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Game Of Thrones:The Quick And Dirty Of Keeping Singapore’s Toilets Clean


Image: Credits to Unsplash (Unsplash: Possessed Photography) https://unsplash.com/photos/man-and-woman-comfort-room-d6LzDABxP6I

In this Explainer, find out...

  • Why are clean toilets important?

  • What is the Clean Public Toilets Campaign?

  • What methods is the Government employing to create a considerate toilet culture?


Introduction


There are two important organisations founded by Singaporeans that bear the same abbreviation. These are the 2 WTOs. First is the World Trade Organisation, responsible for regulating trade and ensuring the international economy runs well, of which Singapore is a founding member.¹ Second (and some may say the more important), is the World Toilet Organisation, founded by a Singaporean, Jack Sim.²  


It is easy to see why some view the World Toilet Organisation as more important. We interact with toilets many times a day, whereas something as distant as international trade may not cross our minds for weeks or months. 


When we think of toilets in Singapore, two types of toilets tend to come to mind. The majestic, world-class toilets are characteristic of touristy spots like Marina Bay Sands or Changi Airport on the one hand and the often filthy, dark, and dingy toilets of certain neighbourhood coffee shops on the other.


In fact, two-thirds of 9,000 Singaporeans surveyed felt that public toilets in general were worse in 2020 as compared to 2016.³ This statistic demonstrates that we encounter dirty public toilets more often than clean public toilets.


What then should we do about Singapore’s abundance of dirty public toilets? In this Policy Explainer, we will delve into why clean toilets are important and find out how the Government has been promoting clean toilets via the Clean Public Toilets Campaign. 


The Importance of Clean Toilets


Proper Sanitation as a Foundation


Before delving into the difference between “hygienic” and “dirty” toilets, it is important to realise that having many public toilets available across Singapore is not a given. Much effort has been invested in planning and constructing Singapore’s sanitation infrastructure.


Sanitation, as defined by the World Health Organisation (WHO), is “the provision of facilities and services for the safe disposal of human urine and faeces”. Sanitation is the core purpose of toilets, and it is impossible to talk about hygienic toilets if basic sanitation is not even achieved.


At the time of Singapore’s independence, only around 45 per cent of Singapore’s population had access to proper sanitation. Human waste was dumped straight into the Singapore River, leading to a smelly river. Efforts led by the Government through the Sewerage Master Plan built the proper infrastructure needed to pipe waste and dispose of it properly, bringing proper sanitation to a young Singapore.


Nowadays, on any given day, in any corner of Singapore, you will be able to find toilets in shopping malls, hawker centres, coffee shops, and even in MRT stations. These toilets are nearly always free to access and thus widely accessible to most citizens.


With a baseline of minimal standards of sanitation established, we can now look at the problem of toilet “hygiene”, defined by the WHO as relating to healthy living and prevention of disease spread.


The Importance of Hygienic Public Toilets


Some may question why there is a need to make toilets sparkling clean. Surely, if we have toilets that properly dispose of our waste, there is no need to invest so much time, effort, and resources into so-called “cosmetic changes” like making sure the floors are dry, that toilet seats are clean, or that there is soap in all toilets. 


Well, efforts that seem to be “just wayang” do help to reduce the spread of diseases via public toilets. As toilets become cleaner visually, toilet users are also more likely to act in hygienic ways and ensure any “business” is done in the cleanest way possible.


Think about it this way: if the toilet has run out of paper towels or does not have a hand dryer, you are much less likely to dry your hands. Leaving with wet hands increases the likelihood of bacteria transmission. In the same vein, if the soap dispenser or the tap in a toilet looks rusty, you are much less likely to wash your hands with soap. 


Now then, this begs the question: Since we all agree that clean public toilets are beneficial, why are they so hard to keep clean?


The Challenge of Keeping Public Toilets Clean


Public Toilets as a Public Good


Public goods are items or facilities that provide a social benefit that is non-excludable and non-rivalrous. This means that everyone can use it (non-excludable) and that if someone uses it, that does not prevent others from using it (non-rivalrous). Public toilets are available to everyone, and after one person uses the public toilet, it becomes available for the next person to use it.


When people are incentivised to act in a way that reduces the benefit of public goods, this is known as the tragedy of the commons.¹⁰ This occurs when inappropriate or selfish behaviour from a few people reduces the benefit brought about by public goods.


Public toilets are especially prone to experiencing the tragedy of the commons as people often only interact with a specific public toilet once over a short time. Thus, even if they dirty the public toilet, it is unlikely that their actions will negatively affect them in future. 


This is best illustrated by observing the difference between home and public toilets. Why are home toilets generally cleaner than public toilets? Well, you would not want to dirty your home toilet because you will definitely use it again. Further, you are ultimately theone responsible for cleaning it, so acting irresponsibly will only cause more trouble for you in the future. 


Public toilets meanwhile are the opposite. You are not responsible for cleaning the public toilet, nor are you likely to use the same public toilet immediately after, given the other public toilets you can choose. Because it is unlikely to be a pain in your backside in the future, the public is generally less encouraged to care about public toilets, leading to the situation of tragedy of the commons. Because what is owned by all, is cared for by none. 


Feedback Effect Makes Dirty Toilets Dirtier


In addition, having a dirty toilet creates a feedback loop that only encourages toilets to become even dirtier. This is because the dirtier a toilet appears, the more inconsiderate people act.¹¹ 


If you see dirty footprints on a toilet seat, this signals that this is what others have done and it is easier to tell yourself that it is “okay” to do the same. Similarly, wet floors signal that it is socially acceptable to not dry your hands and simply flick the water off after washing your hands, making floors even wetter.


Public toilets are particularly vulnerable to both the impact of the tragedy of the commons and this negative feedback effect. This makes it such that people do not care about public toilet cleanliness, and if toilets are not kept clean, it becomes easy for the dirtiness to compound, with slightly dirty toilets quickly becoming dirtier.


The Clean Public Toilets Campaign


An Overview of the Current Campaign


While hiring more cleaners, or revamping toilet infrastructure are possible ways to improve overall hygiene standards in public toilets, the most cost- effective way to improve toilet hygiene is to encourage good toilet usage etiquette. In short, there is less needto spend money on cleaning toilets if the toilets are clean in the first place. 


This approach is embodied by the Clean Public Toilets Campaign, which “appeals to the concept of social consciousness and encourages… socially desirable actions”.¹²


The Clean Public Toilets Campaign, which started in 2018, is led by the National Environment Agency (NEA). This campaign involves key partnerships with the Public Hygiene Council (PHC), the Restroom Association Singapore (RAS), and the Singapore Kindness Movement (SKM), underscoring a collective commitment to enhancing the cleanliness and accessibility of public restrooms across Singapore.¹³


Figure 1: Clean Toilets Movement 2023 Poster¹⁴


The campaign’s 2023 run is centred around the slogan, “Are you nice when no one’s around? Do it right for everyone” (see Figure 1).¹⁵ Its efforts centre around the use of simplicity and humour to foster responsible public restroom use. Further, by advocating a straightforward four-step approach — Clean, Flush, Dry, Bin — the campaign aims to convey messages that are both memorable and easy to implement. 


Finally, NEA's website also features comics that add a fun twist to the campaign. These comics use humour to point out the negative side effects of not keeping toilets clean. This creative strategy not only addresses the issue directly but does so in a manner that labels improper toilet use as socially undesirable, thus encouraging better hygiene practices.


Methods to Create a Considerate Toilet Culture


Nudges


The Government’s chosen approach to change the public’s behaviour is through nudges. Nudges are small, affordable, and barely noticeable changes that affect the public’s behaviour.¹⁶


With the Clean Public Toilets Campaign, the aim is to lower the difficulty of keeping public toilets clean by making directions concrete rather than abstract. Instead of telling people to “keep public toilets clean”, a set of four simple steps which are easy to memorise were created: “Clean, Flush, Dry, Bin”. 


It takes energy to think, so any task that requires one to think through a problem is more difficult to do compared to a task that only requires one to follow simple directions. Especially when a task feels like an optional task, like keeping a public toilet clean, it has a higher chance of not being done.¹⁷ 


If you make someone have to think about what the socially responsible action is, they are less likely to do it. Instead of having to think about what to do, a toiletuser already has the four steps ready for them. They clean the seat, flush the toilet, dry their hands, and bin any waste.¹⁸


Furthermore, with posters printed within the toilets, and sometimes within the stalls themselves, toilet users get frequent reminders in large text and eye-catching colours to “Clean, Flush, Dry, Bin”. There is no reliance on a person’s memory to remember to follow these steps because immediately after you’ve done your business, there is a timely reminder printed right on the stall door, on your way out.


The result of these nudges is that keeping toilets clean becomes a very easy thing to do because the cognitive load (the amount of brain power required) is reduced, and there are many reminders to ensure you don’t forget to “Clean, Flush, Dry, Bin”.


Humour and Relatability


Besides relying on nudges, the Government leans heavily on humourous comics to relay its messages (see Figure 2). 


Humour is frequently used as messages that cause a strong reaction (e.g., laughter when you find it funny) will help one remember the content of a message more. Specifically, potty humour is commonly employed in comics emphasising the need to keep public toilets clean. After all, potty humour is just funny. Many people still laugh at poop jokes and the subject of toilet cleanliness lends itself well to relatable potty humour.


In addition, comics are used as pictures are quickly readable and help to spread information fast.¹⁹ The comics also serve to ridicule people who do socially irresponsible things. By making fun of a person falling into the toilet bowl after stepping on the seat, the comic demonstrates that stepping on a toilet seat is shameful, thus causing people who do it to feel embarrassed by what they do.


Figure 2: Singapore’s OK Toilet Comic²⁰



CONCLUSION


To ensure that public toilets remain in tip-top form and not become the butt of jokes, the Clean Public Toilets Campaign and other toilet-based initiatives have helped encourage Singaporeans to take the steps needed to keep public toilets are all clean. 


As tired and cliche as it sounds, everyone has to play a part in making sure public toilets are clean. While the Government can play a role in reminding us of the need to keep our public toilets clean and offering instructions on how to do this, there is no direct way to control our behaviour. 


As a wise man once said, “If it’s brown, flush it down”. No one likes the feeling of having to hold it in because you know the public toilet is dirty, and we have all hadat least one negative experience with a public toilet. The least we can do is to leave public toilets in a better state than we have encountered. 


MAJU PE 2024_12_Game Of Thrones_ The Quick And Dirty Of Keeping Singapore’s Toilets Clean
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This Policy Explainer was written by members of MAJU. MAJU is an independent, youth-led organisation that focuses on engaging Singaporean youths in a long-term research process to guide them in jointly formulating policy ideas of their own. 


By sharing our unique youth perspectives, MAJU hopes to contribute to the policymaking discourse and future of  Singapore.

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