Some parents believe school time should be devoted to studies and not nibbled away by activities like area cleaning. Similar views prevailed some 25 years ago when there was a debate over cleaning efforts in primary schools. The first Keep Singapore Clean campaign was in 1968 and almost five decades later, this effort remains very much a work in progress. Cleanliness might be next to godliness but among some, it seems next to impossible. To them, care of the shared environment is a low-order concern. Seen as menial work that is bereft of dignity, they think cleaning ought to be done by those at the bottom of a social hierarchy. It's rationalised as being more efficient to clear a mountain of rubbish by paying others to do it, often at the lowest possible rate of wages.
Are such attitudes sustainable? An army of 70,000 cleaners will simply not be available as the nation ages and foreign labour is in short supply. Also, Singapore's only landfill, Semakau, which was built at great expense to meet environmental standards, has a limited lifespan - up to 2035 or perhaps longer through determined recycling efforts. What should be done next will be in the hands of today's schoolchildren. If one is not prepared to let those hands get dirty doing simple cleaning tasks now, what will it bode for the future? School communities should ponder this prospect as they work out just what forms of cleaning should be part of students' daily routine. A minimal approach simply to check a box mandated by the good folks in Buona Vista will hardly nurture a conviction that cleaning is "everyone's joint responsibility", as Ms Denise Phua, chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Education, put it.
The logistics of trash management in a throwaway consumer society will require paid labour to lift, move, sort, burn and bury a growing amount of solid waste - from 1,260 tonnes a day in 1970 to 8,338 tonnes daily in 2014. To cope with this, people must play a part by taking ownership of any mess of their own making and of rubbish left in shared spaces. This is second nature to the Japanese and others elsewhere who don't bat an eyelid when sorting and compacting household trash for weekly or fortnightly collection, or composting organic waste. Should a similar do-it-yourself culture overshadow the tendency to complain, one might see more here pitching in to clean up neighbourhoods, rather than just using the CleanLah app to report littering to the National Environment Agency.
When a third of Singaporeans have no qualms about admitting their littering habits, one should not focus on schools alone to change social attitudes. A cleanliness movement should also be visible in HDB estates, condos, workplaces and public buildings. Efforts to "unspoil" a generation, that is growing up with maids at home and cleaners outside, will hardly gain traction if children see adults making little effort outside school.