“Ordinary Singaporeans will soon be given the power to issue warnings and summonses to litterbugs” (Tackling Littering From Ground Up, Samantha Boh).
Since the idea of giving enforcement powers to community volunteers was mooted in 2013 by the National Environment Agency (NEA) to empower plain-clothed volunteers on the prowl, with further proposals in 2014 to perhaps expand the mandate of these individuals to also include spitting and smoking, it has not been established whether the endeavour – one premised upon additional surveillance and the fear of punishment – would necessarily help to keep Singapore clean. Parliamentarians say that the government “is taking a step in the right direction to eradicate littering by having more eyes and ears on the ground” (ST, Mar. 4), but it is not as straightforward.
Already the penalties in the country for littering are stiff, with a larger number of tickets issued by the NEA and higher fines for multiple convictions. Courts may also impose Corrective Work Orders – in which offenders are made to wear luminous vests while cleaning up in specified, public locations – to shame these litterbugs, though it is less clear whether such deterrence remains effective. It would therefore seem more constructive, beyond the new empowered volunteers, to first evaluate the efficacy of existing policies, where the gaps may be, and how we can move beyond the mere deployment of fear.
Because tackling our reliance upon cleaners and janitors, perhaps talking about cultural problems, and above all taking responsibility for our environment appear most constructive, even if results will take time. More innovative education and public awareness campaigns could be helpful in this regard. Which is why giving janitors in schools day offs and involving students in the upkeep of their classrooms and school environments are useful strategies. Fostering such behaviour could also address entrenched perspectives towards blue-collared occupations, and encourage good habits – not littering, for instance – outside school compounds.
And of course some patience will not hurt. Quick-fixes, in my opinion, like volunteers with enforcement powers are likely to raise more questions about potential abuse and the temptation to expand their policing responsibilities to include other vices. Mindset changes take time. It was not too long ago when Singaporeans were complaining about commuter resistance to keep to the left of escalators in train stations or patron reluctant to return trays at food centres, yet with greater awareness these actions are more commonplace these days. Our willingness to remind one another spontaneously on the streets, without reliance on fear or the threat of punitive ramifications, could feature more too.
A version of this article was published in The Straits Times.