Saving and being saved by the waterways

Mr Eugene Heng, chairman of the Waterways Watch Society (WWS), has spent the past 16 years picking up litter in waterways. For his green efforts, he was conferred the President's Award for the Environment - Singapore's highest environmental accolade - by President Tony Tan Keng Yam at the Istana on Tuesday.

The Straits Times' Susan Long met Mr Heng in 2013, and spoke to him about educating others on the impact of litter and pollution on the environment. We reproduce the interview here:

He is the uncrowned King of the Longkangs. Over the last 15 years, Mr Eugene Heng has spent every Saturday and Sunday rooting around for rubbish.

The chairman of environmental group Waterways Watch Society (WWS) and his volunteers spend two hours on boats patrolling the Singapore, Kallang and Geylang rivers, which empty into the Marina Reservoir. They fish out plastic bags, styrofoam boxes, beer cans, discarded shopping trolleys, rattan chairs and whatever else escapes the 25 full-time workers who clean up the Marina catchment each day.

They also go out on bicycles and kayaks looking for damaged embankments, fallen tree branches or pollution, so they can alert the authorities and action can be taken quickly. In addition, they make weekly appraisals of how well the Kallang Riverside Park's grounds and toilets have been cleaned. The results are then submitted to the overseeing National Parks Board (NParks).

The rest of the week, Mr Heng conducts almost daily workshops to demonstrate the impact of litter and pollution on the environment, educating school students, corporations and foreign visitors.

The 64-year-old, who was awarded the Public Service Medal in 2005 for his efforts in keeping Singapore's rivers clean, now wants to move beyond supervision and patrol.

Of late, he has been making an impassioned case to the Government to grant WWS more direct "ownership" of Kallang Riverside Park. He hopes to be given full responsibility to manage it on behalf of NParks, with some financial support, in a manner similar to how New York's Central Park is run.

In 1998, the City of New York signed a management agreement with the Central Park Conservancy, a civic group dedicated to restoring the park to its former splendour as America's first major urban public space. The Conservancy was made responsible for the operation and maintenance of the playgrounds, benches, wildlife, trash removal, and events and programmes for volunteers and visitors. Central Park has since set new standards of excellence in park care and become a model for urban parks worldwide.

"My vision is that we've been in Kallang Riverside Park for 15 years, and we can actually do more if we're given more stakeholders' empowerment and authority in managing this public park for the public.

"The agencies overseeing the park's greenery, water, bridges, drains, beach - NParks, PUB, the Land Transport Authority, the National Environment Agency, the Urban Redevelopment Authority - all have specific missions. In contrast, we, as an NGO, see the functions not in a silo but laterally. We can recommend changes and activities to beautify and enhance the park that we ourselves want, which will hopefully reflect what the people want."

Discount for litter

Mr Heng has also been canvassing the Government to consider using non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as WWS to roll out more fun, affordable and educational water activities at Singapore's reservoirs, such as rubber duck water-cycling, family kayaking and bicycle rental.

His proposal: Allow a trusted NGO to manage a fun activity centre, where every "customer" must listen to an obligatory five-minute overview of the reservoir and learn about its history, its value and the need for everyone to play their part in practising good social graces while enjoying the environment.

"For a small token sum, Singaporeans can enjoy cycling or kayaking at our reservoirs. If they manage to bring back any piece of litter, a discount will be given to them," he suggests.

Permits cannot keep being awarded on a commercial basis, as they are now, he stresses - instead, they can be given at a special low rate to non-profit NGOs.

"Often, the authorities will consider only commercial business options for such public parks. But the result is more litter. We cannot think only of making money all the time. It's also about engaging the public in terms of good social behaviour, the value of water and sustainability issues."

What he has in mind is education leavened with "fun, enjoyment and lifestyle" for all generations. He envisages a place where the elderly can sit, relax and enjoy the fresh air, without paying anything, and watch the young dragon-boating and flying kites.

He concedes, of course, that giving people greater access to reservoirs and parks runs the risk of more litter, pollution and illegal activities. "That's a reality, but we have to manage that. If we give that as an excuse not to do much with public parks, then what's the point of building them? If we don't try a new public-private partnership model, we will never know," he says.

Meanwhile, he likes to jest that WWS is already the "guardian of the foundation of the Nicoll Highway Merdeka Bridge". The organisation's office, set within the Kallang Riverside Park, occupies over 30,000 sq ft literally underneath the Merdeka Bridge.

The disused space used to be where weekend squatters and foreign workers slept occasionally. They also stored household goods, weekend party gear and even housebreaking tools within the crevices of the concrete boulders. Now, the area is fenced up and used to house the society's many buggies, boats and bicycles for patrols. There is also a recycling point and a classroom, where WWS hosts visitors.

While he waits on the authorities' decision, Mr Heng is already scaling up and out.

WWS, which has nearly 100 members and 300 volunteers, mostly tree-hugging retirees, students and foreigners, recently hired its first full-time staff. It has also received Institution of Public Character (IPC) status, which allows it to collect tax-exempt donations.

Soon, it will set up its first branch office, in a container on Punggol Waterway, to teach residents how to enjoy and protect their environment. If successful, WWS hopes to spread out to other new towns around Singapore.

Indoorsy man

The oldest son of a salesman and secretary mother, Mr Heng never cared much for nature while he was growing up in a Mackenzie Road terrace and later a Bukit Timah bungalow. At Anglo-Chinese School and Raffles Institution, he was decidedly "indoorsy", playing badminton and chess and producing Shakespearean plays. He went to work after national service armed with a banking diploma from the Chartered Institute of Bankers in London.

It was at work that he learnt to care for nature.

When he first reported for work as a bank teller at the Bank of America at Raffles Place in 1968, bumboats still chugged along the inky Singapore River, a cesspool of oil spills and garbage. He used to lunch at the old Boat Quay hawker centre, watching as chicken bones and leftover sauces were tossed into the river. But watching the river being cleaned up from 1977 to 1987 made him realise "change can happen, but the harder work is sustaining it".

While climbing the ranks at the foreign bank, he was made its environment coordinator for Singapore and then Asia in the 1980s. It was then that he instituted practices such as the recycling of ink cartridges and double-sided printing. He was also appointed to the Government Parliamentary Committee (Environment) from 1995 to 2000 and sat on PUB's board from 2001 to 2005, where he learnt about water conservation.

When the committee decided in 1997 that a society should be set up to help monitor and protect the cleaned-up Singapore River and Kallang Basin, he was "arrowed". A "green convert" by then, he accepted.

That was how a man who did not know how to swim or operate a boat came to register WWS in 1998. Armed with $50,000 in seed money from the Environment Ministry and granted the space under the Merdeka Bridge, he donned a life vest to do Sunday boat patrols and went about getting a boat licence.

Meanwhile, by 2002, he had worked his way up over 33 years to the highest post a local could attain at the Singapore branch of the Bank of America - country operations head. Soon afterwards, however, he resigned following the discovery that two of his former staff had siphoned funds from the dormant accounts of deceased customers. He had no hand in the fraud, but took responsibility as "captain of the ship" as the employees implicated were under his watch. He was 52 then.

"It felt like I was walking away from family," he recalls of his abrupt departure after just a day's notice. "Many people told me a person in my position would have gone into depression. But it never crossed my mind even once."

Mr Heng cast off his old life as a bank executive and dived headlong into his new cause - saving Singapore's waterways - which gave him a new lease on life in return. He increased the frequency of patrols and expanded the mode to include bikes and kayaks, submitting weekly reports and photos of his observations to the relevant authorities. He launched into water advocacy and education, and now, he hopes, park management. For the past 12 years, the Christian has lived off his savings and this ethos: "Do what your heart wants you to do. Don't do it for money. Don't do it for other people."

His wife, retired bank officer Betsy, and their 34-year-old daughter and 32-year-old son affectionately call him the Longkang King (King of the Drains).

Others are less kind. He has been called a "foolish man doing the Government's job for free".

Environmental education is a lonely, oft-spurned cause. "There's a lot of money in Singapore for charity, especially to help the poor, the sick, the elderly and kids, but it's not diverted to environmental sustainability," says Mr Heng. "The returns from that are very intangible, with results that take a long time to show. With the poor, you can immediately give them an ambulance or a pair of crutches or pocket money.

"But, my friend," he leans in and warns, as waves of Nicoll Highway traffic rumble ominously overhead, along with a sudden peal of thunder, "don't take the environment for granted. The haze came just like that."

This article was first published in The Straits Times on Aug 16, 2013


Contest to snap Singapore's dirtiest places bares it all

By David Ee

Imagine this: a picturesque bay with glittering waters and a world-famous skyline... and floating garbage everywhere in sight.

Meanwhile, tranquil beaches and parks are left littered with trash such as plastic bottles once the visitors have gone home.

Does not sound like Singapore to you? Think again.

An anti-littering volunteer group, the Waterways Watch Society (WWS), organised what to many might have sounded like an odd contest for a country with a worldwide reputation for being spotless. It asked Singaporeans to send in photographs of some of the dirtiest places here between February and April this year. It picked 10 winners in May from about 60 submissions.

Shots emerged of a part of Marina Reservoir close to Marina Bay Sands literally covered in a sea of trash washed in by rain.

In another, a road divider along Prinsep Street was piled with so much rubbish it resembled an open dumping ground; as did Pasir Ris Park after picnickers brazenly left their leftovers behind.

The dozens of photographs sent in showed void decks, parks and roadsides from Toa Payoh to the Central Business District strewn with rubbish. "It wasn't a surprise for us," said WWS chairman Eugene Heng, who plans to make the contest annual and post the most striking photos on its Facebook page. "For our group, whenever we go out, our mission is to look for litter. And the sad thing is, we're never disappointed. We always find litter."

Singapore's reliance on an army of about 70,000 cleaners to keep the island spick and span has been highlighted more regularly since November 2012, when Keep Singapore Clean head Liak Teng Lit called the nation "a cleaned city, not a clean city".

In that same month, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that people were getting blase about littering and that standards of cleanliness were slipping.

MPs such as Nee Soon GRC's Ms Lee Bee Wah occasionally give cleaners in their wards a day off so that residents can see the litter situation for themselves.

This Saturday, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan will join a litter-picking session in Bedok South, where the WWS plans to exhibit selected photos.

The perception that Singapore is clean persists largely because workers sweep up litter "365 days a year", said Mr Liak. "Most Singaporeans don't leave home until 7am or so. By that time, the cleaners have already done their first round," he said, adding that wet markets and hawker centres are problem areas. Carparks, planter boxes, parks and the ground floor of HDB blocks also attract litterbugs, he said, while events like concerts often leave a mess.

"In the 1980s and 1990s, we were clean. Because of education and very firm enforcement, people did not dare litter," said Mr Liak. "But enforcement has gone down compared with before... More and more people are not afraid of being caught."

Civil servant Alice Kho, 31, who submitted the Prinsep Street photo, said other passers-by who saw the rubbish did not bat an eyelid. "Maybe it becomes a normal thing for some people. They get used to it."

The Government has been cracking down on littering. On April 1, it doubled the penalties. Recalcitrant litterbugs now face fines ranging from $2,000 to $10,000. A volunteer corps was also set up to take them to task.

Mr Heng, whose volunteers have found bicycles and even television sets in the Kallang Basin, said of the photo contest: "One key point is to tell people: 'You think Singapore is clean? It's not.'

"We hope to shock people, to make them ask why it's like this."

This article was first published in The Straits Times on July 16, 2014

Clean, green Singapore? These photographs of dirtiest places may make you think twice

By David Ee

Clean, green Singapore? These photographs of Singapore's dirtiest places may make you think twice.

An anti-littering volunteer group, the Waterways Watch Society, recently organised what to many might have sounded like an odd contest for a country with a worldwide reputation for being spotless. It asked Singaporeans to send in photographs of some of the dirtiest places here between February and April this year. It picked 10 winners in May from about 60 submissions.

The dozens of photographs sent in showed void decks, parks and roadsides from Toa Payoh to the Central Business District strewn with rubbish.

A road divider along Prinsep Street was piled with so much rubbish it resembled an open dumping ground. -- PHOTO: ALICE KHO

Trash left behind after a picnic at Pasir Ris Park. -- PHOTO: YONG YOKE KENG

Litter strewn on the ground near Bugis. -- PHOTO: KEN JIN TAN

Hundreds of cigarette butts tossed by the roadside accumulate in between tiles. -- PHOTO: ALVINI CHANA

A park in Woodlands left sullied by irresponsible picnickers. -- PHOTO: DAVID HONG

A pile of rubbish left alongside Toh Tuck Road. -- PHOTO: VICKY CHONG

Citizen volunteers pointing at three full plastic bags of litter collected over a distance of just 100m along Yishun Avenue 7. -- PHOTO: AYSEL ONG

Litter along the shore at Pasir Ris Beach. -- PHOTO: DYLAN TAN

Rubbish overflowing and indiscriminately placed in trash and recycling bins near Marina Bay Sands. -- PHOTO: CHEN JIAHUI

Litter on a ledge at an HDB block in Punggol. -- PHOTO: ANG BOON SENG

Join ST's WhatsApp Channel and get the latest news and must-reads.