Tony Chooi: Focus on the people

Tony Chooi, president of the Environmental Management Association of Singapore (EMAS), aims to be the leading authority on cleaning and hygiene through the building of future talent, and to ease the manpower shortage in cleaning organisations

How far has environmental management and sustainability come in the past five years, and how does EMAS play into this?
The Environmental Management Association of Singapore (EMAS) was first established in 1986 by service providers from the cleaning, waste management and pest control industries. The aim of EMAS is to provide a cohesive platform for companies in the environmental industry to raise the professionalism of the sector, and address the common concerns of environmental and hygienic services.

In the context of the cleaning industry, environmental management and sustainability are about keeping Singapore clean, and how this effort can be sustained for the long term in view of the challenges faced by the industry.

Sustainability, in our view, is also about the general public taking social and collective responsibility – in playing their part to keep community spaces clean. In the long term, through community efforts, reduces the workload for the cleaning workforce; thereby helping the industry gravitate towards focusing on deep cleaning and sanitising/disinfection of those community spaces and the environment at large.

EMAS as a trade association spearheads several initiatives in partnership with government agencies. We then collaborate with our industry members so that information is shared effectively via several modes of engagement.

Some of these topics include information on best practices that are innovative and environmentally friendly, reducing wastage, and improving productivity. Cleaning companies are encouraged to adopt such solutions, in order to better manage the labour crunch, and ensure sustainability in the long term.

What are some of the challenges that have been thrown EMAS’ way and what is the association doing to overcome them?
The challenges have always been related to labour – manpower shortage due to an ageing workforce and locals shunning cleaning roles despite an increase in demand for services, and the private sector’s preference for headcount-based contracting.

EMAS has been working with related government agencies and industry players to propose a multi-prong approach in trying to overcome these challenges.

Firstly, EMAS is exploring alternative ways to attract locals – by redefining and redesigning jobs. With the proliferation of digital and automated solutions, cleaning businesses can transition workers upwards in the value chain.

As laborious tasks are reduced or eliminated, businesses are encouraged to relook their hiring processes to refresh job hiring descriptions, roles and responsibilities to reflect the more vibrant and interesting aspects of the role. With less emphasis placed on repetitive tasks, workers can be more engaged in value-adding aspects of the work.

Second, EMAS recognises that both service buyers and service providers seek value in agreements entered. To achieve this, both parties must ultimately align and shift focus towards objectives and outcomes (and not being tasks-based).

Taking an outcome-based approach can help unlock value for both stakeholders as it prioritises the achievement of goals, rather than a focus on the input of resources required.

The adoption of Outcome-based Contracts (OBCs) can help ease the shortages in manpower as contractual agreements focus on outcomes, while operations focus on productivity and continuous improvement through innovation. The most crucial factor in this model is the clear definitions of performance requirements in the agreement. Both service buyers and service providers must also engage in conversations on expectations. As such, more education is needed in order to bring more stakeholders on board.

In order for OBCs to be a successful model in the cleaning industry, there must be an ecosystem to support it. EMAS is currently in talks with several related agencies and industry players to enable this in the areas of training, information sharing and outreach.

Lastly, EMAS and society as a whole, need to protect and uplift the very people who help to make Singapore clean, green and hygienic for everyone. To protect our cleaners, in June 2021, EMAS as part of the Tripartite Cluster for Cleaners, mapped out new wage levels and skills requirements for workers in the cleaning industry, with higher salary increments planned for the next six years under the Progressive Wage Model.

How did EMAS keep their members focused and engaged during the pandemic?
EMAS has been engaging actively with several government agencies to ensure timely information reaches our members – as can be seen from the fluidity of the pandemic situation. We have also worked with our strategic partner agencies to draft (and also update) advisories for the industry.

Additionally, EMAS also collates and shares information on a timely basis with all our members. In the event of anomalies, we help to seek advice from the relevant agency. In other instances, EMAS has helped our members to appeal on matters if there are genuine reasons for deviating from the norm.

Lastly, we gather on-ground feedback and industry information for the agencies – such as foreign manpower shortages brought about by travel restrictions, shortage of cleaning solutions at the time, as well as disrupted business activities during the pandemic.

How does speaking at events like CleanEnviro Summit Singapore (CESG) help to broaden the association’s reach?
EMAS’ vision is to uplift the industry and be the voice/bridge between industry players and government agencies; through regular communication and information sharing sessions.

CESG is a global networking platform for thought leaders, senior government officials and policymakers, regulators and industry captains to convene, confer and co-create clean environment solutions. Since 2012, attendance at CESG has been increasing from about 19,000 in 2012, to more than 24,000 in 2018.

While 2022’s attendance may be affected due to Covid, CESG is still an important platform for us to conduct outreach to potential members to share more about EMAS’ values. The more members we have, the better we are at collation and sharing of information that may be useful in crafting policies for the cleaning industry.

Associations rely on conferencing as a major source of income. How did EMAS obtain varied sources of revenue and perhaps, deployed cost-cutting in other areas?
Many events and conferences were postponed in the past two years, hence affecting income. EMAS has always been prudent with its costs. Purchases were either postponed or cancelled, unless they are business-critical.

Alternative ways of getting the job done were explored to reduce expenses. Our membership has increased; and we have explored and taken on several programmes/initiatives to increase our sources of income. EMAS has also adopted relevant grants or funding support in order to streamline our expenses.

What are some of the lessons EMAS has learnt from the pandemic and how are you a different association today compared to pre-Covid?
We have learnt that there are some cleaning companies which have no knowledge of support or information that can assist them. We are now more effective in the way we communicate and organise initiatives in our outreach to members. We acknowledge that digitisation and training are important even as an association, and have put together a plan to improve in these areas.

EMAS has evolved to a stronger and better association during the last two years of the pandemic. EMAS understands the importance of hygiene cleaning and will continue to advocate high cleaning standards in Singapore.

We will continue to equip our industry with the right know-how and skillset to tackle the next wave of “Pandemic X”.

Could you share some of EMAS’ future plans and projects?
Currently, EMAS has plans to accelerate digitalisation in our business processes. Other plans include learning trips, as well as to have deeper engagements with members and industry players through dialogues, webinars, seminars and events.

In the future, EMAS is moving forward to build capabilities and enhance knowledge of OBC. We are working with training providers to develop our own training arm to curate and develop training programmes on OBC. This will equip service buyers with essential skills in preparing contract specifications according to outcome-based principles, specifying outcome-based requirements, performance standards, etc. The courses will also be useful for service providers to gain understanding from a service buyer’s perspective, as well as knowledge of OBC contracts. This will be done in tandem to facilitate the acquisition of skills and knowledge to effectively manage OBC from both parties’ perspectives.

Another goal is to help build future talent and leadership within cleaning organisations, which will, in turn, build a resilient cleaning industry for many years to come.