Taking ownership of trash

Straits Times Editorial 1 Oct 11;

IT IS well and good that the newly set-up Public Hygiene Council has effectively declared war on growing slovenliness among Singaporeans. That the 21-strong council is made up of a cross section of society, with representatives from entities such as schools, hotels and government departments, indicates that the Government is serious about upping the stakes in the war on trash. It is hoped that the pooling together of expertise from the various entities, coupled to a more ground-up approach, will bring about lasting change in the public's behaviour with regard to cleanliness.

Only the blind or blissfully ignorant will not notice that Singapore, which has made its clean and green garden city one of the hallmarks of its economic miracle, is getting dirtier. Generally, most Singaporeans are a law-abiding lot who care for their living environment. But a not insignificant number, however, have this antisocial mentality: my trash, your problem. In a recent survey, for example, 40 per cent of 4,400 respondents polled said they would litter if they believed they would not be caught. This has resulted in a trash race of sorts - these litterbugs spew their rubbish, only to have an army of cleaners tidy up after them; so perversely encouraging even more littering acts to follow. More worryingly, studies show that a growing number of offenders caught are young people under the age of 21.

The council and the National Environment Agency have their work cut out for them. In the long term, education is the only lasting solution - on the ills of littering, and its incongruence with a civilised and advanced society. Singaporeans - individuals and the community at large - need to take ownership of the problem. It starts with having pride in their homes, the surrounding neighbourhood, and finally the country. Without this sense of community and duty to maintain the public space and keep it clean, there can be no progress. The Japanese practise this to a fault. In Japan, not many trash cans can be found in public places. Rubbish is also sorted into different categories for recycling.

If all this fails, a modicum of shock therapy might be useful. Say, suspend the services of hard-working cleaners in the country's filthiest estates, and let the residents sink in their own mire. Or raise the shame factor for littering offenders by getting them to carry out cleaning duties in their own neighbourhoods. Education is necessary but punishment, effectively applied, can be a good teacher too.