Cleaning up Singapore’s act: Eugene Heng

Is Singapore really a ‘clean’ city? One man (and 400 volunteers) are making sure it is
Yahoo News Singapore undated, possibly late Mar 2015. This article is sponsored by AXA.

Eugene CH Heng has very strong opinions on the state of Singaporean cleanliness.

“Singapore is not clean. Singapore is cleaned,” insists the founder and chairman of Waterways Watch Society (WWS).

From government housing estates to commercial areas like Orchard Road, the central business district and tourist spots – practically any area that’s popular — the city gets cleaned up by teams of hired hands that start work at 4am daily.

Eugene was a high-powered banker for 33 years before starting WWS, along with 27 other concerned citizens. The non-government and non-profit special volunteer group advocate a clean and green environment. It brings together like-minded people to monitor, restore and protect the aesthetics of Singapore’s waterways. It specifically keeps an eye on the Marina Reservoir area in the southeastern end and, recently, the Punggol and Serangoon Reservoir in the northeastern part of Singapore. Today, WWS has over 400 volunteers who are supporting its various initiatives.

On top of its green agenda is educating and engaging the public on how seemingly small acts – like leaving an empty plastic bag, or soda cans lying around – can pile up and become a colossal problem with severe consequences if left unchecked.

“We really cannot afford that. That’s not sustainable,” says Eugene.

While cleaners are required for general areas, Eugene stresses that the bulk of the task of keeping the environment tidy should rest on all of us, young and old.

“It’s common sense. It’s not rocket science. Prevention is better than cure,” he continues.

Safeguarding the reservoir

There are 17 reservoirs in Singapore. WWS mainly operates in the Marina Reservoir, Singapore’s 15th, and the first inside the city. Its 10,000-hectare catchment (about one-sixth of Singapore’s total land area) is the biggest of all.

The Marina Reservoir serves as a lifestyle pull. People can enjoy year-round watersports pursuits like kayaking, sailing, waterskiing. It’s also a scenic backdrop for recreational land-based activities including picnics, cultural shows and walking tours.

“The Marina Reservoir is a source of collecting drinking water from the drains and the canals. That’s the part that a lot of citizens don’t understand. They still think that the drains are placed for them to throw things so that they can be discarded and washed away. But it’s not!” says Eugene.

Every day 10 tonnes (10,000 kg) of waste and litter flow into the Marina Reservoir from all the canals. Majority of the litter are discarded plastic bags, plastic bottles and soda cans – stuff that could have been easily thrown in rubbish bins or even recycled. While hired workers do the cleanup job, WWS volunteers supplement the effort by picking up litter scattered all over the area and, more importantly, raising awareness of the problem by educating the public.

The best way to stop pollution is at its source – people.

“Isn’t it better for us to internalize and behave the way we’re supposed to behave? We’re not asking for people to go out of their way to do something special. It’s just good social behavior and awareness,” stresses a frustrated Eugene.

Education is key. Eugene says that Singapore has emphasised so much on earning good money and living well that apathy seems to have eroded people’s sense of social responsibility.

“While it’s good to be successful in life, one also has to understand the need for social grace and kindness. We need to behave and be responsible for the surroundings that we are in, more so our environment. And you can only do that if you’re aware of the challenges ahead. Then you begin to appreciate and not take things for granted,” says Eugene, who has spent his weekends, along with WWS volunteers, rooting for rubbish along Singapore’s waterways for the past 16 years.

WWS has regular initiatives that go beyond supervision and patrol. Eugene has spearheaded many activities– such as International Coastal Clean-Up Day (Marina), Youth Bicycle Patrol, Kayak Clean-Up and the River Monster Programme – that are targeted mainly at primary and secondary school students.

In addition to his on-site work with WWS, Eugene and his team of dedicated volunteers conduct workshops and school talks (an average of one a day) to demonstrate the impact of litter and pollution on the environment, educating students, corporations and even foreign visitors.

"In our talks and workshops, we tell people, ‘You think Singapore is clean? It’s not.’ We hope to shock people, to make them ask why it’s not," he says.

Sense of achievement

Tan YanPing joined WWS five years ago as a student volunteer. After earning a business degree from the Singapore Institute of Management (SIM) last year, she chose to work part-time with WWS and teach at a private kindergarten school instead of chasing a high-paying job.

“I don’t want to be stuck in the office and not know what’s going on (in the outside world),” she says.

YanPing, 25, feels that working for WWS gives her a sense of achievement and pride.

“It’s passion for volunteer work that keeps me going (because) if you compare the salary to outside companies, it’s definitely lower,” she says without a tinge of regret.

WWS is a growing NGO, so youngsters like her, she believes, have a chance to change habits and perceptions by working towards a common goal – keep the waterways clean.

Being able to educate the youth, especially children as young as kindergarten age, on the perils of not caring for the environment is important to her.

“We try to show them ways to be more socially responsible for the environment. We share with them water stories (mostly through pictures) about the reservoirs in Singapore and how humans impact our environment and our waterways,” she says. “We also use more games and take them (on short trips) to see for themselves whether Singapore is clean.”

She hopes that by emphasising habit-forming solutions like practicing the three Rs (Reuse, Reduce and Recycle) as well as picking up their own litter, and not being dependent on cleaners will allow them to be more aware of their carbon footprint.

She shares Eugene’s sentiment that cleanliness is not inherent in Singapore. Residents want a clean environment but they’re just not interested or concerned to do their part.

“We always see a lot of litter on the streets (scattered) around dustbins. They can’t be bothered to even throw litter inside the dustbin,” continues YanPing, who plans to pursue a master’s degree in education. “This is a classic example of how inconsiderate people can get.”

Prevention is better than cure

Of late, WWS has been tasked to be the watchdog for the Punggol Reservoir and its surroundings. Punggol was once a rural district dotted with farmhouses, poultry and pig farms. Under the government’s Punggol 21-Plus plan (a.k.a. Punggol New Town), there are plans to develop the area into a residential waterfront housing estate. An estimated 50,000 residents are expected to move in and live there, literally, by the side of the 4.2-km Punggol waterways.

Currently, WWS volunteers are on boat patrol, bike patrol and kayak patrol to monitor the surroundings and pick up rubbish.

“The potential problem we see is the people. The more people you have around there’s always a strong likelihood you’ll sight more litter. Our challenge again is: will they behave and appreciate what they have, or are they just all going to enjoy and leave their litter behind? It’s quite a scary thought,” says Eugene.

Eugene hopes that with WWS’ presence in Punggol, residents will be encouraged to take greater pride in looking after their district, not only their houses but also the surrounding parks, shopping centres and other communal places they all enjoy.

“The government cannot do it alone. We cannot do it alone,” he says. “The least you could do is not contribute to litter. It goes back to the philosophy prevention is better than cure. Because at the end of it, everyone benefits.”

By Debbie Reyes-Coloma