Litterbugs, look out

Surveillance cameras, whether through their actual or possible presence, have become part of the preservation of public order in Singapore. From cameras that capture the act of urinating in lifts to those that catch speeding vehicles in their fleeting act, these contraptions record contraventions of the law that would be nigh impossible to prosecute otherwise. Rather than see cameras as the prying eyes of an unwanted surveillance state, most Singaporeans accept them as a technological device necessary to ensure that people abide by minimum norms of social behaviour necessary for the common good.

So it is with the National Environment Agency's decision to ramp up its use of electronic eyes to catch high-rise litterbugs. Litterbugs on the ground are bad enough. Their callous disregard for the environment makes a mockery of the daily effort to preserve Singapore as a city that stands out for its cleanliness and the ability of citizens to abide by concomitant laws. But when people throw tissue paper or cigarette butts out of the windows of their flats, they display a careless arrogance that is magnified by the reality of high-rise living in a densely populated island.

The NEA's move should help to bring such people down to earth. High-definition cameras paired with video analytics will deprive offenders of the anonymity that often encourages them to break the law. The salutary case of a smoker - who threw cigarette butts out of his flat window repeatedly, was caught with the help of surveillance cameras, and fined $19,800 along with being sentenced to five hours of corrective work - should alert would-be offenders to the consequences of their actions. Certainly, public education efforts are important to make surveillance unnecessary. Till then, however, cameras might need to intrude into private space to protect the commons from the acts of uncaring individuals.