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A note on bathroom (and other) maintenance

I was telling my officemates about my affection for the Sarawak Museum, but had to mention (of course) the strangely nasty toilet facilities there. Why is there such a contrast between the exhibition halls and the fairly simple matter of clean toilets?

Turns out it’s not simple. In the first place, the whole building and contracting tender system in Malaysia is conducted behind closed doors, so nobody knows what the lowest bid was. So nobody knows how much a builder or services contractor gets to keep in his own pockets once a contract has been “won” – a better word is “awarded.” ¬†Easy money for contractors!

OK, said I, but surely it can’t be so difficult to hire some poor but honest person to clean the bathrooms once or twice a day? Wouldn’t it be worthwhile in a tourist-oriented place?

Well, turns out it is difficult, and that’s because of the easy money problem. Nobody wants to earn a simple living by cleaning stuff (or actually performing any services) because the whole culture revolves around the notion of easy money – of skimming off the top. With toilet cleaning, there is no top. Unless you run a cleaning firm. So let’s say your cleaning firm wins a contract to clean toilets at the museum. You of course don’t mind overseeing the actual cleaning person, but doing the work yourself is out of the question. So you hire someone to do it it for a pittance. That person may or may not do the cleaning – you don’t surpervise them very closely, because you already have your cut from the contract and don’t care if the toilets are clean. And the cleaning person probably doesn’t care either – nobody’s checking to see if the job is done, nobody’s in a position to receive or act on negative feedback from customers. So money may be spent, but nothing gets done.

This is apparently a big problem in Malaysia, where the bidding process is closed. In Singapore, by contrast, the uncle or aunty who cleans the bathrooms is accountable to their supervisor, and if there are complaints from end-users the supervisor makes life miserable for the cleaner. (In turn, the cleaning company is not paid if the cleaning is not done – a condition that seems not to obtain in Malaysia.) The bidding process in Singapore is open, so everyone knows who is responsible. People claim that there’s an easy money mentality in Singapore too, at least for the already-wealthy, but it doesn’t seem to trickle down to the point where nobody does anything, because they’re always hoping for a cut from an uncle in the construction business.

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