SINGAPORE - Keeping Singapore clean will be the priority of the Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment (MSE) in the months ahead, with new legislation in this area to be introduced in the next three to six months.
Ms Grace Fu, Minister for Sustainability and the Environment, said on Friday (Aug 21) that Singapore's battle against Covid-19 and dengue had highlighted the importance of public hygiene, vector control, clean sanitation, quality water and safe food.
"These are all important basic necessities in life that we shouldn't take for granted. And I would like to work on that," she told the media in her first virtual press conference as Sustainability and Environment Minister.
Ms Fu had taken over the portfolio from Mr Masagos Zulkifli, who is now Minister for Social and Family Affairs, during the Cabinet reshuffle last month.
She said the upcoming changes to the Environmental Public Health Act will look at improving standards of public hygiene, especially in areas with more vulnerable users, such as childcare and eldercare facilities.
"I think we have realised that it's not just about the frequency of cleaning, or the number of cleaners we have, but it's really about how we clean better as well," said Ms Fu.
She added that her ministry will also look into how technology can be leveraged to help improve public hygiene standards.
Public cleanliness in Singapore has remained lacklustre despite many initiatives to get people to clean up after themselves in public areas such as hawker centres.
Asked how the renewed national cleanliness campaign, SG Clean, could actually change things, she said that Covid-19 has elevated expectations of what being clean and hygienic means.
She cited how the emphasis on hand hygiene during the pandemic has led many people to wash their hands with soap and water more often.
And one simple way to raise public hygiene standards is to ensure that hawker centres and coffee shops provide soap and toilet paper for users.
"Sometimes operators, if they're too busy, may overlook simple things like that. So we need to, again, re-emphasise their importance.
"And we're looking at how legislation change can make more effective requirements on the facility or the venue owner," she said.
But customers also have a part to play, she added.
Diners sometimes claim that returning their trays after their meals would take away jobs from cleaners, who are often elderly.
But with seniors being more vulnerable to infections, as is the case for Covid-19, diners could actually help protect the cleaners by returning their own used crockery to centralised cleaning stations.
"We should look after their interest and their health because for them to come across soiled tissues and used masks at the hawker centre... it's really not fair to them. That's not a job hazard that they have bargained for," said Ms Fu.
During the hour-long interview, Ms Fu also fielded questions on a range of other sustainability issues, from climate change to green jobs.
She highlighted how the renaming of her ministry, formerly known as the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources, was to reflect the growing importance of sustainability in Singapore.
"We are coordinating among the ministries, to look at how we can put sustainability really at the heart of many of our policies, from investments to energy, transportation and buildings," she said.
And there would be opportunities for jobs in these areas, said Ms Fu, citing the growth of certain sectors, such as in food production, the circular economy, and research into climate science, for example.
She also touched on the growing youth climate movement, and how her experience at the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, which she previously helmed, could inform outreach efforts.
She noted how there were already ongoing dialogues in the ministry, such as on Singapore's zero-waste ambitions.
But she said her experience with the National Youth Council, or the Youth Action Challenge, could come in handy, in terms of getting people with different ideas to come to the table, discuss those issues, and understand why certain decisions are made - even if they do not always agree.
"This understanding of policy rationale, why we have decided on certain things, is important because like many of the decisions that we make, it's about trade-offs," said Ms Fu.
And there are many different trade-offs to consider, whether social or economic trade-offs, or inter-generational equity, she said.
"These are all trade-offs and there is no right or wrong, but a spectrum. And where we land, sometimes may not be ideal or perfect for some groups, but at least I think they will understand, as it's because we have made those trade-offs."