Invest in the unsung heroes of our spick-and-span streets

A friend from Singapore recently visited me in Hong Kong. She first visited in about 1993 and has been here several times since. On her latest trip, she went out of her way to say how much she thought Hong Kong had changed - for the better. At the top of her list of noticeable improvements is how clean and tidy Hong Kong has become compared with the early 1990s. Like many, I hold a Singaporean's understanding of spick and span in high regard. This was a bit like a German telling you your beer is now worth drinking.

We talked about why this had happened. One big, first-impression factor is Chek Lap Kok airport. Before 1997, your jumbo jet dropped almost vertically from the sky into Kai Tak, one the world's most remarkable airports. When your taxi finally snapped you up from the long queue, you could not help but notice how the airport was squeezed between teeming, monsoon-stained tenements and Victoria Harbour.

Nowadays you arrive at gleaming Chek Lap Kok, one of the best airports in the world. You can step almost straight from your plane onto an express train which swiftly whisks you to the heart of Hong Kong. There are still monsoon-stained tenements, but mostly in the distance. Primarily, however, you encounter greenery, massive bridges, a huge, well-ordered container port and glimpses of a famous skyline.

The essence of the change noticed by my friend is most apparent, however, at street level. Hong Kong no longer looks like home to a perpetual meeting of the Federation of Litterbugs. Clearing garbage from our streets and alleyways is still a round-the-clock challenge - it could hardly be otherwise with some 7 million people crammed into about 200 sq km of

high-density accommodation. What is striking, though, is how much progress has been made in meeting this challenge.

Severe acute respiratory syndrome gave this process a big push. But the real key to the achievement lies with Hong Kong's army of street cleaners. That they labour as hard as they do - and so well - for so little, makes their work all the more notable. Where I live in inner West Kowloon, you are at the pointy end of street cleaning. Scavengers regularly empty the contents of countless roadside rubbish bins in the search for anything recyclable or edible. Many other people discard all manner of waste in the street without thought. Stoically, steadily and efficiently, the women (almost all are) who clean up put everything right again several times a day.

The next budget is almost upon us. A smart way for the government to spend some of its surplus - and help relieve poverty-based misery - would be to energise public cleaning in Hong Kong still further. First, frontline workers deserve a reduction in the long hours they currently put in, at the very least. Next, we need more cleaners, both to share the burden and to lift our standards still further.

Our street cleaners are already making our lives substantially better. They are particularly effective in making the poorest parts of the city less grim and unsanitary. And they have boosted Hong Kong's attractiveness to visitors. This is quite a contribution to community well-being. Greater investment to amplify their often unsung achievements makes excellent sense.