When I visited Japan in 2014, I was struck by the remarkable scene of clean streets with virtually no cleaners and few bins in sight. In contrast, Singapore pales in comparison where our largely clean streets - marred by litter - are maintained by an army of cleaners deployed.
In our heartland neighbourhoods and at our beaches, I often witness rubbish bins that are packed so full that the trash in them is almost spilling over. Yet, some passers-by would pile their rubbish on top of the bin, paying no heed even when their rubbish falls onto the walkway. Such sights are common in Singapore, and they leave me wondering how our nation could achieve its sustainability goals when our people are still unable to take responsibility for their own waste.
In recent years, Singapore has seen a slew of policy measures aimed at realising its vision of a clean, green, and sustainable city. For example, the Singapore Green Plan 2030 unveiled last year aims to increase the area of nature parks by more than half by 2026, and reduce the amount of waste that goes into the landfill by 30 per cent by 2030. The country has also seen implementations of various clean and green initiatives including the Public Hygiene Council’s Keep Clean, Singapore! (KCS) campaign, aiming to work alongside its citizens to maintain the environmental cleanliness and hygiene of the nation.
But how far can these top-down measures go to improve sustainability when our society still lacks a culture of cleanliness?
Cleanliness is a mindset
The harms of littering are well-known. Besides being aesthetically unpleasant, litter also breeds germs and pests, which transmit diseases in our communities. Even more irresponsible is the throwing of litter from high-rise buildings, which has seriously injured and even killed people in our neighbourhoods. In comparison, a much paler sense of civic-mindedness is seen in us Singaporeans.
Most Singaporeans know that cleanliness is good and littering is wrong, but they do not always put those values into practice. NEA records show that approximately 33,000 littering fines have been issued yearly between 2019 to 2021. The number of high-rise littering acts caught on camera also rose by 80 per cent in 2020.
However, keeping our spaces litter-free is not just the job of policymakers and cleaners. Every one of us has a part to play in maintaining high standards of cleanliness. True cleanliness is not just about how clean our streets are. It is also about whether we embody respect for and ownership of the environment in our mindsets. We should not be motivated merely by the fear of penalties, but also a sense of responsibility for our spaces and for each other’s wellbeing. Still less should we rely on hired cleaners to clean up after us.
And, I am not just talking about binning our trash here. Unflushed toilets and dirty, uncleared food trays with food debris and soiled dishes have also been problems that require regulatory attention.
The need for personal responsibility is more pressing than ever, as Singapore’s massive army of cleaners is set to shrink. Already, the workforce hired by cleaning companies had dwindled by 11 per cent from 2016 to 2021, as older cleaners who retired were not sufficiently replaced by new hires. This loss was worsened by the Covid-19 pandemic, as border restrictions limited the entry of foreign workers. Clearly, Singapore’s dependence on cleaners to maintain public cleanliness is unsustainable.
The push for sustainability is often associated with top-down innovations in technology or policymaking. However, fostering a culture of social responsibility from the ground up is equally important. The Singapore Green Plan may add more green spaces to this country, but if Singaporeans continue to treat public cleanliness as someone else’s job, then there will be nothing to stop us from literally trashing those spaces with our own waste.
So why do Singaporeans litter?
The million-dollar question, then, is what makes Singaporeans continue to litter despite the country’s tough anti-littering measures. According to a study by public policy consultancy Kantar Public, coming across full rubbish bins is the main factor that leads to littering behaviour.
Often, the presence of litter also starts a vicious cycle by encouraging others to litter as well. At a dialogue on cleanliness last September, NUS sociologist Dr Tan Ern Ser emphasised that cleanliness begets cleanliness. When a place is clean, people would be motivated to keep it clean. Conversely, when a place is dirty, people would think that it is okay to dirty it further, since everyone else is doing it too.
Common perceptions of certain public spaces also lead to littering. According to the Kantar Public study, people are most likely to litter in hawker centres, which are often viewed as “dirty” or “wet.” Unfortunately, such perceptions then become self-fulfilling prophecies, as these spaces are further dirtied by people’s irresponsible behaviour.
Furthermore, many Singaporeans still hold misconceptions about littering, and mistakenly think that common littering behaviours are acceptable. Such behaviours include leaving rubbish beside a full bin, leaving used dishes and food waste on hawker centre tables, and not picking up their trash when it gets blown away by wind.
The way forward
So what does a truly clean city look like? Paradoxically, it is one that does not rely much on public cleaning services, because of strong social norms surrounding proper waste disposal. In Taipei, the streets remain clean despite having almost no rubbish bins. People dutifully carry their waste with them until they get home.
What can we do as individuals to foster this culture of social responsibility in Singapore? The first step is to be the change you want to see in the world. Start by cleaning up after yourself and making sure that you do not dirty the spaces you use.
Take a walk around your neighbourhood on the quarterly SG Clean Day to witness how much trash Singaporeans leave behind without the cleaners’ help. Make use of communal cleaning supplies in CleanPods to clean up public spaces. Become a part of the Neighbourhood Toilet Watch Group when it is set up in your area. And most importantly, exercise leadership by mobilising your community to keep your spaces litter-free, which you can do with the Sustainable Bright Spot programme.
Just as psychological defence is integral to Total Defence, a culture of personal responsibility for the environment is indispensable to Singapore’s push for sustainability.
It is time for Singaporeans to stop viewing themselves as consumers of cleaning services and top-down policies, but as citizens with the power to lead their communities towards a clean and green future.