Is Singapore getting dirtier and becoming a "Litter Red Dot"? Some readers of this newspaper wrote in to express their views. One said she was embarrassed to take her foreign friends to visit places here with litter strewn all over the place. Another wrote about how she saw a cleaner struggling to clear up cigarette butts even as more smokers passed by and added to the pile. Statistics on the number of people caught littering bear out these anecdotal accounts. Last year, 31,000 people were fined for littering offences, an increase of 19 per cent over 2015, and a seven-year high. This despite fines being increased in 2014 - the maximum was raised to $2,000 for a first offence, and to $4,000 for the second. It doesn't speak well of Singaporeans' sense of civic mindedness that they require severe enforcement and penalties to keep their own environment clean. Why is this so and what more can be done?
The key is to start instilling a stronger sense of social responsibility among the young at an early age. That's how it is done in societies like Japan, where every member of the community knows that he or she has a duty to keep the place clean. They begin learning it in schools that do not employ any cleaners: Students and teachers are solely responsible for their school's cleanliness. As a result, they grow up knowing - and, more importantly, deeply understanding - why this civic responsibility is critical to the well-being of the community. Singapore schools have started a compulsory cleaning programme this year involving every student. It is a good start. But to succeed, it has to go beyond being just another cleaning activity undertaken periodically. Students and teachers have to understand that it is not just about keeping the school clean. Ultimately, it is about education in a broad sense that parents must also care about: How to make the student truly appreciate why he is doing it and why it matters for him, individually, and for the others around him. It is about developing a deep sense of concern for the community.
Another issue is the employment of an army of paid cleaners. It is said that Singapore is a cleaned city, not a clean city, employing tens of thousands of cleaners every day to keep the city clean. This is not sustainable, not when there is a severe shortage of workers, now that the Government is intent on keeping a lid on foreign labour. Worse, having such a large number of cleaners sends a wrong message to the young - namely, that cleaning is low-skilled work done by those at the bottom of the economic ladder. Singapore has to wean itself from being so dependent on these cleaners. Only then will it be able to develop a culture of civic responsibility. This is important as Singapore progresses as a nation, developing the instincts and values of a mature, cultivated society. It cannot become one if its citizens remain unwilling to do things for themselves.