customers from getting a seat). Furthermore, since the toilets are public, passersby will want to use the toilet without spending any money – thus wasting the owners’ resources.
“They (the coffee shop owners) don’t see their toilets as a public good, and they care only about their profit margins… the only way that we can then pressure them is to hurt their wallets,” says Sim.
The social activist thinks that the authorities should crack down harder on errant coffee shop owners.
“Shut them down for a whole month or even more. Then when their tenants start losing money, the owners start losing money, then we’ll finally start to see some changes.
“If their reasons for not having clean toilets is because of money, we need to use money as a weapon against them,” he says.
The public can play a huge part too, Sim adds. Besides reporting dirty toilets to the authorities, consumers must “vote with their wallets” by boycotting the errant coffee shops, the 60-year-old maintains.
“You can think ‘oh but I really love the food here and I can just go to another toilet later’, but the fact is that the person cooking your food is using that dirty toilet everyday and passing the bacteria and germs to you… So even if you don’t use the toilet, it’s still going to affect you.”
Putting pride in our toilet cleaners
At the ground level, the self-dubbed “toilet evangelist” says cleaning attendants here must be treated with respect and dignity in order to excel at their job.
“We need to have all our toilet cleaners, whether it’s at Changi Airport or at our coffee shops, to be treated like professionals,” he says.
“In Singapore, we’re used to thinking of toilet cleaners as low-skilled labour… but imagine if all our toilet cleaners must go through training and courses, learn about sanitation and hygiene, and receive certificates for these sessions, it professionalises the entire industry and would also change workers’ mindsets about their jobs,” he adds.
In 2005, Sim started the World Toilet College (WTC) for that precise reason. Some of the graduates have even gone on to become trainers at the WTC. One of the WTC’s goals, as stated on its website, is “to empower individuals to invest in their professional and personal development by being part of a supportive network of sanitation stakeholders”. The WTC has even welcomed what it calls “toilet caretakers” from around the world to attend courses here.
“If we give toilet cleaners a professional title, pay them well and maybe even have sharp uniforms for them, then they’ll be proud of their jobs and do it well,” says Sim.
An initiative called “SaniGives” – Giving for Sanitation – was launched by the RAS last year, with an aim of raising public awareness about showing kindness towards cleaning attendants. Under the SaniGives initiative, individuals can give donations or volunteer at appreciation activities for cleaning attendants.
Tan Puay Hoon, the current president of the RAS, told The Straits Times last year: “Telling our children that if they don’t study, they are going to become cleaners, is very wrong. We need to teach children in school to respect cleaners.”
In a separate interview with Channel NewsAsia, she added: “Cleaners are the “silent heroes behind toilet sanitation… Without their hard work, it would be very challenging to keep toilets clean.”