On the (fish)ball

It is uniquely Singapore that an errant fishball stick could lead to the setting up of a Municipal Services Office


"Only in Singapore," I thought to myself as I read reports about this year's National Day Rally.

Only in Singapore could an errant fishball stick trigger a multi-agency, mayor-led fact-finding mission to figure how it could possibly remain on the ground for two whole days.

Only in Singapore would someone, upon confronting the violating fishball stick, closely monitor its movements for days as if it were a suspicious package, instead of a half-eaten sphere of seafood on a stick.

And only in Singapore could this one fishball stick be used to provide some of the rationale behind a new government agency and future high-tech mission control centre that will coordinate all the country's municipal needs.

In that sense, perhaps we should be grateful to the inconsiderate fishball-on-a-stick eater, especially for disposing of his stick where he did.

It clearly would have been an entirely different story if he had dropped it in a bin or on a part of Singapore subject to less confusing jurisdictional issues.

I mean, think of the woman who was photographed squatting, pants down, while committing a very egregious act of littering outside Holland Village MRT station. Thus far, I have not heard of a new agency set up to deal with that.

But maybe the new pao kar liao government agency will be able to handle municipal problems of that nature as well. After all, there is still much we do not know about the new outfit.

It is easy enough to understand how officers sitting in a well-connected facility might be able to deal with problems such as traffic jams. However, it is not immediately obvious how they might deal with litter.

Would officers be able to issue littering fines from afar? How would they do this? Would we need loud speakers everywhere? Or would they deliver instructions via an army of drones?

I do not know the answer to these questions. Perhaps it is too early in the game to understand how all the little kinks will be worked out.

Still, I think it might be worthwhile doing a little scenario planning to see how Singapore can better understand the challenges that lie ahead.

I would like to humbly present to you here just one completely made up scenario of how I see the whole thing playing out:

Scene setter: Imagine you are in a large windowless room somewhere in, let's say, Jurong. There are rows of desks where about 50 officers are seated looking at feeds on their monitors in front of them. A supervisor, clearly the one running the whole thing, paces the room, occasionally looking up at the big video wall but mainly focusing on making sure his subordinates are not slacking or using the cameras to spy on their girlfriends. Suddenly, an alarm goes off. A man is about to cause a municipal problem.

Officer Lim: Jurong, we have a problem.

Municipal Services Administrative Officer (MSAO): What is it Officer Lim?

Lim: It appears as if a man in Toa Payoh is about to litter, sir. He is looking around furtively with potential litter in his hand.

MSAO: What is the payload?

Lim: (gulp) I'm afraid it is a fishball stick. He ate two of the three fishballs but he appears to be full and does not want to carry the uneaten fishball any further.

MSAO: Are you sure it is a fishball? Could it be a different kind of ball?

Lim: I can't be sure, sir. All these balls tend to look the same. Speaking of which, during the last incident of this nature, how did the helpful member of the public ascertain the composition of the ball? Did he pick up the stick, examine it and then return it to its place?

MSAO: Isn't that what any conscientious citizen would do? Anyway, issue a Code Red, we must make sure nobody spots this fishball stick!

Lim: I'm on to it, sir. The last thing we need now is another round of multi-agency meetings on this topic. Sir, we have confirmed impact. The payload has been dropped discreetly onto the slope next to the walkway next to the park connector next to the MRT station.

Thanks to our new system, I no longer have to look up whose job it is to pick it up. Oh wait, sir, we have a situation. The stick, it's... it's rolling.

MSAO: Where is it going?

Lim: Noooooooo, it has stopped right on the boundary between the MRT station walkway and the public path!

MSAO: Oh dear lord... Can the MRT guys deal with this?

Lim: I'm not sure that's such a good idea. Remember that these are the same people who managed to miss someone literally pooping on their turf.

MSAO: Activate all units. Deploy a containment team to the area ASAP. We need cleaners on site straightaway and see if you can locate the perpetrator so we can fine him. Issue a press statement, try to include that old nugget about how Singapore is a cleaned city, not a clean city. That stick is out in the open, it is only a matter of time before someone spots it and takes a photo of it.

Lim: Uh, sir. A passer-by just picked up the stick and put it in a bin. The disaster has been averted.

MSAO: What? Impossible!

Lim: I know. I've never seen anything quite like it. Confronted with a simple solvable municipal problem, this person actually took the matter into his own hands instead of reporting it.

MSAO: We don't have the protocols to deal with this.

Lim: Don't worry sir. I'm sure this sort of behaviour is a one-off. Look, there is a bin in Bishan that is starting to fill up. And everyone, instead of carrying his garbage to the next bin, is simply balancing his trash on top of it.

MSAO: Phew, looks like Singaporeans need us after all.


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