April 1999

Flush or be fined




I wish I had cut out that newspaper article when I saw it last month so that I can quote from it now. Too late.

It was about a tourism show in Germany, in which many Thai hotels and travel operators were participating. Many German travel agents visiting the show complained that despite a devalued Thai baht, the Phuket hotels were still charging expensive rates. In reply, the Phuket hoteliers said something to this effect: that it was a matter of supply and demand and that Thailand was a free market and a free country, unlike Singapore where the government dictated hotel room rates.

This, of course, is plainly untrue. Hotel rates in Singapore are not set by the government.

But people believe these things, and people repeat these things, confident that they would be believed by whoever might be listening. Why would such a statement be credible? Because it would be entirely in character. The character of the Singapore government, that is.

Our widely known character

That characterisation is formed by numerous little things reported around the world, all with a kernel of truth, mind you, such as how opposition politician Chee Soon Juan is hauled off to court for trying to sell his book at a street corner, how chewing gum is banned in Singapore (well not quite, the sale and importation are illegal, not the possession), how employers must guarantee that their Filipina maids must not get pregnant while working in Singapore, and the worldwide favourite: how it is a criminal offence not to flush after using the toilet.

All these leave one with the impression of a government that knows no bounds. It wants to control everything, no matter how petty, no matter how intrusive to privacy. Together with reports of ministers going around the world speaking, ever so defensively, about Asian or Confucian values, it is hardly any leap of imagination to conclude that the government is thin-skinned and authoritarian. Dictating hotel rates would surely be the least it would do.

If I merely stopped here, I'd be accused of being superficial. It is said that one has to look behind these petty little laws to understand why they came about, and through them, what makes Singapore tick.

Fine. (Oops, bad choice of a word). Let's look at the flushing law, as an example.

Flushing is a must

A decade ago, when tourism was becoming a big industry here, the issue of embarrassingly dirty public toilets surfaced. There were a multitude of reasons for that putrid state of affairs. Maintenance was generally shoddy: cleaners didn't go in frequently enough, repairs were not done. Most important of all, the public's habits were deplorable.

The toilets in shopping centres were bad enough; those in hawker centres or bus terminals were largely no-go areas unless one was a sewer rat by disposition. But then our public toilets had been so for years and no one expected any better. However, when tourists began to complain, what had been a matter for the backside suddenly became a matter of face. It didn't hurt that it was also a matter of hard currency. And so it became a matter for the government.

Now, this government has a tendency to view its citizens as robots. They may not like to use the term, but they are great believers in social engineering. Press the right buttons, use the optimal mix of carrot and stick, and people will do what they are required to do. The chief cause of dirty toilets was diagnosed to be extreme irresponsibility, such as leaving the urinal or toilet without flushing, though there was a sort of reason for that: people felt that the handles were too dirty to touch! Regardless, the obvious solution was to get people to flush, and given the mindset of the government, the most effective way was to pass a law.

They didn't just pass a law. They patrolled the toilets for a while and fined a few hapless offenders. To ensure the message got through.

But they did more than just pass a law

To be fair, I should add that a multi-pronged approach was designed from the very start. They knew it wasn't a simple problem, and each facet of it had to be tackled.

To get people to treat the problem seriously, a campaign was launched -- the Singapore government loves campaigns. The issue was discussed in the press and over television. Basically the idea was to raise consciousness and to create social pressure for change. I think it succeeded in raising consciousness. People began to voice their disgust, suppressed all those years until the government said it was all right to voice them -- as with so many other kinds of disgust in Singapore waiting for the green light. As for creating the social pressure for change, I don't know if that was achieved.

Government pressure on the owners and operators of the toilets certainly helped. Building inspectors were sent around to check the public toilets more often. Public health inspectors had to pay as much attention to restaurants' toilets as their kitchens. Since too many toilets had been franchised out to little old ladies, which meant that responsibility for their upkeep was very variable, pressure was applied to shopping centre managements to repossess the public toilets in their buildings in order to be directly responsible for them.

Gradually, managements and owners began to push back the problem. Repairs were undertaken, choked sewers dealt with, brighter lights added. In many cases, the toilets were completely renovated. Scents and disinfectants were introduced and more regular cleaning rounds were instituted. Paper was provided for a change. Not least, electronic sensors were added so that there would be automatic flushing after every use.

The psychology is important. People feel guilty to leave a clean toilet dirty. Give them a clean toilet, and they will behave better. Not perfect perhaps, but better.

And so now we have generally clean toilets in most places, and having gotten used to clean toilets, Singaporeans are much less tolerant of dirty ones. The culture has changed. Owners and managers give the issue higher priority, while the public are behaving better.

Don't we just love keeping archaic laws?

What of the law? It's still in place. As far as I know, nobody enforces it. From the beginning, it was a ridiculous notion to have secret agents watch people as they pee and catch them if they did not flush. But did the law at least serve its original purpose of getting people to change their habits? In my view, it wasn't the law that did it. It was the raised consciousness, the improvement in the physical environment, the change in management thinking, and the new technology of automated flush.

The law stands as a relic of knee-jerk authoritarianism, a token of the contempt that the government has for simple basics such as personal privacy, and a reminder that they place no faith in the people's civic sense and private initiative. None of that attitude has changed. Nor is there any chance that the law would be repealed anytime soon, even though it is not enforced anymore. Face. The government would lose face. People might think they have gone soft.

It might be argued that it does no harm to leave the law on the books. That it would be a useful reminder now and then of everyone's public responsibility.

I beg to differ. Enormous harm has been done. It's been grist to the mill of foreign opinion, a perfect caricature of the arrogance and invasiveness of Singapore's government.

Britain punches above its weight -- here's a statement few would disagree with. Britain has an influence on world affairs greater than its military and economic power might warrant. It is so partly because of its historical links with many countries, but also because it is a good example of a liberal democracy. It has a moral authority that few other countries can match.

(As an example of a country punching below its weight, consider Japan, the world's second largest economy, with over 100 million people -- but its political timidity and economic paralysis hold it back)

The Singapore government likes to brag that they too punch above their weight. After all, they only govern 4 million people on a tiny island. Perhaps that may be so vis--vis other governments (though I wonder), but with respect to other peoples, I don't think so at all. On the contrary, I think it'll be closer to the truth that they punch below their weight. All over the world, what people know of the Singapore government are its petty rules such as flushing. Against such an impression -- not false, in fact created by our own government, and publicised by our "Singapore is a Fine City" T-shirts -- the Singapore government has little credibility or moral authority. Whatever they say, people flush it out of their minds.

Yawning Bread