As far as public amenities are concerned, there’s nothing we gripe about more than the state of our public lavatories.

We’ve all been there; with our senses assaulted the moment we set foot into a wet and dirty public toilet that reeks like a cesspool and resembles a typical scene in Asian horror movies. Is there a long-haired pontianak standing silently in the next stall? Who knows? Who needs the paranormal factor when the toilet itself is its own horror story?

Everyone has numerous tales about dirty public toilets from around the world, and not just the ones from our home turf. Many have written about the ‘nightmares’ encountered – a long list, from disgusting, clogged lavatories with no toilet paper and broken toilet seats, to meeting users who displayed a lack of etiquette and consideration to others.

In the 2014 Annual Report by the World Toilet Organisation (WTO) (seriously, I’m not making this up… there’s really a “global non-profit on improving toilet and sanitation conditions worldwide”), about 6.5 billion of the planet’s population own a mobile phone, but only 4.5 billion have access to a safe toilet with proper sanitation. Surprising, isn’t it? We may carry the latest and snazziest smartphones, but why is it so difficult for everyone to keep our public toilets clean?

The United Nations have already recognised the need for proper toilets and sanitation as a human right. The lack of it could lead to poor health and even death. A single toilet is home to 80 million germs, including those that carry the potential to spread infectious diseases like typhoid, cholera and diarrhoea. We should consider ourselves lucky to have toilet facilities within our reach, because 1 billion people in this world still practice open defecation. That may be looking at the broader picture, but everything always boils down to the individual to put in the effort to maintain cleanliness of common facilities shared by all.

Unclean toilets are not always a case of poor maintenance by the ones managing the facilities. Sure, in some cases, they could make improvements. However, that only covers 50% of the effort. Why? Because maintaining clean toilets requires everyone’s cooperation to keep it so. Cleaners or janitors are responsible for the general upkeep of the lavatory on a regular basis. Each user who visits it also holds the responsibility to help keep things clean and dry for the following user. It’s an act of civic-mindedness, a gesture of respect and consideration.

How well people maintain and use public amenities are a reflection of the society in a country. In this case, Japan is a role model. Their public restrooms are the cleanest in the world. Their attitude towards hygiene is what made the difference; something they practiced for many years. For the Japanese, if a public toilet’s cleanliness is compromised, it means that the country is “undeveloped”. So, what does it say about Malaysians if we look at the condition of our public toilets? Definitely not a reflection about how many fancy smartphones we own.

Andrea Tan is from Kuching but lives in the Big Durian, Kuala Lumpur.
She scribbles and doodles, and on occasion, stands quietly in the (clean) toilet stall next to yours.

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