Thursday, January 27, 2011

Cleanliness is next to Godliness - an ancient proverb


It's impossible not to compare different countries' reaction to seasonal flu epidemics and the 'Swine Flu'.


Hong Kong, hit very badly in the pocket when the SARS epidemic struck several years ago, has not relaxed its vigilance and you will see people in the streets with masks on, never mind in hospitals.


Doormats impregnated with disinfectant are at many entrances to buildings. Lift lobbies are equipped with hand  disinfectant dispensers. Lift panels are covered with clear plastic sheets which are disinfected every two hours. Some newer lifts even have control panels that incorporate antibacterial material.


Some MTR stations have escalator handrails of antibacterial material and are disinfected every two hours - I wouldn't have noticed this but for the stickers on the escalators.


Cleaners, in crisp, clean uniforms are everywhere, wiping, mopping, disinfecting. The only place in Singapore where I've seen similar attention to cleanliness is in Singapore's Changi Airport - or, to be exact, in the Silver Kris lounge at T3 - and only in recent times.


Perhaps that Singapore came off rather well during SARS and that has made us complacent.


And I expect that our influx of workers and visitors from more relaxed countries have also added to the grubbiness and air of not very gentle deshabille that is in evidence - even in the upmarket shopping area of Orchard Road.


Shaw Centre and its environs is a shocker; cleaning seems to be perfunctory at best. I think it is high time the three 'wise' men stopped pinching pennies and redeveloped the site. This time, I hope, they won't just look at the bottom line of the tenders but take the view of building something that they and future generations can be proud of.


And while they are at it, why not improve the underpasses leading to and from Shaw Centre - more reliable escalators, bigger tunnels with no elevation changes, decent ventilation and effective air-conditioning and better maintenance are much needed!


When I have come across stationary escalators in Central and Causeway Bay in Hong Kong, they are usually being serviced or under repair.


For a period over Christmas and the New Year (I did not make a note of the exact dates) the escalator from the Orchard Road underpass to Scotts Road was out of action for at least four days and there was no sign at all of any work being done!


The escalator to the overhead bridge at the DFS building was also hors de combat for some days.


No wonder businesses at the Orchard Road/Scotts Road junction want the pedestrian crossing reinstated. At least pedestrians do not have to contend with underground walkways that are downright unfriendly to the handicapped, babies and heavily laden shoppers.


All in all, if you walked instead of being chauffeured around, you will get the see the side of Singapore other than "clean and green".


The street level pedestrian pavements on either side of Orchard Road have some handsome planters - unfortunately people have damaged or stolen the orchids; since been replaced with other plants. But these too have suffered from neglect and abuse. Such a shame.


Whether it is our paranoia about terrorists and bombs, there are precious few rubbish and recycling bins. And those that can be found are often stuffed full to overflowing. 


And, in first world Singapore we do not have people who will rummage in bins for items they can recycle and sell to the rag and bone merchant for a few cents, so there is little recycling and an overabundance of rubbish.


Just the other day, as I was walking towards the entrance to an MTR station in Central, Hong Kong, I chanced upon a warning sign on the pavement before the stairs down to the station concourse; it cautioned pedestrians to be careful because the pavement was damp. 


In the MTR concourses one hears public service announcements in Cantonese and pukka English to hold the handrail of the escalators or to take the lifts if carrying luggage. I heard one the other day warning us to mind the damp floor.


Hong Kong is not as litigious as the USA, yet we get the benefit of these public service announcements and signs. So it can't be a question of liability.


Interestingly, in Singapore we try to hide the lifts in MRT stations that have them, as if they were for special people who alone know where the lifts are located!


I was on an escalator in a shopping complex in Hong Kong and there were signs cautioning us to keep our feet clear of the yellow lines on either side of the treads, so that shoes and clogs would not get caught in the machinery. 


These would be quite useful in Singapore if coupled with public announcements because so many people wear open-toed footwear in the tropical heat and humidity, especially children who have a propensity for getting their Crocs and such caught when using escalators.


Our experience of crowded places (outside of the airports) in the USA is limited as we got there to get away from the hustle and bustle of cities. But from what I can see, no one panics about the swine or any other flu.


My cousin (a doctor) was talking about her son who was in his first term at university and mentioned in passing, in a matter of fact way that she thought her son had a bout of swine flu, as did others in his year.


The Asian part of my upbringing made me feel somewhat surprised that she took it so calmly, particularly as she is a doctor and would know the dangers of swine flu and its implication for young people. I had expected her to behave more like my friends in Singapore or Hong Kong.


Mothers in Singapore and Hong Kong would have rushed post haste to the university dorm and taken their children off to see specialists. Then they would stay around to prepare and administer cauldrons of nourishing soups and foods until signs of recovery.


I suppose it is these differences in attitude that make for the contrasts in the way of life - even in Asia. Singapore though mainly Chinese is much more cosmopolitan than Hong Kong.


The cultures and ways of life in Singapore reflect the influences that have come with people from their countries of origin. I use the plural because everyone makes their own lifestyle and religious choices.


In Singapore we celebrate the major religious feasts and holidays - Vesak Day, Christmas, Easter, Deepavali, Hari Raya Puasa and Hari Raya Haji.


Whereas the indigenous Chinese in Hong Kong (taking some liberty with the word indigenous here) prevail. 


Aside from the major holidays (Christmas, Boxing Day, New Year's, Day, Easter, HKSAR establishment day, National Day and special commercial occasions (e.g.  Father's Day, Mother's Day) that the whole of Hong Kong embraces, the rest of the 17 public holidays in 2011 are Chinese (Lunar New Year - 3 days, Ching Ming, Buddha's Birthday, Tuen Ng Festival, the day after the Mid-Autumn Festival, Chung Yeung Festival).


SARS may not be the only reason that cleanliness is high in the list of priorities in Hong Kong, but it has made the entire community more aware of hygiene and its impact on lives and livelihoods.


So, in Central these days shop assistants and cleaners dust and polish shelves, arrange and re-arrange items on display. The heavy glass doors and their big, shiny chrome or stainless steel handles come in for constant attention.


By contrast, my favourite thosai restaurant in Singapore has signs on their plate glass doors requesting patrons to use the door handles and not to mark the glass doors with their fingers and palms! There's more than one way to skin the cat!


Newcomers to an unmistakably Chinese Hong Kong are soon imbued with the same fervour concerning cleanliness and hygiene - even though, as with any place, there are recalcitrants among the local Chinese and also among the newly arrived.


It's been said that Singapore is still under construction. In a way that is to the good because the government should try to inculcate (not try to impose or mandate, measures that are sure to put people's backs up in this day and age) a 'culture of clean'  in ALL its citizens and residents so that in time this virtue is easily and quickly assimilated by new arrivals. 


Right now, it seems to me that the flood of new people has overwhelmed what existed before.

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