Keeping Singapore clean is serious business. So serious that a new department’s been formed to make sure there are no more grey areas when it comes to cleaning. - Text by Ryandall Lim Photo by Justin Loh
Before, eight government agencies suffered a prickly relationship sharing the task of keeping Singapore clean. Disputes sometimes arose over cleaning obligations when rubbish was found in “ambiguous” areas, such as pathways near MRT tracks, that did not fall clearly into any agency’s boundaries. On April 1, the National Environment Agency's Department of Public Cleanliness (DPC) was launched to integrate all cleaning contracts and serve as a centre for public feedback on cleaning issues. Roger Ng, who heads the Admin and Quality Service section, shares the challenges of starting from scratch.
> When we were formed, there were all kinds of suggestions as to what we should be called! Some were downright trashy. In fact, we nearly became the Department of Public Cleansing, until some kind soul pointed out possible misinterpretations of that name!
> When I was “arrowed”, I mean nominated, to be part of DPC ’s core team, I didn’t even know what I was going to do. Some things were totally new to me and I had to step out of my comfort zone. Now I see myself as an agent of change.
> At the start, there were so many headaches, or challenges – I try to be positive about them. We had to start a department from scratch. Manpower was an issue and we didn’t even have an office or phones. One day before our launch on 1 April, we discovered our e-mail mailbox hadn’t been activated even though the request was put in some time ago. We scrambled like mad to set it up, or we’d have become an April Fool’s joke.
> Our department motto is “do first, talk later”. For straightforward complaints, we normally just clean it up first, then sort out whose responsibility it is, and how to handle such cases better in future. It required a shift in our thinking but the compliments we have received have more than made up for our initial angst!
Often, people complain because they need a listening ear, so I advise my colleagues to have some compassion when they work.
> I grew up having a mentally disabled neighbour who would often soil himself, so since then I’ve become more tolerant of things and try to understand why they happen. Now when I get complaints, I try to help people understand the issues behind the situation so they’ll know why some problems can’t be resolved immediately.
> The toughest complaints have to do with personal preferences, which are difficult to appease; you can never make everybody happy. Often, people complain because they need a listening ear, so I advise my colleagues to have some compassion when they work.
> I’ve learnt to take things in my stride; there’re no quick solutions to problems, but if you think out of the box, consider different perspectives and find resources, it can be done.
> What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Once, when I was facing a lot of difficulties at work, my former senior manager told me “what goes down will come up”. So I believe that when we go through a rough patch, it’s just matter of time before it gets better.
> It’s a lot more satisfying grooming staff to become leaders who can help share the burden, rather than charging uphill alone! My biggest challenge is to keep my staff motivated and to develop their potential. Ultimately it's all about people management and treating each other as family.
> My job keeps me busy mentally, and many times I bring work home. I’m very fortunate to have a very supportive family. My wife understands the late nights I have to put in. Sometimes, after dinner, I hug my two kids goodnight and then go back to work in my room. It can be quite tiring.
> I tell my children that I’m keeping Singapore clean, and teach them what I’ve learnt on the job – to be tolerant and understanding, and to respect others. A little appreciation goes a long way. When you see cleaners, greet them “auntie” or “uncle”.