I have noticed of late, walking around parts of Singapore, that there is quite a lot of litter strewn around on the streets. Reflecting on how far we have come as we prepare to celebrate 45 years of our being, it is remarkable how far we have come in some ways and how, despite attempts made at educating us, we have retained some of the less desirable habits of old. Old habits die hard I suppose, but thinking back at the many campaigns we have had, it does come as a surprise that when it comes to littering, we still have a long way to go.
This October, it would be 42 years since the first “Keep Singapore Clean” campaign, launched in 1968, at a time when there certainly was a need to raise awareness of the ills of littering, and a need to clean the streets of Singapore up. Along with the enforcement of public health laws which were passed that year which prescribed penalties for littering, the campaigns went a long way initially to improve conditions in Singapore. In the period of time since then, we have indeed seen a dramatic improvement in the environment that we can certainly be proud of.
What is interesting to note at the time of the passing of the laws, was that Mr. Chua Sian Chin, the then Minister for Health had, had been quoted in saying that “the changed political and social circumstances, as well as the behaviour patterns and attitudes of the local population needed to be taken into account”. While this may have justified the need for the use of penalties to serve as a deterrent and for the need for enforcement then, it shouldn’t really be the case now, when we have seen a great leap forward in our political and social circumstances, and also in higher education and literacy levels. But somehow, education and literacy hasn’t really translated into the increased social consciousness that one would expect, and if it wasn’t for the threat of fines (increased since 1968) and the introduction of the Corrective Work Order (CWO) scheme, and as an observer had once commented, the “army of cleaners” we have on the streets, we would probably revert to a level of filth that wouldn’t be far off from what we would have seen in the Singapore of the 1960s.
All this perhaps is reflective of a greater problem we have in Singapore, where we have grown accustomed to deterrence and correction as a means of prevention. While this does help in controlling situations, it cannot be more effective then addressing the problem at its source. In very much the same way as with policing on the roads where deterrence is used as a means to control, to the extent where the absence of a policeman or a camera sees vehicles travelling at speeds in excess of limits and vehicles rushing past a traffic light well after that had turned red, the absence of police officers and surveillance cameras often sees litter being left on the streets and in the parks, very often in clear sight of an empty rubbish bin.
Quoting an NEA press release relating to the recent launch of the latest anti-littering drive, the Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, “highlighted that Singapore’s clean environment is a result of continuous efforts over the last forty years of emplacing measures such as stiff penalties, strict enforcement against littering, a robust cleaning regime, and public education and community engagement on littering issues”. He goes on to note that “while these efforts have borne fruit, NEA’s surveillance and a sociological study on the ground shows that the littering situation in pockets of areas, such as town centres and around letter boxes in public housing estates, can be further improved. Common litter items include cigarette butts, used tissue, food and drink containers, and other assorted packaging”.
Dr Yaacob Ibrahim did also note that the “majority of the population sees it as their personal responsibility to bin their litter”, and that “in order to roundly resolve the littering problem today, NEA has adopted an integrated approach of stepping up enforcement, improving infrastructure and enhancing public education to tackle littering issues and challenges”. While this may be good in the short term, what we have seen over the 42 years also shows that try as hard as we might, without changing the attitudes of the population, it would always be a tough ask to “Keep Singapore Clean”.