SPEECH BY ER DR LEE BEE WAH AT THE SECOND READING OF THE NATIONAL ENVIRONMENTAL AGENCY (MISCELLANEOUS AMENDMENTS) BILL IN PARLIAMENT ON 1 MAR 2016
Video of speech
Support for expansion of Community Volunteer Scheme
1. Volunteers have always been valuable resources to any community. Whether it is to help out in a civil disaster, provide companionship at a nursing home or even a neighbourhood clean-up programme. Undoubtedly without volunteers, many projects and plans would not be able to achieve the desired results. The volunteers are a unique group of people who are always on the ground, doing their part for the community without much fanfare. Most importantly, they are a positive influence on the people around them to volunteer for the good of the community.
2. I am delighted to note that the amendment to the existing NEA act is looking towards expanding the Community Volunteer scheme. This has been a good scheme to encourage responsibility and ownership for the environment. However, under the existing scheme, only members of selected environmental-related societies or councils could be appointed as Community Volunteers (CVs). To my understanding, the number of these groups currently stands at four . In Singapore, we have at least 44 registered environmental-related NGOs . Singaporeans are a more civic-minded lot and I believe there is a lot of potential in the CV scheme. Certainly, I pledge my full support to expand the CV scheme so that individuals too can be appointed as CVs.
3. Personally, I am a great believer of community volunteerism. To address the littering problem, my grassroots team and I have been organising regular litter-picking exercises. These involve residents and students in our neighbourhood estate. When I mooted this in 2012, there was a lot of initial scepticism. I was asked “Bee Wah are you sure or not? What if you pick litter every month and no one joins you?” I’m glad that every month, there are about 100 to 200 residents, students, nurses from Khoo Teck Puat Hospital, Lions Club members, as well as residents beyond Nee Soon South who care about the environment who join me. I deeply appreciate their contributions and I’m sure some of them will be glad to become Community Volunteers.
Empowering civilians to enforce anti-littering laws
4. Litter has been a constant thorn faced by many developed countries and densely populated cities. A great number of annual anti-litter picking campaigns are held worldwide. Clean Up the World, Don’t Mess with Texas, Keep Britain Tidy, Keep Australia Beautiful, Hong Kong’s The Face of Litter… these are just a few memorable ones out of the many national and localised campaigns held in countries across the global map. In Singapore, we have our very own Keep Singapore Clean campaign. There are numerous NGOs world-wide supporting community clean-up efforts. These campaigns certainly bear some weight in keeping the littering problem at bay. However, we will have to look further for more comprehensive solutions.
5. Education coupled with efficient and effective enforcement is the way forward. That is why I was very happy to hear the Education Minister announce last week that schoolchildren will do daily cleaning and this will be implemented in all schools by end 2016. This is a very good start and I hope eventually it’ll become like Japan and Taiwan, where every school child not only cleans their classroom, but also the school compound, wash toilets and sort out litter. They don’t have cleaners in their schools at all.
6. The idea of empowering regular civilians to enforce offences is in fact, not a foreign concept. This not only helps to save resources and generate more efficiency, but as a ground-up initiative, has more social impact. It reminds litterbugs that there are eyes around them, there are people who love the environment watching them all the time. Since 2002, the UK has roped in volunteers to become Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs) who help support front line officers by dealing with minor offences and anti-social behaviour including littering. They play a crucial role in neighbourhood and police work, freeing up time and resources for the police to focus on other more crucial crimes. They are paid a token salary; however, there are now plans to engage unpaid volunteers. In Mumbai, volunteers could fine litterbugs, a move welcomed by the volunteers who bemoaned apathetic litterbugs that refused to heed warnings . These volunteers are armed with ID cards and arm bands as identification proof.
7. But as with all “super volunteers”, the greatest challenge remains in finding volunteers with the relevant skills, commitment and integrity to carry out their duties. Passion is important, but it does not necessarily equate suitability. Adequate training and resources will have to be invested in this programme. I believe there would be closer scrutiny of those who want to volunteer under this scheme so that what attracts them is their passion to serve and not the appetite for authority or power. We also have to look into how to protect these volunteers. I fully support the use of body-worn cameras and tough punishment for those who abuse the law enforcement officers.
Creating a society that recognises the relevance of volunteers
8. Nevertheless, despite the possible challenges of engaging and empowering volunteers, it is undeniable that we need to integrate volunteerism into our community. But like any work be it full-time or voluntary, people must be properly motivated and managed. Early this year, there have been some opinion pieces in the Today newspaper discussing the act of incentivising volunteers . I think volunteer management is something we need to consider very carefully in our long-term plan to recruit and empower more volunteers.
9. How do we maintain the motivation in our volunteers? How do we keep that flame alive year after year? Job satisfaction, the feeling of being wanted, the thought of having made a difference, are powerful emotions that can spur the volunteers. Volunteers need to feel appreciated to continue their work or they will move on to other causes. One thing can be for sure, we should never reduce volunteerism to just a dollar value. However, I certainly believe that more can be done to raise the social profile of volunteers.
10. When we hear someone say they are volunteering for the United Nations, or the SPCA, or a nursing home or orphanage, our first reaction is often to express admiration for the person. Why? Because we feel that he or she is directly contributing to the cause of improving lives and helping the less fortunate. But for littering and smoking causes, often people can’t visualise the impact they are contributing to the environment. Many people feel this is not their job and even label such volunteers “kaypoh”. The inclination is to shower less admiration for their work done. Perhaps employers should pay more attention to job applicants who are volunteering for good causes. Bosses and community leaders should also lead by example. Generating more public awareness will not only help to promote the importance of environmental volunteerism, but also give them the recognition they truly deserve.
11. The eventual goal of expanding the Community Volunteer scheme should lead to long-term plans to further this to the masses. Ultimately, this scheme will hopefully pave the path to two goals – a society that supports volunteering and civic engagement, and a nation where the general public feels motivated to fight for their rights to a healthy, clean and green environment and not depend on a large army of cleaners. There are 3 million people in Taipei and 5000 cleaners. In Singapore, we have 5 million people and 70,000 cleaners. I hope to see this number reduce in due course.
12. Please allow me to give a brief summary in Chinese: 环境与水源部提议要训练义工，让他们能够执法对付垃圾虫，我非常支持。但我觉得，要长久维持这些义工的热忱并不容易。尤其是在环境清洁方面的义工，其贡献也许不如帮助贫弱的义工那么明显。当局应该探讨，如何增强社会的环境意识，并鼓励社会多表达对这些义工的感谢。雇主们，老板们，社区领袖们，希望大家都能以身作则，鼓励下属多爱护环境。最终，我希望社会的每一份子都能为环境尽一份力，让我们减少对清洁工的依赖。议长女士，我支持这项动议。