Thursday, 17 July 2014

Singapore, a Clean or Cleaned City?

Contest to snap Singapore's dirtiest places bares it all
By David Ee, The Straits Times, 16 Jul 2014

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."

Counting on S'poreans to keep environment clean

WE THANK Mr Tan Kok Tim for his suggestion on addressing and containing the impact of litterbugs on the cleanliness of our environment ("Reward those who pick up litter"; July 5).

Everyone should take responsibility for their own litter and dispose of it in litterbins. Most do so, even holding on to their litter until there is a bin. This is positive behaviour often seen in places such as Japan.

Individuals who voluntarily pick up someone else's litter should be commended for their efforts, although most of them probably derive greater satisfaction from knowing they have made a positive difference by going the extra mile.

As we gear up to celebrate National Day, Mr Tan's letter is a timely reminder to each one of us to reflect on what it means to be Singaporean.

We can choose to celebrate the efficiency of our cleaning workforce, or be proud that we exhibit the right values to show that we have come of age. Can we all do our part to keep our environment clean?

Count on me, Singapore.

Liak Teng Lit
Chairman Public Hygiene Council
ST Forum, 16 Jul 2014

Take public feedback seriously

ONE possible reason for the worsening littering problem is that government agencies are not taking public feedback seriously ("Counting on S'poreans to keep environment clean" by the Public Hygiene Council and "Contest to snap Singapore's dirtiest places bares it all"; both published on Wednesday).

When I submit feedback on littering, it is usually handled by junior officers who do not carry out follow-ups effectively.

For instance, I recently notified the National Parks Board and the National Environment Agency about

litter on nature reserve trails. The two agencies did not inspect the areas I pointed out, saying the job was outsourced to contractors.

As a result, the litter remained in the same spot for more than three weeks.

I have suggested to various agencies that they work together to create awareness, through organising events that involve families picking up litter in my estate. However, there has been no response to my suggestion, despite my reminders.

We need to take a three-pronged approach to tackling the littering problem: strict enforcement; islandwide public education at the school, grassroots and foreign worker levels; and taking public feedback seriously.

Unless we can achieve these, the littering problem will only continue to worsen.

Ng Suan Eng (Ms)
ST Forum, 19 Jul 2014

Anti-littering drive: Get institutions on board

I ECHO Ms Ng Suan Eng's frustration ("Take public feedback seriously"; last Saturday).

Anti-littering campaigns tend to focus solely on individuals, when institutions could be the major culprits.

With cleaning services outsourced to contractors, government agencies have little control over the hiring, training and performance of cleaners.

Their knowledge of the ground situation depends on the reports from cleaning supervisors or feedback from residents.

Changes in contractors are so frequent that it makes it hard for experience to be carried over and instructions to be followed.

Cleaning processes have also become haphazard.

A set of cleaners sweeps trash and dry leaves into heaps for another team to bag a few hours later. But in between, the wind puts their efforts to waste.

Delineation of job scopes is another problem.

The team that clears litter along walkways is not responsible for the fallen branches or litter trapped under plant beds, which is the job of another team. In the end, one side of the pathway is clean while the other is dirty.

Overflowing bins with trash around them at the end of the day are a common sight despite frequent feedback. And businesses are increasingly emboldened to dump boxes and other commercial waste in and around public bins.

Also, classrooms in tertiary institutions often do not have bins, encouraging students to leave paper cups and drink cans behind after class.

The mindset that "my trash is not my responsibility" is further entrenched by the offer of town councils to help residents dispose of bulky furniture.

In the old days, residents had to borrow a trolley from the bin centre to cart away unwanted furniture. These days, we just leave bulky trash at lift lobbies.

Singapore's pioneer leaders succeeded in inculcating a sense of responsibility among citizens to keep our country clean, but over the years, successive policies have abrogated their efforts.

Today, the parent whose child drops his ice cream in the lift does not see the need to clean it up; users of public barbecue pits know that the mess they create will be cleared by someone else.

There is little point in launching campaigns if the political will for a clean Singapore is not shared by our institutions.

Seto Hann Hoi (Dr)
ST Forum, 24 Jul 2014

All stakeholders have role in keeping Singapore clean

WE ARE fully committed to ensuring that Singapore remains a clean, green and beautiful city. We agree with Dr Seto Hann Hoi ("Anti-littering drive: Get institutions on board"; Thursday) that this requires the concerted effort of all stakeholders, including public agencies.

The Department of Public Cleanliness was formed on April 1, 2012 to improve supervision and coordination of cleaning services in all public areas.

The multiple cleaning contracts for all public areas are being consolidated. A key goal is to seek greater synergy and efficiency in workflow. There will also be better real-time monitoring of cleaning and maintenance outcomes by outsourced contractors.

By 2016, the cleaning of all public areas will come under the Department of Public Cleanliness, except for HDB estates, which will remain the responsibility of the respective town councils.

The National Environment Agency will also pay attention to design issues, including appropriate bin placement and higher collection frequency.

The attitudes, sense of responsibility and activism of individuals also play a crucial role.

Organisations such as the Public Hygiene Council and individuals such as Mr Tan Ken Jin, who started the Singapore Glove Project, are positive examples of Singaporeans who have stepped forward.

Public feedback is indispensable and always welcome. Every single complaint, comment or suggestion is an opportunity to do better.

Desmond Tan
Director, Department of Public Cleanliness
National Environment Agency
ST Forum, 26 Jul 2014

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