Pay toilets: An inconvenience when nature calls?
SINGAPORE: Every day, rain or shine, 58-year-old Soh Koon Siong starts his day before dawn to ensure that the toilet at Ghim Moh market and food centre is clean and ready for public use.
Fondly known as Ah Siong in the neighbourhood, Mr Soh has been the toilet caretaker at the market for 12 years.
Unlike some unattended hawker centre toilets, which can be smelly, wet and dirty, the one at Ghim Moh market is clean and odourless. The floors are free of litter and the toilet seats are dry and unsoiled.
The cleanliness, however, requires much effort. Every hour, Mr Soh and his wife, Madam Phee Poh Choo, 57, take turns to check and clean the toilets.
“The toilet can get very dirty. The floor will be slippery, toilets get clogged and some women will also throw their sanitary pads on the floor,” said Mr Soh, who used to be an odd-job worker. “Sometimes if the toilet is faulty, I’ll fork out a sum of money to fix it,” he said in Mandarin.
To help cover operating costs, Holland-Bukit Panjang Town Council, which manages the toilet, imposes an entry fee of 20 cents.
“The collection of 20 cents per entry is to assist the contractor or toilet attendant in defraying the cost of maintaining the toilets, including payment of utilities,” said the town council’s general manager Juliana Lim.
The money collected from toilet admissions goes to Mr Soh, who earns about S$60 a day.
Over at Marsiling Lane Food Centre, there is a 10-cent toilet entry fee. The toilet attendant position was created by Marsiling-Yew Tee Town Council in a bid to help needy senior residents.
“An entry charge is placed on hawker centre toilets to help create job opportunities for elderly needy residents by providing them another form of added incentive income to be self-reliant,” said a spokesperson from the town council, adding that the town council conducts checks weekly to ensure the toilet is clean and well-maintained.
While these toilets are kept clean, some users that Channel NewsAsia spoke to questioned the need for any charge.
“I don’t understand why we have to pay to use the toilets here. Aren’t we already paying taxes and fees to the town council every month?” Madam Tay asked.
“Why do they have to charge? It’s a public place and there are food establishments here. People may need to use the toilet,” said Ms Josephine.
Others, however, said they are willing to consider a small charge to use the facilities.
“It’s ok to pay 20 cents if I can get to use a clean toilet,” said Lim Swee Huat.
“To let old people ... have some work to do, I think it’s ok. Ten cents is a small amount,” said Dennis Wan.
Hawker centres and markets are managed by the National Environment Agency (NEA) but the toilets within the premises are run by the respective town councils.
In a statement to Channel NewsAsia, NEA said it does not mandate nor disallow collection of payment from people for using public toilets.
“Public toilet operators have a duty under the law to ensure that public toilets are clean and in good working condition, and adequate toilet amenities such as soap and toilet paper are provided,” said a spokesperson.
It is unclear how many hawker centres and markets currently levy an entry fee for the use of toilets. But NEA said of the 110 hawker centres and markets, 28 owned by the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources do not impose a fee at the toilets.
Elsewhere, while more shopping malls offer a free, top-quality toilet experience with seat sanitiser and fancy mirrors, some older shopping centres still charge an entry fee.
At The Bencoolen shopping mall, users have to pay 20 cents to use the toilet, which is managed by cleaning company Ao ServicePro.
Said the company’s supervisor, Ramli Ismail: “The money goes to my company. We use it to pay the workers.”
CLEANERS MUST BE TRAINED
But as more free restrooms are readily accessible, can pay toilets still be justified? World Toilet Organisation founder Jack Sim said pay toilets are irrelevant unless the cleaners are professionally trained.
“The pay toilets are dirtier than the unpaid ones,” he said.
“If the pay toilet is dirtier than the free toilet, who wants to pay? We cannot treat the hawker centre cleaner as a welfare case. The cleaners have to be trained professionally. We should make them professional, renovate the toilet to be bright, clean and (not) smell so that more people will visit the toilet and the cleaner’s income will go up.”
Mr Sim cited the pay toilets in Germany as a successful model that Singapore could follow. Users receive a coupon equivalent to the amount paid for the use of the toilet, and the coupon can be used at any store or restaurant at the rest area.
“If we have pay toilets, make it an attractive business. The customers are willing to pay because it’s very nice. Every toilet experience must be a spiritually uplifting one,” Mr Sim said.
RESPONSIBILITY ON TOILET USERS
While shopping malls and owners of food establishments have the responsibility to ensure that their toilets are well-maintained, the onus is still on toilet users to play a role, said Liak Teng Lit, former chairman of the Public Hygiene Council.
“It’s the responsibility of the property owner, the people who manage or own the shopping mall or food outlet to make sure they have the basic amenities in proper order. The water must flow, the toilet must flush and that place must be reasonably well-maintained," he said.
“But I think the biggest responsibility lies with the users. It's you and me. When we step into the toilet, do we use it carefully, properly without making a mess for the next person who's going to walk into the toilet? If all of us take that responsibility, be considerate to one another, that place will require very little cleaning. You won't have problems with all the problems that people complain about."