42 years of Keeping Singapore Clean and still trying to keep Singapore clean

6 07 2010

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.

Not such a tasty treat ... litter strewn on the streets of Singapore.

What keeps the streets clean is not the social consciousness of the population, but the army of cleaners we have on the streets.

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.

We have had numerous "Keep Singapore Clean" campaigns which have not had their desired effects.

Litter is everywhere, even within sight of signs urging the public to use the many bins around.

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.

Seen on a bin in Singapore. The Earth's environment in need of First Aid. In Singapore we have managed our environment very well, but there is a need to raise social consciousness as a means to maintaining this and not just rely on deterrence and corrective action.

It seems like the hands off policing methods when it comes to littering does not have the required impact and more needs to be done.

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.

Discarded cigarette butts are a common sight everywhere.

Along with discarded cigarette boxes.

Little bits of litter such as cigarette butts end up in crevices and slots that are often hard to reach.

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”.

Discarded food containers are also a common sight.

Often, half eaten food in containers can be found abandoned on the streets and in the parks.

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”.

Even downtown areas are not spared.

Litter is left on places such as benches too.

It isn't Singaporeans that seem to be keeping Singapore clean.

And we have to thank our foreign cleaning crew for much of the efforts in keeping our environment livable.

Our downtown reservoir isn't spared from litter.



14 responses

7 07 2010

Jerome, with 40% non citizens in Singapore, the 42 doesn’t cut anymore. It could be that 20% of the population responsible for 80% of the rubbish, haha

7 07 2010
The wondering wanderer

Icemoon, I must say that while we would like to think that the foreign element dominates the litter we find around, unfortunately, we Singaporeans are equally culpable. Wandering around it is not hard to find both foreign and local talent at work. Just wander around any HDB estate and you will find many Singaporeans trying to decorate the ledges of their neighbours on the lower floors with anything from cigarette butts and cotton buds to the less savoury items which I shouldn’t mention here, drink cans, bottles and half eaten packets of food being left on benches by our youth, parking coupons and whatever that doesn’t agree with the car being tossed onto the ground of the car park. Plus …. we should really be thankful to some of the foreign legion for joining the armies we require to keep our streets clean.

7 07 2010

Jerome, I thought there were complaints the armies swept the rubbish into the drain 😛

Let’s not forget we are the reason why chewing gum was banned. The little piece of gum became a menace to public infrastructure. Also after a soccer match or NDP, not unusual to find rubbish lying around.

7 07 2010
The wondering wanderer

Guess there were Icemoon! But then, that doesn’t absolve us of our guilt or relieve us of our social responsibility. Couldn’t agree more on your observations!

7 07 2010
David Leong

And those around the letter box littering too. Apart from bad habits of youngs adults & olds we have among those from uniform students coming home from schools despite being taught in school day in & day out plus not to mention littering along HDB corridors urinating at lifts throwing everything conveniently right from window & what about the so called silent killer litter bugs too. This bad habits have become ‘virus & cancer’ being shaping/moulding up at the our HDB doorsteps everyday.

Enough is enough for the self-consciousness or self-awareness reminding from the tops to the bottoms grassroots/residents afterall most Singaporeans are well educated with better Kiasu/Kiasi approach & attitude too yet we simply behave the way we do like irrational animals. I don’t understand why.

Looking back it had been a long & winding path indeed. Look like we have no choice but to jump-start with a NATIONAL WIDE CAMPAIGNS to re-education & re-training for discipline at each doorsteps of HDB block apartments to get the tough messages across properly inclusive the effective greeny national recycle project as twin campaigns/projects from each household at HDB housing estate. This time is from bottoms working upward instead.

7 07 2010
The wondering wanderer

Absolutely, David. Maybe it is a case of our education system being too focus ed on delivering academic excellence and we have very little place in our society for anything else but material success?

8 07 2010

Wow this is quite an eye opener! I didn’t realise how bad it was.

17 08 2010

Thanks for the thoughtful and meaningful article, Jerome.
I am 44 years old and I seem to remember that Singapore was a much cleaner place when I was in my teens. The ‘Keep Singapore Clean’ campaign back in my early years did seem to be of some benefit as I don’t remember seeing the amount of litter I see being indiscriminately being left about these days.

It is sad but there appears to be a great deal of apathy towards social responsibility. I really also do not want to add further to the impact that foreign worker have brought into Singapore. But it is hard to ignore it when even the government recognises that these workers (who are the ones ironically cleaning up our mess) bring with them a different view of social responsibility standards. I have seen them leaving their empty packet lunches without a thought in our parks. With such behavior, I am not surprised that younger Singaporeans then view this as normal behavior.

I hope we can break that cycle of bad behavior.

18 08 2010
The wondering wanderer

Thanks for your feedback Henry. I certainly agree that Singapore seemed much cleaner back in the 1970s and 1980s, and we did not see litter being indiscriminately left about in those days to the extent we see today. Yes, it is sad that there is a general apathy towards social responsibility, and the worst thing is that we pride ourselves for being first world. While I do agree that there is certainly the foreign element in some of this, it is unfortunate that those who have been born and bred in Singapore are equally responsible. A lot of this should start off at home rather than from watching what our guests do on the streets. Walk around any HDB estate in the mornings before the army of cleaners come by and seeing the amount of litter thrown from the flats above is staggering … it really is up to us to break the cycle …

26 07 2011
denise @ quickies on the dinner table

sorry but being pc does not interest me – the foreigners in singapore are cleaning up the country and the foreigners in singapore are also dirtying it as much as the locals are, if not in fact, even more so than the locals. case in point – i have to wholeheartedly agree that while singaporeans are not generally known for their civic consciousness or for being environmentally concerned, singapore was a lot cleaner in the 70s, 80s and 90s, before the recent foreigner influx

26 07 2011
Jerome Lim, The Wondering Wanderer

Hi Denise, thanks for your observations. I don’t disagree that there are a number in the foreign communities that have come to Singapore that are guilty of leaving litter around, but my point is that Singaporeans as as guilty of it as they are much as we would like to think it is not the case. I have observed how untidy cinemas, stadiums and places where mass spectator or mass participation events get after the crowds have left – and much of the ones involved I am afraid are not foreigners but Singaporeans. Yes, Singapore was a lot tidier in the 1970s and 1980s that I grew up in, but while the campaigns did have short term benefits, it is the root of the problem which is the overall lack of civic consciousness that hasn’t been tackled. The behaviour extends not just to littering but to other areas, examples of which are seen everyday at the bus stops, MRT stations, lift landings etc. Without trying to address this, society I am afraid will not progress to the point where people are at that level of consciousness that makes them look for a bin than toss that piece of litter on the floor.

7 09 2011

How funny, I was just going to write a post on Singapore and the littering when I saw your “seven links” post and the reference to this… now I have something meaningful to link to!

24 01 2012
ni Made widya

Singapura bagikan rahasia menjadi negara yang bersih dan cantikk!!!

2 07 2012

Hello, I’m a European living in Singapore for 6 months. The first time I visited Singapore was 10 years ago and I can confirm that there is a world of difference. In the area where I live (Novena / Thompson / Chancery Lane) there are increasing amounts of litter and rubbish. I find this astonishing, in an island where trash bins are pervasive and there’s no justifiable reason to litter. I’ve been collecting rubbish myself, from the public lawns and streets around my house, to the astonishment of the passers-by. I’ve also noticed that certain groups are being the no.1 cause of the problem:

1.Foreign workers in civil construction sites (there was on next to my house where the men would daily dump their trash and food waste directly to the street; I’ve approavhed their company and told them that I would report to authorities; they immediately started a cleaning action)

2.Restaurants and food courts. Just look at what happens around the Novena food court and Goldhill plaza. I would recommend tightening security in those areas.


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