Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Cleanest city my foot

One of the first things I learned when I got to Singapore was about how the country prides itself on being the cleanest city in the world.

After living here for two years, I must set the record straight.

No, it's not.

It may not have trash littering its sidewalks (at least where the tourists can see), but it'd be a big stretch to call it the cleanest ever.

I've lived in an area of this country that's not frequented by tourists and spent the last two years working elbow to elbow with its local citizens. And you know what? I actually feel less clean when I'm here as opposed to being in the States.

Now I'm not saying that there's a huge pile of garbage hiding behind the jungles or that there's a secret trash stash under Orchard Road.

My issue with the place is the germs.

Growing up in America, I was never the germophobic type, but I had a respect for keeping things clean and sanitary. Our parents and teachers instill it in us from an early age. Wash your hands! Use a Kleenex! Cover your mouth! Don't drink after other people! Clean that with Clorox! We've heard every piece of advice on keeping germs at bay. We've even read countless articles about just how many germs there are in EVERYTHING. There's a fun one here, in case you're curious.

At times I'll admit, we go overboard. For the most part though, we're just trying to stay healthy.

So it was beyond shocking to me that some of the local customs in Singapore are downright germy to the nth degree.

To give examples and illustrations, I've made a list of four specific instances.

1) Public hand towels

This picture was taken in my office building's bathroom. The towel on top of the broken hand dryer is the community hand towel. It rests less than four feet from the nearest toilet. (Which if you've ever read the research, a toilet sprays a teeny, tiny blast of water droplets up to eight feet all around it when flushed.) Despite that, how about the fact that 10 to 20 people are washing their hands and using the same towels for sometimes two weeks at a time? I've even seen some of these people not even bother to use soap.

That's just gross.

Oh and on a side note, the rag on top of the broken soap container is the one our cleaning lady uses to clean the whole bathroom. I'll talk more about that whole issue in a minute.

2) Everybody puttin' their mitts on the raw chicken

This is how a lot of people get their chicken at my local Cold Storage. They take the tongs (hopefully) and select the pieces they want and place them in a plastic bag.

There are two things that I see wrong with this and I'm sure my sister, who's an RN, could name about 50 more. For one, do they sanitize the tongs after each use? I'm going to guess no. Each person that picks those tongs up is also picking up all kinds of harmful germs, like salmonella, and then transferring it to the grocery cart and then to their children in the cart and then to everyone else in the store. What if you forget to wash your hands when you stop by the food court on the way out? You'll be sick as a dog, my friend, and so will everyone else that touches everything else you touched with your salmonella flavored fingers.

And two, speaking of children, what if your toddler wanders over there? They could play in a sea of raw bacteria for quite some time before you finish picking out your ribeye at the butcher station. All it takes is ten seconds of distraction and your kid is covered in chicken carcass juice.

This is just an all around a bad idea.

3) Open utensil grabbing at hawkers

When you visit a hawker stall, these are the trays where you grab your eating utensils. Notice that the Asian utensils are facing all different ways and directions. This requires someone to fondle several pieces in order to get their own set free from the pile. The result is that the person who got their stuff before you has just transferred whatever goobers that were on their hands onto the chopsticks that you're gonna put in your mouth.

And that person may or may not have just picked their nose on the bus.

Sound yummy? Didn't think so.

On that same topic, I also get grossed out when dining as a group at these kind of establishments. It seems that when we order large dishes to share, they almost never come with a serving spoon.

Then people have to do this:

They have to take the chopsticks that they've already put their saliva all over into the community trough. (For the record, the woman in the picture hadn't used her chopsticks yet and they are still clean. She's considerate like that.) I have been in several other situations where people I don't know have plowed their used utensils into shared items.

Nothing makes me lose my appetite faster. I don't know you and I don't know where you've been. Please keep your spit to yourself.

Thank you.

Ok. I've saved the final bombshell until the very end. I did so because it may cause you to dry heave or never visit a public bathroom in Singapore ever again. I apologize ahead of time for feeding you an apple from the Tree of Knowledge. Here it goes...

4) Abysmal, horrific cleaning practices of public bathrooms

My dear, sweet friend Sheryl shared this gem of a story with me a couple of days ago and it has haunted my dreams ever since.

She was at Paragon Shopping Centre a couple days ago, which just so happens to be where many of our expat doctors have offices, and she stopped into the bathroom.

While she was in there, she observed one of the cleaning staff cleaning the bathroom. (Not that she was monitoring them, she just happened to see this while waiting.)

First, the staff member used the toilet brush to clean inside of the toilet bowl and without hesitation, moved the brush up and around the seat. Yep. She used the brush, the one full of dirty toilet water, to scrub the part that people sit on.

But here's the kicker! Then, she took a rag, dipped it into the toilet water, wiped down the seat again, rang out the rag and moved on to the sinks.


It's bad enough that she cleaned the seat with toilet water, but then she cleaned the sinks?! I just can't even wrap my head around it.

My stomach can't even get past it.

Thank the Lord above that my rear hasn't touched a toilet other than my own since I got here. I also thank the Big Guy for strong thighs. And hand sanitizer. Lots and lots of hand sanitizer.

Really though, this post isn't to bash Singapore. There are many many people here that are clean and sanitary in their daily practices. What I'm merely trying to find out is why we clash so much on the germ issue as a whole.

Like my husband also pointed out: In Singapore, restaurants are given a cleanliness rating of A, B, or C: A being the best and C being the worst. So basically, it allows them to have a certain level of filth.

C = a lot of filth.
B = just a little filth.
A = clean.

Back home, we have a system too. It's called sanitary or closed.

Granted, I know that the US has its problems in the food industry (and I am getting ready to read Sinclair's The Jungle), but these shops are what the general public can actually see for themselves. Wouldn't you want to keep your shop sparkling clean so people can at least think they're having a safe meal? Why doesn't everyone strive for an A?

(I'm getting off my soap box now. I tend to get a lil' wound up when I'm grossed out.)

Again, I'm really not trying to bash anyone. I'm merely trying to figure out why the vast difference in culture.

Is it that we Americans are just that germophobic?


jody said...

Have you had blood taken in a Dr. office? Twice, in 2 different offices, blood dropped on the doctors desk, was casually wiped up with a tissue (which was thrown in the regular trash. No sanitizing of the surface at all. Is that safe??

Megan said...

That's just plain scary. I'm so glad I never had witness that one. I thought it was traumatic enough to collect a urine sample in a filthy public restroom. That's nothing compared to your story!

YUN ZHEN! said...

In Chinese, there's a saying that goes 越怕死的人越早死 which basically means the more you are afraid of death, the earlier you will die. I guess the more germophobic you are, the more germs that get into you. Seriously though, most of my friends who grow up in dust-free environments and are very very hygiene conscious get sick easily and the rest just don't. (Not saying my friends are not hygiene conscious. Just the exceptionally mindful ones.)

It's supposed to build up your immune system. There has been scientific research done regarding this. For example, if you get sick, and let your body's antibodies deal with the viruses instead of eating medicine, your body would have then built up the mechanism to fight the same viruses next time. And as for not using communal cutlery. It's the same principle. That when you eat somebody else's saliva, your immune system sort of learns new stuff about being immune from the other person's immune system through saliva. Does that make sense? (This is also why people kiss. Science has said.)

Perhaps its a culture thing. But its years since I last went to the doctor's. Salmonella also rarely occurs in Singapore. Usually a case of food poisoning. But rarely. So I'm always curious where Salmonella comes from every time Westerners mention it. They do seem to be very scared of it. It's like their dengue.

Mitja said...

I bring my daughter to Cold Storage just to play with the chicken bin. Cheap entertainment!

But if you want gross, in Vietnam spitting seems to be a national pasttime. Our cab driver in Vietnam said that when Vietnamese go to Singapore, they get a lot of fines.

Compared to the rest of SE Asia, Singapore is sanitized for your protection!

Megan said...

Yun Zhen, thank you so much for your insight. It's very interesting how the other side of the thought process works. I could see how it makes sense. It's just like the warnings they're issuing to Americans about over sanitizing our children and thus, they're getting sick from stronger bugs. I guess I should remember that one.

Just to let you know, Salmonella is the bacteria that causes a lot of food poisoning. I guarantee it's here, you guys may just have another name for it.

Lyst said...

Regarding your first observation about communal towels, I don’t think that’s a norm. In fact I’ve never even heard of such a thing in public toilets before o.O Made me lol though.
The other one about no serving spoons used and everyone digging their chopsticks into the same food. I guess its basically Chinese culture to do so and its kinda hard to change culture, when its been done since forever =/ Here sharing of saliva usually only done amongst families so I guess it is related to closeness. However, it has moved to amongst friends. Some people do get offended or insulted if you bring it up as an issue though. Linking saliva with the r’ship between both parties, example: “what is wrong with my saliva?” but what they mean is “you got a problem with me is it?” (very singlish I know =P and just setting the record straight I’m not the kind that would get offended =P)
But I think Singaporeans are aware of the germs that may be transmitted by eating this way. Restaurants and banquets for 10 course dinners provide serving spoons now. And I think many Singaporeans usually are aware of etiquette when they are sick and ask for an extra spoon. So that we can take the food and ensure that the extra spoon doesn’t touch our own mouth or food in our own bowls.
But this sharing of saliva through food, isn’t it the same when people share drinks? Drinking from the same bottle, straw, cup or can? And isn’t it done worldwide?
I dono but I am guilty of eating and drinking like that and I haven’t fallen sick due to germs from food yet =X

Brad Farless said...

It was really a leap of faith for me to use the utensils provided at the hawkers when I first got here and I still look at them with disgust every time I have to use them. It's just so unsanitary! You said picking boogers, but what if it was something worse? I'm not even talking butt digging. What if someone was busy popping zits on the way over to the hawker to have lunch?

Lys, I won't share a straw, cup, bottle, or drink in any sort of way with anyone but my wife and perhaps my mother and father, voluntarily at least. I'm not sure where you got the impression that people worldwide pass around drinks with people they hardly know.

I thought my standards of hygiene were a little lax, especially after some of the things I've been through in the Army, but Singapore is constantly pushing the envelope on hygiene issues. I don't even want to touch the rails in the MRT anymore.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

I am a singaporean, but I dont sit on public toilets too. Unless i really need to take a dump, then I will lay toilet paper all around the rim before sitting on it. Double layer sometimes =X

Brad Farless said...

LOL @ hate comments.

Kinda figured there'd be one on this post. Some people can't take criticism.

Megan said...

Brad, I know. I had a good chuckle over that one too. I had to take it down though. This is a family place after all. Ha.

Brad Farless said...

Ya. My mom just reads my posts in Facebook. Filters out all the crazy comments for her that way, but that's another reason why I removed SG stuff from my personal blog. I want it to be more positive. The controversial stuff can stay separate.

Anonymous, I use that method too. I won't put
my butt on a public toilet. I even hesitate to do it at some residences I've been to.

amused said...

Firstly, there is a glaring and common error in the CBN article (the link on the cleanest city). I have even heard foreign airline pilots announcing on the PA upon landing at Changi airport that it is forbidden to chew gum in Singapore. That is incorrect. The sale of gum is banned (well, certain medical gums can be sold here, that's another story) but certainly not the act of chewing gum.

Secondly, I find the story about the Paragon toilet very hard to believe. This is not a typical behavior in Singapore. The cleaner is doing it out of spite, which can happen anywhere.

Thirdly, the common toilet towel is very unusual. Shouldn't you or your colleagues complain immediately so that the dryer is fixed?

Fourthly, the cleanliness rating system extends to D, which is fail. http://app2.nea.gov.sg/topics_food_hygiene.aspx You can have different grades of cleanliness, right?

Generally agree about the other comments. Singapore is generally clean but can improve in many areas as well. Spitting and littering are still common, for example.

Megan, one cultural difference which I cannot comprehend is wearing the same footwear that you wear outside the house inside your home. Aren't you bringing in all the dirt, germs etc right into your home?

Paul said...

haha . i've been living here my whole 22 years of my life in Singapore.. and as much as I agree with you on the "the person who got their stuff before you has just transferred whatever goobers that were on their hands onto the chopsticks that you're gonna put in your mouth.", the idea never did cross my mind!

haha.. guess the next time I see that in front of food stalls, i'll think of your blog!

Megan said...

Amused, I can assure you that the Paragon story is fact. The woman who told me is one of the most honest people I've ever met. I've seen some questionable cleaning practices done by our own cleaning staff at our office too. I don't think it is done out of spite, but rather out of ignorance. They just don't know what "clean" is. Basically they think that if it looks clean, it is. I could be way off base here, but that's what it seems like to me.

The community hand towel is something that I saw in both of the offices where I've worked. I'm glad to hear that it is not a common practice. I must have just got the icky office bathrooms two out of two times. :)

As far as our grades of cleanliness, I'm not an expert, but I'm fairly sure these only apply to factories and food handling operations in the US. Once the food go to establishments to be prepared and served to consumers, there is only one acceptable grade: PASS. We have restaurants shut down all of the time because of failing to comply with seemingly mundane codes. But that's the point. If it's not perfect, it isn't open. Granted, I know lots of things go on behind the scenes of every establishment that is not sanitary. For the most part, restaurants are clean. (I can say that since I worked in five different ones throughout my schooling.)

I can understand your confusion about the shoe removal thing. I actually blogged about this a few months ago. Americans in general, do not adhere to this standard. However, it is becoming more common in recent years for them to do so. Personally, I hate removing my shoes when visiting someone's home, especially someone who I don't know very well. I don't know how clean their floors are or simply, my feet get cold! Also, as a child I contracted a foot fungus from a gymnastic studio in which we were all required to be barefoot. Ever since, I am hesitant to be without shoes around other people. I'd hate to have to go through that again. It's gross and not at all fun.

I know a lot of people that have adapted shoe removal in their homes and I will admit that I do take off my own shoes upon entering MY house. I'm sure this is something that I'll get over eventually.

However, if you really want to get down to it, why stop at the shoes? If it were because of germs and filth, then wouldn't you have to change your clothes as well? You sit on a bus seat that's never cleaned, the ground when no seat is available,and brush up against people who may not bathe regularly. Then you go sit on your couch or at your dining room table and transfer those germs. So really, if you use the "shoes are dirty" argument, you'd have to apply it to your whole body.

Then again, I'm just going off on a tangent. Don't mind me. I get a lil' ahead of myself sometimes. :)

Brad Farless said...

Megan, your last comment just reminded me of something.

Taking off shoes is a common practice in the Philippines too, but every time we go to visit a house where Filipinos live here for parties or whatever, they insist guests leave their shoes on while there. I guess they want us to feel comfortable with our feet being safely in our shoes, since they can sweep and mop afterwards.

sapphire said...

#2 is super gross. It's also why I don't like collective salad bars at restaurants.

Raw chicken is super gross though.

Anonymous said...


I'm Singaporean and though I am not as squeamish about germs, I totally agree with you about the appalling state of our toilets, food preparation (and consumption) without any consideration to hygiene and even our streets -- we are such litterbugs that if there were no cleaners working round the clock, we'd be buried in litter!

You should write to Paragon shopping center or write to the forum page of the local newspaper. Or the singapore restroom association (yes, there is such a thing, haha..) www.toilet.org.sg

Anonymous said...

To Lyst (March 30, 2010 7:53 AM).

the proper way to use chopsticks is not to let it come into contact with your mouth or tongue. Licking of chopsticks is a definate no-no.

Debbie said...

When we moved here I was taught proper chopstick etiquette by a friend... She said that you use the opposite end (or wider end) of your chopsticks to get food from a communal plate. Then you use the small end to put the food in your mouth. That way communal plates stay clean.

Our bathrooms at my office are awesome! We have disposable paper towels and they are cleaned well hourly. :) Of course, it is a medical building...but paragon should be much better! I'm suprised!

I'm also VERY happy that I've never seen a communal towel in my almost 2 yrs here!

Debbie said...

ok...it's embarrasing that I keep forgetting my main points and I'm double commenting!

What about COVERING YOUR MOUTH WHEN YOU COUGH OR SNEEZE! I swear it seems like people aim for maximum exposure when they cough or sneeze! It drives greg and I crazy! That being said, since I didn't take public transportation EVER in the US maybe it's like that there too I just didn't realize it! I'm "this" close to wearing a mask on flights!

nutto said...

LoL and I thought I was germphobic... o____O

If you think this is bad you havent been to other SEA countries have you? I remember when I was was on a trip to Thailand, we visited a market and the vendors selling food would leave it out in the open and the dishes had flies buzzing all over them... needless to say I didnt try any of the street food...

I must concede though that in Singapore the public toilets tend to be quite gross. Also the hawker center tables which are all cleaned with the same rag and no soap... NEVER rest your elbows on them XD