Is Singapore really clean?
Professor Tommy Koh’s lament that Singapore is a First World country but a Third World people has provoked much discussion and debate. Some agree that Singaporeans are badly lacking in civic-consciousness and considerate behaviour. Others say these are words of an intolerant elite disconnected from the daily frustrations of the common man. Then there are those who criticise him for implying that people from Third World countries are ill-mannered. I am sure Professor Koh had no such intentions.
When it comes to our adopting environmentally friendly habits such as recycling and using fewer plastic bottles, plates, eating utensils and grocery bags, Singapore is certainly still far from First World. And by that I mean far from a society “of high standing”. We are nowhere closer when we indiscriminately throw our trash and depend on cleaners to clear up after us.
Littering remains a problem in Singapore. Our beaches, coffee shops, pavements, open fields, car parks and HDB void decks are littered with tissue paper, cigarette butts, empty drink cans, food wrappers and all kinds of trash that ought to have been thrown into rubbish bins.
According to a study commissioned by the National Environment Agency (NEA) in 2010, over one-third of people in Singapore litter and do not clean up after themselves when inconvenient. A Public Cleanliness Satisfaction Survey conducted by the Singapore Management University almost a decade later in 2018 indicated that this remained unchanged. The same SMU survey also showed that half of Singapore residents do not clear their tableware at food centres after meals.
It is alarming that the littering bill issued by the NEA in 2018 hit a nine-year high. About 39,000 tickets were issued which is an increase of 7,000 from the previous year, and these were just the ones who got caught!
‘Litter-ally’ bad for health
Litter is not just an aesthetic problem. It can also be life threatening. Food litter attracts and creates breeding grounds for pests carrying bacteria, virus and other organisms that transmit diseases and make people sick. These rodents, cockroaches and birds are also sources of contamination that can cause food poisoning. Drains clogged with litter collect water. These are where mosquitoes breed. And where there are mosquitoes, there is dengue.
“Killer litter” is another danger. When objects are thrown from high-rise buildings, they come crashing down at tremendous speed hitting the ground with a force that can kill. Not too long ago, an elderly man was killed by a wine bottle thrown from the balcony of a condominium unit. More recently, a 50-inch TV was thrown out the window of an apartment building. Between 2016 and 2018, more than 7,700 cases of high-rise littering were reported. Do we want to see more injuries and deaths resulting from killer litter?
Our army of cleaners
Singapore’s littering problem betrays a lack of civility and social-consciousness that we would expect of a country that has made so much progress economically. We need to ask the hard question: Have we, Singaporeans, begun to behave as citizens of a “First World” country who make courtesy their way of life and take personal responsibility for public cleanliness? People in such countries do not think that it is all right to make a mess, just because somebody else is paid to clean up. Singapore has 58,000 cleaners who are mainly seniors, clearing up our mess every day, but we cannot take it for granted that this is sustainable.
Accustomed to having helpers at home picking up and cleaning for us, we carry this behaviour to public spaces. At hawker centres for instance, many can be seen leaving their trays of empty plates and bowls on the tables after they are done eating.
Many patrons who do not return their trays and crockery themselves say that it justifies the employment of cleaners – cleaners will have nothing to do if patrons clear their trays themselves. This is taking a very narrow view. The reality is that in a typical busy hawker centre, many tables are messy because it takes time for the cleaners to get around to clear tables as patrons leave. But when we return our trays and crockery to the tray return stations, we ensure there is immediately a clean empty table for someone else. Also, the cleaners are then able to focus on sorting dirty dishes, bowls and other cutlery for washing and reuse. Consideration for others goes a long way to create a more pleasant experience for everyone.
Some might think that Singapore has access to a cheap and endless supply of cleaners, but this is not the case. Our cleaners, who are mostly elderly, are not getting any stronger and many are retiring. At the same time, we are reducing the number of unskilled foreign workers as a matter of national policy. There may come a day when we will not have enough cleaners to do the dirty work for us.
Stepping towards a First World society
The Chinese philosopher Laozi says, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Let’s take that clear and concrete step, and clean up our act.
Positive social norms cannot be cultivated out of thin air. They are the result of each and every one of us taking steps to be more civic-conscious and setting an example for others, especially children, by being considerate to others and cleaning up after ourselves.
Since 2012, the Public Hygiene Council (PHC) has partnered over 800 organisations such as schools, corporations, NGOs, government agencies and grassroots, to roll out a wide range of initiatives that help the public see the positive results of taking personal responsibility for the cleanliness of our environment, and educating them on the consequences of not doing so. For instance, many partners have conducted clean-ups at beaches, parks and housing estates to encourage people to take pride in their shared public spaces and demonstrate greater civic-mindedness.
To encourage and support parents to inculcate in their children the values of cleaning up after themselves, PHC collaborated with the Singapore Kindness Movement (SKM) this year, to launch the “Nurturing Kindness & Cleanliness at Home” talks in preschools and corporations. The talks aim to guide parents on how to teach their children to keep public spaces clean and develop the social etiquette of picking up after themselves.
In conjunction with the annual Keep Clean, Singapore! campaign, PHC will be launching the CleanSG Day initiative in 2020. Town Councils will stop cleaning for a day. This will show just how dirty our public spaces can become if we are not considerate and do not bin our trash. We want the public to realise that it is also the personal responsibility of everyone to keep our housing estates clean.
We can conquer litter
If we can bin our trash right at home, in school or at work, we can definitely extend that behaviour to our neighbourhood and public areas as acts of consideration for others and the environment.
The first impression that tourists or foreigners often have of Singapore is that it is very clean. But is this due to the sustained effort from every one of us? Or is it the result of an army of cleaners clearing up after us? We can conquer litter and become proud citizens of a First World country if we make it part of our mindset and culture to take personal responsibility for the cleanliness of our shared public spaces. It is the people who ultimately make the difference.
Chairman, Public Hygiene Council