For decades, Singapore has won international praise and acclaim for being a clean and green ‘’city in a garden’’.
But it’s time to come clean - this perception of a ‘clean’ city is out of touch with reality.
Campaigns such as Keep Singapore Clean and Clean Tables have laid the groundwork for a clean and green Singapore - accompanied by penalties for those who do not return trays after meals, and increased surveillance to spot and nab recalcitrant and high-rise litterbugs.
But these feel like the hollowest of victories.
While attractions such as Gardens by the Bay, the shopping centres in Orchard Road, and Changi Airport are well known for their immaculate public spaces and toilets, our heartlands, where most Singaporeans live, disappointingly very often paints - disappointingly - a very different picture.
The dark side of our national clean vision is apparent in some of Singapore’s dirtiest neighbourhoods. Overflowing dustbins littered around the parks and other housing estates raise uncomfortable questions on whether the authorities, F & B operators, or park goers are responsible for maintaining clean areas.
Many in Singapore have also expressed their dissatisfaction with the cleanliness of the toilets at coffee shops and hawker centres, complaining that they stink and the toilet floors in common areas are wet or stained.
It seems like we do know that we have a problem.
Tourists are not unaware of this shameful development either. A former resident who visited Singapore recently after five years away, shared with The Straits Times her disgust at the growing amount of litter in drains, waste bins and other public spaces.
Although she praised our island nation as ‘’immaculate’’ and ‘’probably the cleanest in the world’’, she was turned off by how much litter there was now, and how it tarnished our “city in a garden’’ image.
Replying to her letter, the PHC said that definitely much work definitely needed to be done before Singapore can be called a truly clean city. The PHC also stressed that only we ourselves are responsible for Singapore’s cleanliness.
An Army of Cleaners
When asked about the issue of littering, many Singaporeans say that they do not consider littering as a serious issue. This can be attributed to the fact that we have now, an army of close to 60,000 cleaners. In comparison to our land size and population, the number of cleaners is tremendous.
But as more resources are devoted to coping with the problem, people seem to have become more complacent, and many Singaporeans, perhaps, mistakenly believe that it is the Government’s job to ensure that our country is clean.
Our over-reliance on our cleaners is worrying. The recent strikes by cleaners in France have provided a glimpse of literally how messy things can become if our cleaners, for whatever reasons, become unavailable.
So the million-dollar question here is how we can get Singaporeans to care more.
Many Singaporeans from all walks of life have, during interactions, suggested naming and shaming litterbugs. Others have mentioned stiffer fines.
It is shameful for us as citizens of a First World country to have to consider naming and shaming litterbugs. And, on fines, if they don’t work as Singaporeans continue to get more affluent, then what? It is also hard to see how these measures can be more effective in the long run.
Starting from Young
We must make cleaning a part of our culture - and that has to start from young.
The public hygiene successes of Japan and Taiwan are linked to the fact that, from as early as elementary school, schoolchildren learn the importance of personal hygiene and cleanliness through their lessons and public education. These lessons are reinforced when they are rostered to clean their schools and classrooms, instead of relying on janitors.
PHC recently concluded the “Keep SG Clean” comic-strip competition, which was opened for all secondary school students. The artistic calibre and creativity of the youth when addressing cleanliness issues in Singapore were a pleasant surprise.
Although such creative talents have yet to be translated into actual anti-littering action, it has given me hope that we are on the right path, which is something I had frequently questioned, especially when seeing another spot with litter, or coming across another complaint on the increasing litter in Singapore.
We have also shown that we can be united. The pandemic over the last three years has seen everyone taking up personal responsibility, not just in mask wearing or social distancing, but also in sanitisation to combat the spread of the coronavirus as it made the difference between life and death.
Today, despite the restrictions being nearly totally lifted, many still keep these practices, as they have been forged to be a part of our daily lives. Cleanliness should follow the same route, but no one hopes that it will take another deadly pandemic to make it so!
What or how else then can we engage Singaporeans?
A 2021 Institute of Policy Studies survey showed that Singaporeans take pride in our country’s cleanliness. So, the desire might be there, but still, how do we get Singaporeans to get off our collective behind and put this into action?
Having grown up within a clean and green Singapore, our younger generation cannot grasp the concept of Singapore being a dirty, rundown place, and take for granted the importance of public and personal hygiene. We need a ‘’why’’ to reinforce the importance of public hygiene in our way of life.
Perhaps we can find our ‘’why’’ this year by going back to our roots, as we commemorate the 100th anniversary of Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s birth.
The ‘’why’’ was clearer to define in the 1960s and 1970s as Singaporeans were gradually moving into urban living from their ‘’dirtier’’ kampung days, and the importance of cleanliness and hygiene could also literally mean the difference between life and death.
In a mass drive to clean up Singapore, Mr Lee launched the now renowned “Keep Singapore Clean” campaign and began the transformation of our landscape from Third World backwater to the First World metropolis it is today.
As he said then, cleanliness is ‘’one of the hallmarks of civilisation’’.
During his time, Mr Lee also famously managed to clean up both the Singapore and Kallang rivers, which were then known to be smelly and unsightly waterways filled with litter and sewage. Cleaning up the rivers helped attract tourism and investment, which helped spur our transformation from Third World to First. More importantly, it also proved that great public hygiene is attainable if we are determined and have our sights set on it.
Mr Lee said, “One can be rich and filthy or poor and clean. Cleanliness and tidiness are indications of the level of tidiness of a people’’, inferring that high standards of cleanliness were signs of an ‘enlightened’’ nation that merited a place among the more advanced and industrialised economies such as Japan, the United States, and the United Kingdom.
Today, we face a similar challenge. Should our littering remain unrestrained, our landfill at Pulau Semakau will be full by 2035 - slightly more than a decade from now - leaving no more space available for our trash.
If we band together to build a clean Singapore, that would be a fitting memorial to Mr Lee’s legacy. It would also transform public hygiene into a goal that every Singaporean can achieve.