“The authorities are looking to form a volunteer corps of individuals who will be empowered to fine offenders who litter, spit, urinate and smoke in prohibited places” (Spit, Smoke, Litter Illegally? Soon, A Volunteer Might Catch You (Page Two), Mr. Woo Sian Boon).
The National Environment Agency’s (NEA) Community Volunteer Programme has functioned for some years, yet whenever a news commentary features the team of volunteers who has the authority and power to book litterbugs one cannot help but problematise the endeavour. Furthermore the consistent observation that “offenders would usually comply with … requests to pick up their little without the need for [the volunteers] to whip out their authority cards” makes the entire venture even more puzzling. Surely without the training from the NEA these civic-minded Singaporeans would have kept others in check too.
And what is the justification for expanding the powers of the volunteers to other acts: to spitting, urinating, smoking? The NEA has presumably “received feedback from volunteers under a programme targeting litter, as well as from other members of the public, that they are keen to do more than just engage litterbugs”. The perspectives of the volunteers should come as no surprise, although hearing the opinion of an average Singaporean should be interesting. Do they really believe that volunteers should be given so much discretion in so many areas?
I am guessing that most are not as enthusiastic as the volunteers and the respondents.
Defenders of the Community Volunteer Programme will claim that only the transgressors – the litterbugs, the spitters, and the inconsiderate smokers – need to fear the proposed extension of the scheme. Regardless of the possible distrust and disputes through this the garden city remains spick and span. Most importantly the volunteers assume this undertaking without remuneration, and the programme is a healthy display of active citizenry.
Why the pedantic reliance on fear in the first place? The NEA should realise that beyond a threshold its punitive and card-carrying enforcement strategies will only yield marginal gains in deterrence. Has the focus on quantitative results – increasing the enforcement hours, engaging more offenders, or issuing more tickets – undermined the prominence of education and public awareness campaigns? With the latter outcomes are less immediate and it takes substantial time and patience, but a collective culture of responsibility and ownership can emerge more organically, and will certainly be more sustainable.
The right things should be done because they are right, not because of fear and policing.
The head of the Keep Singapore Clean Movement Mr. Liak Teng Lit puts it best when he says, “I hope the day will come when, if anybody litters, somebody on the side will just remind them: please don’t do it”. I hope so too. If Singapore is lazily reliant upon structures of power to remain clean and green, then it might not be that worth it after all.
A version of this article was published in TODAY.