Time to bin dirty old ways

A bold step is being taken by town councils in giving cleaners a day off every year so residents can clean their own neighbourhood. As "ridiculous" as is the size of a 70,000-strong cleaning brigade for a city of 5.5 million - which is the trenchant view of the incoming National Environment Agency (NEA) chairman, Mr Liak Teng Lit - so might cynics ridicule the notion that all will be prepared to clean their own precincts. Even if enough support can be drummed up initially, can the self-cleaning drive be sustained? Environmental activists would retort that relying on lowly paid and hard-to-find cleaners to do the essential job is itself unsustainable.

Indeed, an over-reliance on others is leading to dirtier habits, with the number of litter items collected nearly doubling from 2006 to 2010. Incredibly, some spots have to be cleaned once every two hours and it costs taxpayers about $120 million a year to keep public spaces from looking like a dump. Have the ubiquitous presence of helpers at home, table cleaners at foodcourts, and sweepers in public places irreversibly shaped the mentality of successive generations of litterbugs?

After decades of campaigns, one should have few qualms now about shaming culprits - like those at the Laneway Festival in January - and taking them to task, hard as it is. There was a time when one would not imagine the use of body-worn cameras by NEA officers, who have to enforce anti-litter rules. But these are needed now because of the abuse they are occasionally subjected to. Ordinary people can help, too, by capturing blatant violations on their cameras.

More should also be part of NEA's Community Volunteer Scheme, under which they will be trained to assume the status and authority of an NEA officer. Every ounce of civic effort is needed if the Jubilee Year is to signal the start of a collective effort to turn the tide of the battle against this scourge.

It is time to scotch the irony of higher expectations of public cleanliness alongside weak individual efforts to stop littering, and of a cleaned nation that simply refuses to remain clean. A welcome ironic twist would be the mobilising of nimby activists' energy for the anti-litter battle: Dirty public habits - not in my backyard!

Of course, people could spare themselves all the huff and puff if all simply bin their own litter as a matter of habit. Impeccable civic habits seen in Japan and Taiwan are surely not beyond Singaporeans, too. Such norms cannot be moulded overnight but one has to start somewhere and at some point. The obligation to foster a social ethic, as noted by American urbanist W.H. Whyte who coined the term "groupthink", lies in the here and now.

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