51-year-old Sivakumar Kumarasamy wears a separate pair of shoes for work.
It’s not a fashion choice – the reason is much simpler. It’s just so that he doesn’t have to walk about with drenched footwear. He acknowledges that although his outfit is plain, he finds happiness in simplicity.
For the past 8 years, Sivakumar has been working at Pek Kio Market & Food Centre on Cambridge Road as a toilet caretaker.
It’s a family endeavour, managing these toilets. Sivakumar’s younger brother looks after the toilet at Tekka Market and his wife comes down to work with him on weekdays, with a cousin occasionally dropping by to help.
But today, when we visit him, it’s only him and his cousin. “My wife went to visit my elder brother,” he says.
Sivakumar has no children, just two brothers and a sister, all of whom are married except his younger brother.
He usually works from 6.30am to 6.30pm, seven days a week. Sivakumar works 12 hours day, but the toilets are open 24/7.
Toilets dirty when he gets to work in the morning
The first thing he does when he gets to work every day is to thoroughly clean the toilet.
“Even though I clean it in the evening before I leave, almost every time when I come in the next morning, it is dirty again. There are stains and spit everywhere, so I have to clean as hard as yesterday.”
For the rest of the day, he maintains its cleanliness by hosing it down periodically, and spraying disinfectant on surfaces every 2 hours. “I also make sure that after everything is washed, it must be dry. There are a lot of elderly here, and they are scared of slippery floors,” he says with a chuckle.
“Often when there are water puddles, I tell them to move slowly and clean it up immediately.”
Sivakumar tells The Pride that despite how much he scrubs the washrooms clean, one night is all it takes for both toilets to revert back to square one.
“I sometimes want to throw everything down and quit. I get very angry when every day I come in and it is dirty, like I have never touched it. But I go outside and breathe to calm myself down. Then, I carry on.”
Sivakumar charges 10 cents for entry to the toilet and sells tissues for 10 cents a piece and 30 cents a packet. He explains that he has to do this to cover the cost for cleaning supplies.
According to the NEA, toilets at NEA-run hawker centres are mostly free for public usage. However, some centres managed by town councils usually charge a fee for people to use the toilets, which are cleaned not by professional cleaners but often by hired staff.
“The town council doesn’t supply us with the chemicals and equipment we need, so we need to get it ourselves… and I carefully select good cleaning supplies so that the toilets remain clean and fresh,” says Sivakumar.
“10 cents per person can barely make up for the expensive supplies, yet some people still want to threaten me when I ask them to pay.”
Threatened by angry Singaporeans
Sivakumar is no stranger to being grilled by Singaporeans who get ruffled when he asks them to pay for entry. He tells The Pride that he had been threatened with fistfights and had the police called on him by fed-up patrons, who falsely accused him of using force to make them pay up.
“All this for 10 cents!” he exclaims in disbelief.
“I’m not asking for 50 dollars or 100 dollars. With 10 cents, I cannot buy anything, and I certainly cannot keep the toilet clean with it,” he explains.
It’s worse when children get involved, says Sivakumar. “There was once a mother and her child wanted to use the toilet, but didn’t want to pay. She then called her husband to come down, who tried to scare me into letting them go in without paying. While I was dealing with the parents, I saw the kid’s face and he was very uncomfortable.”
“What are they teaching the kids? Whenever I remember that, I feel uneasy,” he says.
Despite the negativity, Sivakumar remains calm and stands his ground. “When people confront you but you know you are doing the right thing, you have nothing to hide. So you stand strong.”
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And he has built up a resilience after being hit by adversity at the lowest points in his life.
“I felt like I had two hearts,” he says about the moments when he was struggling to survive in his youth. “One telling me to give up and die. The other screaming, ‘no! Just hang on one more day!’”
Back in his 20s, Sivakumar had to work extra hard to support his mother’s ailing health before she passed away. He recounts numerous events of his life that put his physical and emotional strength to test; from starting his own car-wash business to hauling gym equipment to various locations. He even tried to save money by walking to all his appointments in Singapore.
“I learnt that in hard times, you can choose to be strong, or choose to give up,” he says.
But being toughened up by harsh situations doesn’t stop Sivakumar from being kind.
“I don’t force those who are disabled or very old to pay… Sometimes they struggle to come up with 10 cents, so I tell them, ‘it’s okay, just go’. I give them tissues for free.”
Recognition for kindness
Despite having met difficult people on the job, Sivakumar’s hard work in maintaining the good condition of the toilets at Pek Kio Market has not gone unnoticed.
He tells me that most people express their approval of his cleanliness standards to him before they leave the washroom. One of them even wrote a letter to Straits Times forum to applaud his efforts. Unfortunately, the kind-hearted writer got his name wrong!
Nevertheless, he has made many good friends at the food centre, says Sivakumar. He receives lunch invitations regularly from stall owners, who are also his lunch kakis. They would cook some food and Sivakumar would tuck in with them at their stalls, bantering and chatting to pass the time.
By afternoon, a cool silence settles over the market as most of the food stalls and hawkers close for the day. He then bids his friends goodbye and spends the rest of the time manning the toilet front desk till it’s time to go home.
Wishing for respect and empathy for what they do
Sivakumar admits that sometimes, he does chafe at people’s treatment of him as a toilet caretaker.
“If people are kind to me, I will treat them the same,” he says, “but when people are threatening me for no reason, I will have to stand up for myself.”
“10 cents is the least you can do for me, so I can continue to buy good supplies and you can keep having clean toilets,” explains Sivakumar. “But some people still want to nitpick about it. Why so stingy?” he says.
When Sivakumar’s friends first found out about his profession, it weirded them out.
“They ask me, ‘Kumar! Why are you working this kind of job?’” he says.
“I ask them back, ‘am I stealing? Am I robbing people? No, I am earning an upright living. I have nothing to be ashamed about!”
Sivakumar wants Singaporeans to remember that we may come from different cultural and economic backgrounds, but deep down, we are all the same. A person doing a menial job deserves the same respect as anyone else working to earn his wage.
“Just because we have to clean up after you, that doesn’t mean that we are at your beck and call. If no one wants to be cleaning up after people’s messes, then who will? Just because we are doing the dirty work, that doesn’t mean you get to trample on us.”
“Life is about survival,” says Sivakumar. “We are all the same here. We are all trying to make a living.”
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