Speech delivered at the 10th anniversary of the National Environment Agency on 15 September 2012.
- We celebrate 10 years of NEA’s partnership with all the stakeholders in our community to safeguard, nurture and cherish Singapore’s environment. In fact, this common cause dates back much longer – and we also remember the pioneers who formed the Ministry of the Environment almost 40 years ago on 16 Sep 1972.
- During a recent trip to Tokyo, I asked to meet street cleaners. The diplomat who accompanied me told me this was not possible. She said there were no street cleaners. But when I looked out of the car, the street was spotless. She then recounted how she was scolded when she first arrived in Tokyo and tried to eat a sandwich as she strolled along the street. People stared at her, and told her pointedly not to mess up the street.
- This episode made me pause to think about our own city. We are a very densely populated city. We have made tremendous efforts over the past decades to make Singapore Clean and Green. We have had many campaigns, instituted heavy fines, stepped up enforcement and employed an army of cleaners.
- We have done reasonably well so far, but I want to offer one question for public discussion:
Singapore – A Clean or Cleaned city?
- Many of you would agree that litter is still prevalent in many community areas with high human traffic such as town centres and bus interchanges, especially before the cleaners have started work. We have all seen how neighbourhoods, parks, bus stops and waterways can go from being clean in the day after the cleaners had done their rounds, to being littered and dirty again by the next morning. We must bear in mind that every single item of litter that we see is because somebody has been inconsiderate, ungracious and anti-social.
- A key reason of course, is the wrong attitude that cleaners are there to pick up after us, and the misplaced notion that this is appropriate behaviour because cleaners are paid to do so. One alarming statistic from NEA’s recent surveys is that 36% of Singaporeans would only bin their litter if it is convenient to do so.
- The solution cannot be to employ more cleaners. As I said in Parliament earlier this week, even while we try to improve cleaning standards and the employment conditions of cleaners, we would have to cope with fewer cleaners and therefore our reliance on them has to decrease. But the larger and more important point is what kind of society we will be, and how our environment reflects on our attitudes and culture. Will we be capable of cherishing and protecting our public spaces even if they do not personally belong to any one of us?
A Ground-Up Keep Singapore Clean Movement
- This is why we need a ground-up movement. We need a “zero tolerance” attitude towards littering in public places. I think you would agree we all have a collective responsibility to the community around us which is not right for anyone to shirk. I especially hope those who are parents will continue to inculcate the right values in all our children and young ones, as they will inherit the Singapore of the future.
- When it comes to promoting these values, the Government has traditionally taken the lead, from the first Keep Singapore Clean campaign in 1968, to the most recent ‘Do the Right Thing, Let’s Bin It!’ national anti-littering initiative. But I believe that going forward, it is the local communities which need to take the lead in championing cleanliness, and to come together to demonstrate their commitment to it through action. As more people speak up for it, and get profiled for the good things they are doing, this can become a new norm. This would be more sustainable than depending on cleaners to pick up after us.
- I am therefore glad that starting this year, as we re-launch the Keep Singapore Clean effort, various community groups have stepped forward to promote greater civic mindedness amongst Singaporeans and forge a new norm on public cleanliness and hygiene.
- In particular, the Public Hygiene Council or PHC, chaired by Mr Liak Teng Lit, Group CEO of the Alexandra Health System, together with the Keep Singapore Beautiful Movement, the Singapore Kindness Movement, Waterways Watch Society and the Restroom Association of Singapore, have come together to champion the cause for the community to take the lead, and they have just announced their plans to the media. The Government looks forward to work with them.
- In fact, I am very encouraged that many passionate individuals, residents, and community groups have already stepped forward to do this. Recent initiatives such as the Green Day @ Bishan–Ang Mo Kio Park event organised by RSVP Singapore and supported by the PHC, as well as the I 1 programme by the Keep Singapore Beautiful Movement, are clear examples. In addition, engagement initiatives by the grassroots groups and MPs’ efforts, such as the HABIT! programme led by Er Dr Lee Bee Wah of Nee Soon South, also aim to raise awareness of the cleanliness issue in Singapore, and to rally the community through ground-up initiatives. I had also mentioned in Parliament earlier this week that the Singapore Kindness Movement will be partnering NEA to roll out a pilot tray-return programme at selected hawker centres starting from the last quarter of this year.
- We are roping in community partners in other ways as well. NEA has worked with mobile applications developer BuUuk to develop a new app which is called “Clean Lah”, in keeping with their names of their other popular apps like “Weather Lah”. Clean Lah uses a crowd-sourcing approach to facilitate feedback on cleanliness – which means that wherever you are, if you spot a cleaning problem, you can take a picture of it and submit it with an accompanying message via the app, and it will go to NEA for follow-up. As the feedback is geo-tagged, NEA will know if others have already reported from the same location and this would also help to signal the urgency or magnitude of the problem. Those who have submitted feedback will even be able to get a status update on the issue once it is resolved.
- This app is already available for download on the iOS platform and will soon be available on the Android platform too. It complements the existing My ENV app by NEA in obtaining feedback from the public on cleanliness issues, but also takes it a step further in making available the location and nature of all data points collected with everyone else who uses the app. I look forward to seeing more co-created solutions like this, which allows anyone to actively participate in achieving the collective outcome we all want, while also improving transparency of information to everyone.
Sustaining Enforcement – (a bigger role for NGOs ?)
- Even with these new community norms in place, I assure everyone that we will not back down in enforcing cleanliness standards. NEA will continue to ensure that cleaning of our public areas, particularly roads and streets, are done properly and in a timely manner. With the recent formation of the Department of Public Cleanliness, NEA is progressively taking over and integrating the various public cleaning functions that were performed by various Government agencies. NEA will also introduce an improved audit regime by leveraging on technology to audit the work of cleaning contractors.
- NEA will also continue to work with the Litter Free Ambassadors to patrol estates to reinforce and advise residents to keep their environment clean. Surveys show that uniformed officers currently have the greatest deterrent effect on recalcitrant littering. NEA will increase the visibility of their officers in uniform to deter litterbugs, and will continue to be tough against any litterbugs caught.
- I have also asked NEA to study the possibility of conferring enforcement authority on senior members of non-government organisations who have worked for so many years to clean up our environment. This will mean many more eyes and hands available to deter anti-social behaviour. This may be controversial, and we will certainly consult the public before proceeding.
- While stiffer enforcement will discourage recalcitrant offenders, a more sustainable approach where everyone does their part to keep Singapore clean and become more civic minded in our actions is greatly superior. By walking the talk ourselves, we can encourage others to do the same, in very simple ways. Through our individual and collective efforts, we can create a cleaner and more beautiful home for everyone to live in. And only then can we strive towards being truly be a clean city, rather than a cleaned city.