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Using citizens and cash to fight littering

The proverbial trope of using a gun instead of a swatter to exterminate a pesky housefly pops to mind when one recalls last week's anti-littering proposal by the former chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for National Development, Ms Lee Bee Wah.

She is championing a pilot scheme which will incentivise Singaporeans monetarily into fingering litterbugs. Those who offer evidence of blatant littering will get to share the spoils of the fine. To be sure, Ms Lee neither originated the idea nor is it Singaporean. This stratagem is modelled on an apparently successful Taiwanese scheme. According to Ms Lee, an MP for Nee Soon GRC, a resident of her ward suggested the idea and she believes it should be an additional way to catch litterbugs here. Ms Lee isn't wrong about the littering blight. Some 12,000 tickets were handed out in the first half of this year, which is a third more than during the same period last year; and this follows a doubling in last year's total over 2013's. Most would also find it hard today to describe Singapore as a tropical oasis of clean and green. Statistics, and our senses, suggest that while the city remains just as green, it has become less spick and span.

Yet, those who place a premium on social harmony would say that Ms Lee's idea is unnecessary and unsound. She argues that those who do not litter should not fear such a law. But fear, and the snitch-on-thy-neighbour climate of anxiety it may create, should not be the ethical premise to improve civic behaviour, just as money is the wrong carrot.

Education, sincere suasion and effective publicity are. They may be harder to execute but are ethically sound because they are positive tools of a civic society, untainted by the lure of personal gain.

Ethicists would maintain that misdemeanours must be separated from criminal behaviour for which rewards might be given to nab the culprits. So, few might object if citizens are incentivised to offer evidence against those responsible for killer litter and toxic waste. For ordinary acts of littering, like throwing cigarette butts and used tissue, using a bounty hunter approach is inappropriate and suggests an overkill. The recently revised maximum fine of $10,000 for repeat offenders would mean that a 10 per cent reward, for instance, could add up to a hefty bounty and create unwanted animosity among neighbours. Existing fines and ubiquitous corrective work orders provide sufficient deterrence considering the potential loss of a considerable sum of money, as well as precious self-respect.

Instead of lamenting that anti-litter campaigns don't work, one should ask why they fail. It is hard of late to recall a memorable sound bite of such a campaign and Ms Lee's proposal to incentivise citizens could be directed to fill this void. The Government could also redouble efforts in crafting more imaginative ways to glue its messages into the public psyche.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 22, 2015, with the headline 'Using citizens and cash to fight littering'. Print Edition | Subscribe