Monday 5 November 2012

Singapore a clean city? Don't joke

Shame and punish recalcitrant litterbugs, says Keep S'pore Clean Movement's new head
By Chang Ai-Lien, The Straits Times, 4 Nov 2012

Singapore is a clean city? Let's get real, says the new chief of the war against littering, Mr Liak Teng Lit.

"We should be known as a cleaned city, not a clean city. Calling ourselves a clean city, that's a joke," he told The Sunday Times.

"We have First World infrastructure, but Third World behaviour. There's litter everywhere, public toilets we hesitate to use, dirty tables at coffee shops and disease outbreaks waiting to happen."

The Alexandra Health group chief executive officer heads the recently "refreshed" Keep Singapore Clean Movement, which is led by the Public Hygiene Council, which he chairs. It works with the Singapore Kindness and Keep Singapore Beautiful Movement and the National Environment Agency in the latest anti-littering effort.

He is all for shaming and punishing litterbugs because the mess you see in Singapore today is evidence that four decades of anti-litter campaigns are in tatters.

"We all need to be considerate. But equally important, we need to expect people to be considerate to us," he said.

"When you see a litterbug, you should get angry with him and tell him not to do it."

So Mr Liak is in favour of several tough new ideas:

Motorists who sweep used tissues and assorted junk from their cars to carpark floors and drive off should be banned from parking there for six months.

Litterbugs should perform Corrective Work Orders where they are caught - usually near their homes, so that they are embarrassed in front of their neighbours.

Residents should be allowed to choose how many cleaners they want for their estate and pay accordingly.

And thousands of citizens should be given the power to issue summonses to offenders, focusing particularly on littering hot spots such as the East Coast Park.

He is also planning to set up a "Shame On You" website for people to upload photos and videos of inconsiderate behaviour they have witnessed.

"We advocate shaming the litterbug," he said. "If you behave badly and you're exposed, don't blame others for being a pig."

Mr Liak divides Singaporeans into three groups he calls "the good" majority, "the bad" and "the ugly" minority.

While more than six in 10 say they do not litter and more than three in 10 say they bin their rubbish only when it is convenient, at least one in 100 litters wilfully.

"We need a concerted effort by the good majority to make littering and dirty habits as unacceptable as queue-jumping here," he said. "The idea is for the good to act, the bad to behave and for the ugly to be punished. Enforcement will focus on these ugly Singaporeans."

He admits it will be an uphill task.

Despite annual campaigns and programmes since 1968 to reinforce the anti-littering message and an army of 70,000 cleaners, the problem remains.

Every year, there are about 3,500 complaints about littering in public places, said the NEA, although the number of littering offences went down from 41,392 in 2009 to 11,131 last year.

NEA said it has been shifting focus to engage the public to take ownership and exercise social responsibility to keep their environment clean.

Since August, it has also put in place surveillance cameras to catch high-rise litterbugs and is working with community partners to encourage residents to form litter-watch groups.

"With the community itself exhibiting a zero-tolerance attitude and acting against high-rise littering, there will be more social pressure on litterbugs to bin their rubbish properly," said an NEA spokesman.

Mr Liak aims to get 100 schools, community groups and businesses to join the effort over the next three months and become "bright spots" - model examples of how to keep a place clean and litter-free.

"The idea is to have more and more bright spots, which can then slowly join into one," he said.

His views on...

Third World behaviour
"In Singapore, our infrastructure is first class, but people are not ashamed to behave in a Third World manner. After a while, we become blind to it. Then there comes a tipping point where everybody doesn't care."

In public
"When a place already has litter, people have no qualms about littering, unlike when it's spotless. Singapore has got to this point."

In the toilet
"If one in three men doesn't bother to lift up the toilet seat when he pees, can we have an army of cleaners big enough to clean up after every third person?"

At the table
"When you eat, eat like a human being. When you're eating at home, do you throw food scraps on the table and on the floor?"

If he sees someone littering, he gives the person a big smile and says, 'Excuse me, do you mind?'
By Chang Ai-Lien, The Straits Times, 4 Nov 2012

He calls littering a problem almost impossible to fix, yet Mr Liak Teng Lit's Khoo Teck Puat Hospital is an example of how a successful Keep Singapore Clean movement might work.

Signs are everywhere telling you to pick up after yourself, return your tray, wash your hands.

Hospital staff have caught the anti-litter bug from him, too.

They remind people to dump their junk and pick up any stray trash they see, even while walking to the nearby bus and MRT stations.

Mr Liak says if his staff spot him walking past litter, they are welcome to "give me a kick up the backside".

The result - the Yishun hospital grounds are litter-free, toilets are dry and clean, trays are returned in the food court and people even heed signs to keep to the left when they walk.

Mr Liak, group chief executive officer of Alexandra Health, which manages the hospital, is now helming the latest effort to keep Singapore clean. He thinks that schools, companies and public areas can also become models of cleanliness like the hospital.

"My point is, start with yourself. Step forward and tell people if you see them doing something unacceptable," he said.

"If I see someone littering, I give them a big smile and say, 'Excuse me, do you mind?' Usually they will sheepishly pick it up. If they refuse, I pick it up for them and wash my hands later.

"It's the power of one. All of us have an influence. If everyone exercises his influence, it will make a difference."

That is where he believes that he has a chance of succeeding where decades of anti-littering campaigns have failed.

Since 2009, the number of complaints about littering in public places has remained at about 3,500 a year. The most common types of litter are cigarette butts, plastic bags, drink cans, cigarette box wrappers and plastic bottles, according to the National Environment Agency (NEA).

"A campaign by itself won't work. This has to be a way of life," he said.

To take the Keep Singapore Clean efforts to the next level, the Public Hygiene Council, Singapore Kindness Movement and Keep Singapore Beautiful Movement are working with the NEA to develop community-led initiatives.

Mr Liak has also roped in school principals, company chief executives, MPs and prominent people to experience "being a cleaner for an hour".

"When you go down to the ground and see things through the cleaners' eyes, you walk in their shoes and feel their pain. Then you will be a stronger advocate," he said.

Having an army of efficient cleaners masks Singapore's littering problem. So he hopes to have a "no-cleaners day" at least once a year.

"Give them a day off once a year, then the next day, all of us can come out and clean with the cleaners. Then maybe we will behave a lot better," he said.

He recalled two incidents from his travels that have stuck with him over the years.

In a small Swiss town, he saw a woman in her 80s alight from a bus and chase after a piece of stray paper which was not her own before walking a distance to put it in the nearest bin.

In Japan, he saw an elderly man dash across the road to scold someone who had thrown a piece of tissue paper on the ground.

"Places like Japan, Korea, Scandinavia and Taiwan, they are always clean, always dry, without an army of cleaners. Look at us; we're dirty as hell. We throw something on the ground, it miraculously disappears," he said.

While some call for more enforcement and others say schools should do more, Mr Liak says: "Blame the culprit." And he means the "incorrigible sociopaths" who think nothing of littering.

He cited an NEA study in 2009 that found that most people here say they do not litter and close to four in 10 (36.2 per cent) know it's wrong to litter but do so if it is convenient and if they think they won't get caught. But 1.2 per cent admitted they were litterbugs "most of the time".

"For them, it's not about education any more. We have to read them the riot act," he said.

Currently, first time offenders who commit a minor littering offence - where the item, such as a cigarette butt or parking coupon tab, is not a public health risk - can be fined $300.

Recalcitrants or those who commit serious littering offences in a public place must go to court. They may be fined up to $1,000 for the first offence and made to do up to 12 hours of cleaning up under a Corrective Work Order.

Serious littering offences are those in which the trash, such as drink cans or food wrappers, can cause pollution or give rise to cleaning or mosquito-breeding problems.

Mr Liak's plans include targeting big events, where littering is rampant.

Next year, for instance, he wants to have no cleaners after the National Day Parade.

"If we can remind people to pick up after themselves, why can't we do it without cleaners?"

Take cleanliness beyond our homes

"One of the most basic facts is that litter begets more litter. Would simply spending more to hire more cleaners or beefing up the regulatory regime of penalties and enforcement - having every area in Singapore patrolled - have to be the ultimate solution to deal with this?

This is not only practically and economically unsustainable, I do not think it reflects at all the type of values which we want our children to inculcate and our society to imbibe.

If it is intrinsic in us to keep our own homes clean and tidy, shouldn't it be so as well beyond our doorsteps, in our neighbourhood and community areas?"

-Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam, DPM and Finance Minister, speaking at yesterday's launch of Clean and Green Singapore 2013 at Gardens by the Bay


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