Appreciating our unsung heroes

GRAPHIC: DIANE LIM

By Wee Rae

A few years ago, my grandfather worked as a cleaner in a secondary school. He carried a “wet floor” sign, a mop and a pail, up and down eight flights of stairs every morning.

He was 85 years old then.

One day, when I went to visit my grandparents, I saw stacks of paper on the dining table that read in both English and Mandarin: “Please keep the toilets clean”. My grandfather intended to stick these signs in the toilets all around the school because of how filthy they were.

He later revealed to me that the signs had been either torn up or strewn on the floor.

Throughout his two years of working as a cleaner, my grandfather has had his share of unpleasant experiences — from having his “wet floor” sign stolen to clearing faeces on the floor.

During his two years of service, not a single student went up to my grandfather to thank him for keeping the school clean.

Hearing firsthand the struggles my grandfather faced taught me one thing: to do my part in keeping the environment clean, and to always show appreciation towards cleaners.

In a survey conducted by the Singapore Kindness Movement in 2017, the number of people who cleaned up after meals in public and kept public toilets clean and dry after use fell from 5.83 to 5.52 and 6.17 to 5.88 respectively as compared to 2016, out of a scale of 10.

Though these figures reflect badly on our society, I wonder how many of us have stopped to reflect upon our actions and tried to make a conscious effort to change.

Last October, former top civil servant Lim Siong Guan said at the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS)-Nathan lecture, that the nation should now work towards cultivating a First World society, having already developed a First World economy. He added that a First World society is one that is based on the graciousness of people towards one another.

Making reference to The Hidden Wealth of Nations by David Halpern, Mr Lim said that the key to making our society happier is not through accumulating more wealth, but by improving the quality of relationships —in which graciousness is an essential trait.

It saddens me to know that despite Singapore’s successes in the past few years, Singaporeans still have to be reminded to be gracious.

Based on the World Giving Index, an annual report published by the Charities Aid Foundation, in 2016, Singapore ranked 28th out of the 140 countries polled in three areas — volunteering, donating to charity and helping a stranger.

On the other hand, Myanmar, a country with an emerging economy, has topped the index for the third year running.

Many countries look to Singapore to learn how we gained economic success despite being such a small state. But when it comes to learning about interpersonal skills such as caring for one another, we have to look to other countries like Myanmar instead.

Living on campus for the past year has exposed me to many similar sightings my grandfather saw — sinks choked with food remnants, toilet bowls left unflushed or clogged with toilet paper, and dustbins overflowing with takeaway boxes, drink cans and alcohol.

Yet, when such occurrences happen, we choose to point fingers at the cleaners and blame them for doing a bad job.

Whenever my friends and I talk about the toilets in hall being dirty or dustbins not being cleared, comments like “I don’t know what the cleaners are doing” or “Maybe they’re just lazy” often come up.

Ironically, when the dustbins are overflowing, people continue to stack their rubbish or leave it by the side of the dustbin instead of throwing it in the rubbish chute, often leading to food spillage.

In 2015, the inaugural Cleaners’ Appreciation Day was held on 3 May, where more than 4,000 cleaners in Singapore received tokens of appreciation from the People’s Action Party Town Councils.

But we do not need to wait for an event like this to happen just to express our appreciation to these people whom we see almost every day.

Simple things like keeping the place around us clean or disposing bulkier waste into the rubbish chute instead of public dustbins, could be a great help to the cleaners. A simple smile or thank you could also make their day.

While these cleaners may be paid to clean up after us, it does not hurt to help in areas where we can.

For my grandfather, his time at the school would have been much more fulfilling if students did not treat him like he was invisible.