Cleaners in Singapore: The heartbeat of the City's Spotless Streets

March 22, 2024

All those who live in, visited or have read and watched enough about Singapore know that its reputation as one of the cleanest cities globally is no mere accident. It is a testament to the relentless efforts of a workforce that operates mostly behind the scenes— its cleaners. These dedicated workers are the heroes of the city, who tirelessly maintain its pristine streets and public spaces, often without any recognition or fanfare. Their commitment to cleanliness and order is not just a job—it is a service to the community that upholds the city's international standing and enhances the quality of life for all its residents. They are one among the island-nation’s many often-overlooked individuals, whose contribution is fundamental to its identity as one of the world's cleanest and most orderly nations.  

A Tribute to Cleaners in Singapore: The Foundation of Urban Cleanliness

Every morning, as the city awakens, this army of cleaners sets out to maintain the pristine state that Singapore is renowned for. One can spot them armed with brooms, mops, and an unwavering spirit to be the real architects of the cleanliness goals of Singapore the world admires. They work in the shadows of the city’s skyscrapers, along the bustling streets, in quiet neighbourhoods, and across public spaces, ensuring that every corner reflects the nation’s commitment to hygiene and order.

We can’t simply go on without properly emphasising that cleaners in Singapore do not merely clean– they uphold a standard of living, contribute to public health, and enhance the quality of life for each Singaporean. Whether it is the litter-free streets or spotless public facilities, all those sparkling public spaces are a direct result of their meticulous efforts. From the hawker centres to the high-rise office buildings, their presence is all-over yet discreet. The dedication of these workers, often working in challenging conditions, is a testament to their commitment to the greater good of the city — its global image, custodians of public health, and contributors to the nation’s progress. Their role goes beyond the scope of their duties—it is about nurturing a culture of respect for the environment and for each other, so it is high time we recognise these individuals for more than their job title.

The Cost of Keeping Singapore Asia’s Cleanest Metropolis  

Singapore is known for its strict approach to maintaining public order, often implementing bans on behaviours it deems inappropriate and imposing financial penalties for violations. This practice began with the 1968 Keep Singapore Clean campaign, which aimed to regulate citizens' actions through fines. Since then, the country has enthusiastically embraced the use of fines, especially for littering, with authorities issuing tens of thousands of fines annually, starting at SG$300. Those who get caught littering for the first time face a fine of $300.

In Singapore, many discount and souvenir shops sell T-shirts humorously branded with ‘Singapore: A fine city,’ by listing various offenses that could result in fines. This trope has become somewhat worn out even while it is intended as a playful jest—it often invites more eyerolls than laughter among Singaporeans.

This relentless pursuit of cleanliness and order was particularly prominent during the tenure of prime minister Lee Kuan Yew. He took a hands-on approach by frequently sending directives to ministers or officials upon noticing any discrepancies. Lee was a firm believer in the importance of small details, and he was convinced that neglecting minor offenses could lead to a general disregard for rules and a weakening of administrative control.

According to Liak Teng Lit, the former chairman of NEA, Singapore is a “cleaned city” and not a clean city—the army of cleaners do the heavy work to help the nation clean. This has also changed the culture of Singapore, meaning Singaporeans have started seeing cleaning up as another person’s job. Before the installation of tray return facilities in 2013, it was easy to spot citizens who leave their trays at the tables at hawker centres as they are “too reliant” on cleaners as per Today Online. According to the Singapore Management University, although the satisfaction with public cleanliness is high, more participation from the public is expected.  

The Path to Recognition and Respect for Cleaners in Singapore

The journey toward recognising and respecting cleaners in Singapore is an ongoing process, marked by significant strides in recent years. A pivotal initiative in this regard is the Clean Mark Accreditation Scheme. Launched by Workforce Singapore and the National Environment Agency (NEA), this scheme is a cornerstone in redefining the cleaning industry's landscape. It sets rigorous benchmarks for employment practices and workers' welfare, aiming to elevate the status and working conditions of cleaners. Let’s examine this and a few other measures that play a greater role in upholding the nation’s clean image.

Clean Mark Accreditation Scheme: A Game Changer:  

The Clean Mark Accreditation Scheme recognises cleaning companies that deliver high standards of training, progressive employment practices, and responsible work methods. According to the NEA, this scheme has been instrumental in improving job prospects, productivity, and the overall well-being of cleaning staff. Companies under this scheme receive a mark of distinction, which serves as a testament to their commitment to excellence in both service delivery and employee welfare.

Progressive Wage Model for Cleaners:  

In tandem with the accreditation scheme, Singapore has also implemented the Progressive Wage Model (PWM) for the cleaning sector. As reported by the Ministry of Manpower, this initiative ensures that cleaners receive fair wages commensurate with their skills and job responsibilities. The PWM not only guarantees a minimum wage for cleaners but also provides a clear pathway for wage progression based on skills upgrading and productivity improvements.

Training and Upskilling Initiatives:  

To further support the cleaning workforce, the Singaporean government, in collaboration with industry partners, has rolled out cleaning guidelines and various training and upskilling programs in addition to relying more on tech for improved cleaning standards. These programs, often highlighted in NEA’s reports, are designed to enhance the skill sets of cleaners, and it enables them to handle more sophisticated cleaning equipment and adopt efficient cleaning methods. This not only improves their productivity but also their job satisfaction and career prospects.

Public Awareness and Appreciation Campaigns:  

Beyond policy and industry improvements, public awareness campaigns play a crucial role in changing societal perceptions of cleaners. Initiatives like the Public Hygiene Council’s campaigns like Keep Clean, Singapore aim to increase appreciation for cleaners and encourage public participation in maintaining cleanliness. These campaigns highlight the essential role of cleaners and foster a culture of mutual respect and appreciation between the public and the cleaning community.

Looking Ahead: Sustainable Practices and Social Recognition for Cleaners

As Singapore forges ahead in its sustainability journey, the significance of cleaners becomes ever more pronounced. The nation's quest for environmental stewardship and urban cleanliness is intricately tied to the efforts of these individuals. Recognising their role goes beyond mere acknowledgment—it involves integrating their contributions into the broader narrative of Singapore's sustainability goals.

Public Hygiene Council’s Initiatives:  

The Public Hygiene Council (PHC) in Singapore plays a pivotal role in promoting not just cleanliness but also a sustainable approach to maintaining public spaces. Through campaigns like the “Keep Singapore Clean” movement, the PHC emphasises the importance of communal effort in keeping the environment clean. These campaigns, as highlighted in the Council’s reports, also serve to foster a culture of appreciation for the cleaners, who are the frontline warriors in this endeavour.

Governmental Support for Sustainable Cleaning Practices:  

The Singaporean government, through agencies like the National Environment Agency (NEA), is actively involved in promoting sustainable cleaning practices. This includes the adoption of eco-friendly cleaning products and methods, reducing water and energy consumption in cleaning processes, and implementing waste reduction strategies. The NEA's focus on sustainability is not just about preserving the environment but also about ensuring that the cleaning industry evolves in a way that is both environmentally and socially responsible.

Sustainable Efforts by Private Companies:

Private companies, including cleaning service providers like Sendhelper, are increasingly adhering to governmental strategies to adopt sustainable practices. A trustworthy company like Sendhelper is encouraged to use biodegradable cleaning agents and adopt practices that minimise their environmental footprint. The push towards sustainability in the private sector is also seen to elevate the status of cleaners, positioning them as key players in Singapore’s environmental initiatives.

Public Participation and Recognition:

A crucial aspect of recognising cleaners lies in public participation and awareness. Efforts are being made to educate the public on the importance of maintaining cleanliness and reducing litter. This not only eases the workload of cleaners but also fosters a sense of shared responsibility. Public recognition of cleaners—through community events and national campaigns—further cements their role as integral to Singapore's sustainability efforts.

The Evolving Role of Professional Cleaning Services in Singapore

In recent years, companies like Sendhelper have been pivotal in professionalising the cleaning industry in Singapore. By offering a wide range of services, from home cleaning and laundry to packing and moving, the cleanliness standards in Singapore have been raised. The residents here recognise such services as crucial contributors to the city's hygiene and public health sectors, especially in post-pandemic times where cleanliness has gained heightened importance.

The path to recognition and respect for cleaners in Singapore is multifaceted, and it involves policy reforms, industry standards, and public awareness efforts. Afterall, we know very well that this journey is crucial for improving the lives of cleaners and for maintaining the high standards of cleanliness and public health that Singapore is known for.