“While this was partially due to a stepping up of enforcement action, he said people must not be afraid to stand up to those who litter and remind these people to keep the surroundings clean” (Balakrishnan Urges Stand Against Littering As Summonses Double, Kimberly Spykerman).
Calls by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong for Singaporeans to clean up after themselves – after trash was left behind at the Laneway music festival (TODAY, Feb. 2) – might have stirred some to be more conscious, but they also stirred xenophobic sentiments on the Internet. While denying the culpability of “true-blue Singaporeans” (whatever that is supposed to mean), many railed against foreigners and new citizens for creating the mess. Eccentric perspectives backed only by prejudice.
This is not the first time we have been asked to clean up our act. Singapore has a long (and unfortunate) history of national campaigns – such as the “Keep Singapore Clean” campaign launched in 1968 and the “Clean and Green Week” campaign launched in 1990 – reminding Singaporeans to do so. Led by the National Environment Agency (NEA), the Clean and Green Singapore campaign of today similarly “aims to inspire Singaporeans to care for and protect our living environment by adopting an environmentally-friendly lifestyle”.
Perhaps punitive measures are more effective. The 19,000 summonses issued for littering in 2014 – two times more than 2013 – could point to greater indiscretion, though more information could be furnished on the enforcement efforts. The long-term trend of these summonses could also be studied together with the intensity of both enforcement efforts (measured based on legislation or the number of officers, for instance) and preventative endeavours (the number of activities or outreach achieved by the aforementioned campaigns).
Ascertaining the latter would be useful for the NEA when it is planning new ways to engage the public beyond the “Clean and Green Week” initiative. It is convenient to proclaim success through feedback exercises with participants claiming that they learnt something, yet much harder to track behavioural changes as a result of a programme. Cognisant that the deterrent effect of punishments is limited (a quick look at the number of re-offenders might justify this), the ultimate intent is therefore for Singaporeans to manage their consumption habits and take greater responsibility in public spaces. Mindsets must shift.
The tone of the message matters too. Mr. Goh’s Facebook remarks that “cleanliness is a character thing [which] shows you who you really are” were harsh, and it is not necessarily accurate to equate one’s character with the level of civic-mindedness. This change to clean up our act must come, but it will only come collaboratively.
A version of this article was published in TODAY.