Photo: ST/JoseHong

In her role as Inspector Elaine Tay in police drama Triple Nine, she used to clear the streets of criminals. Now, in her new job, former actress Wong Li Lin will help clean up Singapore’s streets - literally. 

She is the new executive director of the Public Hygiene Council (PHC), the latest incarnation for the 45-year-old who was once a professional ballerina, a pilates instructor, the boss of a media start-up, and a deputy director at a medical firm.

In the five weeks since she took up the job of running the PHC secretariat at the National Environment Agency, Ms Wong has not only been learning the ropes, but has also had to deal with curious and excited colleagues.

 

 

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"I still get photographed, with people telling me 'I remember you in Triple Nine' or asking me 'When are you going back to TV?'," she told The Straits Times in an interview on Thursday (Oct 19).

Ms Wong said she found out about the PHC opening through her professional network around January (2017) and met the council members to see if she would be a good fit for the role. She was then with the Thomson Medical group.

After going through several interviews, she accepted the offer from PHC, which was launched in 2011 to promote good hygiene practices and improve personal and public hygiene standards in Singapore, among other things.

 

 

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Ms Wong said she has no academic or work experience in the area of public hygiene, but she does not see it as a problem.

She said all her jobs, including this one, involve her three passions of educating, promoting wellness and media.

"From the policy-maker's standpoint, regulation is put in place to keep Singapore clean. But there has to be a connecting point on the ground with the community, to be able to nudge and shift behaviour in that direction," she said.

"That's where we come in."

She is also aware that many may continue to view her as an actress, despite her new role at the PHC.

 

 

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"People see the tip of the iceberg and not the large chunk beneath the water's surface, which is my very rich work experience," added Ms Wong, a mother of two children - daughter Sage, 13, and son Jonas, 11.

"But I'm the sort of person who likes to roll up my sleeves and work. So in the working world, people will then see what I deliver."

Already, Ms Wong said she has many ideas for the new role, though she recognises it is still early days.

First on her mind is streamlining and simplifying the process of organising cleanups around the island.

She wants to create a one-stop online portal where organisations such as companies or societies can access and view the areas in Singapore that are available for cleanups.

She also wants to set up a shared pool of cleaning tools such as tongs, so that groups will not have to buy them for one-time use in their clean-up activities.

 

 

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For now, Ms Wong plans to start the pilot project at the beaches as they are quite popular, with the PHC receiving about 20 to 30 requests to clean them monthly.

Secondly, she wants to strengthen the use of social "nudges" - an idea from behavioural economics - to understand people's habits and therefore subconsciously encourage them keep the surroundings clean.

She gave the example of racing events which produce large amounts of trash.

Discussions with race organisers, she added, found that large waste disposal areas near the water points were significantly effective.

"Runners want to run, and they may not break their focus to search for a bin," she said."I want to make it easier for them to throw their trash while not distracting them."

Finally, she hopes to raise public awareness about what the PHC does. Here is where her public profile, and knowledge of social media, might come in handy.

"I have always tried to underplay my profile, but I realise that I am still recognisable. It has only been in the past few years that I have begun to see how it can be put to some use."

When it comes to the future, Ms Wong said: "I'm looking forward to learning and growing on the job, and contributing to our ability to better ourselves, so that we can better our environment."

 

This article was first published on The Straits Times