Saturday, November 21, 2009

Singapore's greener, but is it cleaner?

Nov 21, 2009

This month marks the 40th anniversary of the Clean and Green campaign. Insight takes stock of an issue that continues to raise the hackles of many Singaporeans.

By Nur Dianah Suhaimi

EACH morning when Mr Dennis Tan leaves home for work, he feels like he is walking through a field of landmines.

Along the corridor of his HDB flat, he sidesteps trash left behind by neighbours. While taking the lift down, he is careful not to step in possible pools of urine.

When he reaches the carpark, he avoids the grass patches so that his shoes will not be soiled by dog poo.

The 40-year-old engineer cannot help but feel disappointed that his living environment in Woodlands is more akin to that of a dump.

'The cleaners will come and clean up everything every day. But the moment they leave, people will start dirtying the place again,' he sighs.

'Judging by their bad habits, people would think Singaporeans never went to school.'

Mr Tan's lament is reflective of the many 'horror' stories that Singaporeans tell about the state of their neighbourhoods these days. Newspapers are full of reports and letters about social untidiness and littering.

Why is environmental cleanliness still a persistent problem after four decades of official campaigning to keep Singapore clean?

This month marks the 40th anniversary of the Clean and Green campaign, which started off as the Keep Singapore Clean campaign.

When the plan of action was drawn up to transform Singapore into a clean city, it was declared a matter of national priority, second only to defence and economic development.

Today, Singapore has won worldwide fame as a garden city with spotless streets and sparkling waterways.

The achievement should be a cause for celebration, yet the question that keeps bugging Singaporeans these days is: Yes, Singapore is greener, but is it cleaner?

Of course, if you compare Singapore with what it was a few decades ago, there is no doubt that it has made gigantic strides in environmental and social cleanliness.

Older folk will remember the 1960s when sanitation was rudimentary, and human waste had to be carried away by night soil workers.

Back then, unlicensed hawkers peddled by the roadside, dishing out cooked food to customers at the front of their pushcart stalls while dumping waste into the drains behind them. The Singapore River was better known for its overpowering sewer-like smell.

As Mr Tan Teck Khim, a National Environment Agency (NEA) environmental health executive who used to crack down on illegal hawkers, recalls: 'It was common to find cockroaches and maggots in food because the stalls were left in the open at night.'

That was when the massive and never- ending exercise to keep Singapore clean was initiated by then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.

Launching the inaugural Keep Singapore Clean Campaign in 1968, he said that 'only a people with high social and educational standards can maintain a clean and green city'.

'It requires organisation to keep the community cleaned and trimmed, particularly when the population has a density of 8,500 persons per sq mile (3,269 persons per sq km),' he added.

Call it social engineering if you like, but this nationwide drive reflected Mr Lee's political will and personal obsession. Without fail each year, he would turn up to launch the Clean and Green Campaign.

Each successive prime minister - Mr Goh Chok Tong and now Mr Lee Hsien Loong - would retain this practice to signal to the population the importance of keeping the country clean.

As NEA officials have noted, Singapore became much cleaner when kampungs and farms disappeared and HDB flats came with their own toilet and sanitation systems.

Farming waste no longer clogged up the waterways. Unlicensed hawkers were moved into hawker centres, keeping the drains and roadsides free of waste. The Singapore River underwent a major clean-up.

From the 1960s to 2000, much arduous work went into building the system for a cleaner country. But fixing the infrastructure solved only part of the problem. There is still another problem.

As Mr Foong Chee Leong, director-general of the Meteorological Services Division and an NEA veteran, puts it: 'The infrastructure is already in place. Now the question is - how do you convince people to be clean?'

It is a very good question which is still hard to answer, even after 40 years of clean-up campaigns.

Today, with a population nearing five million and a density of about 6,800 persons per sq km, Singapore has indeed become very organised in the way it maintains its cleanliness.

Each day, legions of cleaners descend upon the residential neighbourhoods and streets to sweep away the mess and spruce up the environment. Without fail, rubbish trucks dutifully collect trash from every HDB block and every apartment building and house in the country.

It is this efficient and methodical clockwork system - which people take for granted - that has earned Singapore a worldwide reputation for cleanliness.

But unfortunately, there is more to cleanliness than meets the eye, say observers.

Despite economic progress and rising standards of education among the people, they note, the social habits of Singaporeans seem to have retrogressed.

What a shame, they say. After 40 years of Clean and Green campaigns and massive education efforts, and despite the imposition of penalties such as fines and corrective work orders, Singaporeans continue to perpetuate their bad habits - from urinating in public lifts to littering.

As Dr Geh Min, a former Nominated Member of Parliament and immediate past president of the Nature Society, describes it: 'Singapore is more a cleaned city than a clean city. The city is clean because of our army of cleaners. The people, however, are still a work in progress.'

Politicians, policymakers and community leaders have spoken despairingly of the problem. Indeed, a recent survey by the NEA shows that hygiene standards in public places are still lax.

The evidence is unmistakable. The first nine months of this year saw a total of 32,258 litterbugs being caught, compared with 33,164 for the whole of last year. That figure also marked a significant jump from 21,269 in 2007, and 7,027 in 2006.

Killer litter continues to be a longstanding problem. In 2000, a falling flowerpot killed a five-year-old girl. Two years later, a man died after a falling metal chair hit him on the head and fractured his skull.

Two people died and 152 others fell ill this year after eating contaminated hawker food. It was later revealed that the hawker centre and market were overrun by rats.

Figures from NEA show that food poisoning cases went up by 40 per cent last year, from the year before.

Speak to the Clean and Green campaigners and they would say they have almost exhausted all avenues to get the message across, from using peer pressure in 1995 to hiring TV actress Zoe Tay as environment ambassador in 1999.

Mr Khoo Seow Poh, NEA's director-general for public health, admits that constant reminders, such as television advertisements, have helped to educate the public and that the majority of Singaporeans have brushed up on their social habits.

'But there are still black sheep with dirty habits. There is still a lot of room for improvement. We need Singaporeans to be clean voluntarily and not have to be constantly reminded.'

Retiree Steven Foo, 60, is among the Singaporeans who are convinced that the social habits of his fellow countrymen have regressed over the years.

He singles out the younger generation as being the worst culprits.

'They grew up with maids at home. Outside the home, foreign workers do the cleaning for them. So they are not used to cleaning up after themselves,' he says.

Others point the finger at the hundreds of thousands of permanent residents and foreign workers who flock here with different social habits.

They say that many come from rural areas and countries where spitting and littering are second nature. Just look at the mess left behind in places where foreign workers congregate, they mutter.

But some environmentalists say it is not fair to blame foreign workers, especially when they are the ones doing most of the cleaning jobs for Singaporeans.

On the contrary, Mr Howard Shaw, executive director of the Singapore Environment Council, believes that it is the cleaning up by foreign workers that has resulted in Singaporeans becoming 'over-nannied'.

'We are so used to having things done for us by foreign workers,' he says.

There is also the possibility that cleaning standards have slackened, says Ang Mo Kio GRC MP Lee Bee Wah, who is deputy chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee (GPC) for National Development and Environment.

'Many residents and friends gave me feedback that Singapore was cleaner when our agencies, such as HDB and NEA, used direct workers, unlike now, when they outsource to contractors,' she says.

The reason: Many cleaners had their wages cut when the cleaning jobs were outsourced to contractors, and thus had less incentive to work hard. Furthermore, the contractors may not be as stringent in their inspections as the agencies.

The cynical view is that Singapore has fallen victim to the organisational efficiency of the Government, which will not let anything go amiss in the maintenance of the country.

This has resulted in many Singaporeans not assuming ownership and responsibility for public places, and treating them as the 'Government's problem' or the 'cleaners' job'.

So what else can be done to tackle what seems like an unsolvable problem?

The pessimists feel there is no way out of the problem unless Singaporeans develop a stronger sense of citizen ownership, like the Japanese.

To be like the Japanese, says sociologist and NMP Paulin Straughan, Singaporeans would have to abandon their 'mind-your- own-business' attitude and warm up to the idea of informal social policing.

Citing the effectiveness of social policing, she recounts how she once walked along the streets of Tokyo with some empty drink cans.

No bins were in sight. So what could she do? Two considerations stopped her from dumping the cans by the side of the street.

'First, I don't see any other empty drink cans around. So that sends a very strong signal that it will not be socially acceptable for me to be the first to leave an empty can there.

'Second, I get the sense that should I litter, I will be reprimanded by those around me. So, even as an outsider, I feel very strongly that I should conform.'

The NEA plans to carry on its educational campaigns with children as its next target group. It aims to impress on young, eager minds the importance of cleanliness.

At the same time, the agency is taking steps to strike where it hurts most - by imposing stiffer fines on litterbugs.

More radical solutions are called for, argue some people. Dr Geh proposes that schoolchildren be made solely responsible for cleaning up their schools. And yes, this includes scrubbing the school toilets.

Between the relentless efficiency of the Government and the army of lowly paid cleaners, how can Singaporeans be shaken out of their 'couldn't care less' attitude and develop greater civic consciousness?

There is one shock suggestion that often surfaces which the authorities find hard to contemplate. But perhaps it is time to bite the bullet and just do it.

Once in a while, declare a 'cleaners' holiday' - leave a housing estate or a neighbourhood without the services of its cleaners for a day, and let the people get a reality check when they see the mess around.

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