No quick fix to littering woes

Litter on the Alexandra Arch bridge across Alexandra Road, on Jan 31, 2015.
Litter on the Alexandra Arch bridge across Alexandra Road, on Jan 31, 2015.PHOTO: ST FILE

It has not been established whether giving individuals the power to enforce littering rules - an endeavour premised upon additional surveillance and the fear of punishment - would necessarily help to keep Singapore clean ("Volunteers to get powers to enforce littering rules"; March 2).

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, but it is not as straightforward ("Tackling littering from ground up"; last Friday).

Already, the penalties for littering are stiff, with an increasing number of tickets issued by the National Environment Agency and higher fines for multiple convictions.

Courts may also impose corrective work orders - where offenders are made to wear luminous vests while cleaning public locations - to shame these litterbugs, although 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.

Tackling our reliance on cleaners, perhaps even talking about cultural differences among the various communities here 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.

This is why giving cleaners in schools a day off 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-collar occupations and encourage good habits - not littering, for instance - outside school compounds.

Of course, some patience will not hurt.

A quick fix in giving volunteers enforcement powers is 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 that Singaporeans were complaining about commuter resistance to keeping to the left of escalators at train stations, or patrons' reluctance 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.

Kwan Jin Yao

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 11, 2016, with the headline 'No quick fix to littering woes'. Print Edition | Subscribe