A problem that refuses to be flushed away

By Mariam Mokhtar, Malaysian Mirror

The issue with dirty toilets keeps resurfacing and we have not been successful in resolving it. At the launch of the 2010 World Toilet Day celebration and national environmental health seminar on 22 November, the Housing and Local Government Minister Chor Chee Heung said that most public toilets audited by the Local Government Department were dirty.

He said, “It looks like we are still far from achieving a satisfactory level of cleanliness” when describing an audit of 5,764 public toilets conducted from March 30 to June 30, of which only 7% were rated five-star, whilst a majority (52%) received one or two stars.

He tried to get the message through to the general public, by posing for photographs whilst sitting on a toilet bowl during the launch of the World Toilet Day. The event was also attended by the ministry’s secretary-general Ahmad Kabit, and ministry director-general Datuk Arpah Abdul Razak.

Chor said local authorities must perform spot checks on public eating places at least twice a year and those who fail to keep their toilets clean would be asked to shut down until they improved hygiene.

Haven’t we heard this before? If Chor is serious and if he wants results, two spot-checks is insufficient. How about introducing a hefty fine? What about closure if there are repeat lapses in standards of hygiene?

He might need to enlist the help of other ministries, such as health, education and tourism, to get a concerted effort going.

As it is, one ministry will highlight the problem if and when it arises, such as when a tourist lodges a complaint. The usual fuss follows, then dies down until the next person, perhaps a student who complains to her parent, who then brings it up with the media. The same cycle then repeats itself.

First Chor must identify which ministries, government departments, companies and educational establishments need to be involved.

Schools are ideal places to inculcate good hygiene habits. Malaysians are an apathetic lot and serious change can only be effected if every student and teacher is involved in the drive to be clean and hygienic. Students must also be taught to respect school property and other people’s belongings.

Clean toilet campaigns in schools may reduce maintenance costs for the school.

But the cooperation of the teachers and students will be ineffective, if the cleaners and school administrators are not involved.

A school needs to work out its requirements and have sufficient numbers of toilets for the school population. Overworked toilets will lead to frequent breakdowns if the toilets are substandard. Thus, the workmanship, lifespan and quality of the fittings need to be good.

Cleaners who do not know what they are doing or who are not properly supervised can also prove to be the weak link.

Some cleaners have been known to use the toilet brush to clean the taps on the sinks. This will only spread germs. Others complain that there is nowhere to place their cleaning chemicals, whilst a few say they have not been given substantial cleaning equipment, instruction and tools.

The need to reinforce good toilet habits is equally important. Many people treat the toilet bowl as a dustbin and discard items which will cause blockages. Students must realise that the cleanliness of their toilets is not dependent on the janitor but is also their responsibility, as a toilet user. Perhaps, parents could also reinforce good toilet etiquette at home.

Outside of the class room, the Tourism ministry has an important role to play.

Minister for tourism, Ng Yen-Yen told members of the public that they had to help the authorities build an image of Malaysia as a safe and tidy destination.

She said that the cleanliness of public toilets and the surrounding areas must not be overlooked as it reflected the state of the country: “I have received complaints of dirty toilets and poor maintenance of public amenities at tourist spots. Local councils should respond to such complaints promptly as they have an adverse effect on tourism in the long term.”

However, what the public wants to know is how she attempts to tackle the toilet problem. Talk alone is insufficient.

As in many institutions, the root of the problem is the quality of supervision by the officers in charge of the cleaners. Workers underperform and the maintenance regime is poor. The repair of faulty equipment and broken toilets is delayed. As a result of this, the remaining functioning toilets are under strain and in time, they too breakdown.