Speech by Mr. Louis Ng Kok Kwang, MP for Nee Soon GRC
at the Second Reading of the National Environment Agency (Miscellaneous Amendments) Bill [Bill No. 7/2016].
Madam, this Bill will allow NEA to appoint auxiliary officers which may include volunteers and give them certain enforcement powers. This will partially help tackle the littering problem in Singapore and is a undoubtedly a positive step forward.
This, however, cannot be the only focus or the main focus of our efforts towards a clean Singapore. Enforcement and increased enforcement is important but perhaps what is more important is a mindset change.
What we need to focus on more, is ownership of our living space and how everyone has a part to play, an important part to play.
My first-hand experience
In January this year, I gained experience as a Town Council cleaner. I worked with Hanif, one of our Nee Soon Town Council cleaners and through this first-hand experience, it is clear to me that we are a cleaned city rather than a clean city.
I picked up so much litter that day, cigarette buds, cotton buds, tissue, condoms, nappies, the list goes on. After spending the morning sweeping an area, it was alarming to go back to the same area a few hours later to find it covered in litter again. The cleaners face an uphill task, an almost impossible task at times.
Increased enforcement is nabbing more litterbugs
The increased enforcement actions by NEA is resulting in an increasing number of summons issued for littering. Up from 19,000 in 2014 to 26,000 last year. These figures I believe are the tip of the iceberg and there are clearly more people who have littered but didnt get caught.
Again, increased enforcement might help in nabbing more offenders but we need to fundamentally understand why they are littering and make sure we address the root of the problem.
We need to remember that (as reported by Channel NewsAsia) a survey by NEA in 2010 showed that a third of Singaporeans would litter, if they think they can get away with it.
I hope this doesn’t just become a cat and mouse game with the litterbugs.
Changing mindsets through creative community projects
We need a mindset change and this mindset change is important for our society. We are often known as a “fine city” as in “pay money fine city” and I hope that fines are not the only way forward in shaping behaviours.
I hope that people are not avoiding littering only because they fear the fines or the corrective work order but rather because they know it harms the environment, because somebody else has to pick up their litter and because it is morally wrong to litter.
I appreciate that this sounds idealistic but it is possible.
The fundamental issue here is residents do not feel like they are part of their community. There is no ownership of common areas. Would you litter in your own house? If you see a piece of tissue paper in your own home, would you just ignore it and walk by? No, and that’s because you want to make your own house clean and tidy. So why do we not translate this behaviour to our common areas?
We need to embark on more in-depth educational projects focused on the community instead of the usual nation-wide clean and green campaigns that the public might be immune to.
Research by the Duke University in the City of Durham in the USA showed that littering of cigarette buds was common at bus stops. So the researchers decided to focus their efforts on reducing this problem.
They realised that large-scale events on anti-littering are not as effective as small community efforts targeted at hotspots of littering. The population at those large scale events might not necessarily include the target group of people utilising the bus stop. The anti-littering message is better received by placing more effort on-site.
By using attention grabbing posters, they were able to counter people’s lack of sensitivity to the generic “Do Not Litter” signs. They also passed out portable ash-trays to commuters to remind them not to litter.
This is not to say that we should use the exact same methodology to apply to Singapore as our patterns of littering might be different. What I am advocating is that we need to go beyond the cliché environmental messaging and get creative.
Another example of a successful anti-littering campaign is the “Don’t mess with Texas, Real Texans don’t litter” campaign in Texas, USA.
In 1987, $2 million in tax revenues went to litterpicking, and that cost was escalating 15-20 percent every year. After performing extensive research, they identified who the “heavy litterer” are: a pickup-driving male, 18 to 34 years old, who likes sports and country music, has an anti-authority disposition, and is not motivated by appeals to civic duty. They were indifferent to the typical messages about the environment and the costs of cleaning.
So Texas decided to focus on these heavy litterers by appealing to their macho-ness. They realised they could succeed by associating littering as being unmanly. Resources was pumped into getting popular country singers & athletes to do TV, radio advertisements & highway billboards to influence these litterers.
As a result, Texas was able to cut litter on their highways by 72% in the first 6 years of their campaign. In terms of spending, they save a total of USD$4.13 million dollars by 1997.
The above is a good example of institutions thinking out of the box. They knew that the main culprits of littering would not care about civil duties and are anti-authorities by nature. This goes to show, that there must be creative campaigns we can do to reduce the rate of littering.
Conducting extensive research to address root of the problem
Lastly, as mentioned, earlier, research is also important. Quoting the “Don’t mess with Texas” campaign again: “Litter in Texas is a big problem, and we’ve been hard at work researching the cost of litter in Texas. Using everything from behavior and attitude studies to visible litter studies, we’ve been collecting data (and litter) to best assess how to approach the problem head-on and determine the most effective methods to end litter in Texas forever.”
NEA has done research but I hope we can do more. Research should be undertaken to identify timing, frequency, hotspots, type of litter and demographic of litterbugs in a particular estate. Once they have valid statistics on the above, NEA can start to formulate detailed plans on effective smaller scale community projects to tackle the litter problem.
I strongly believe that our vision of a clean city is possible but we need to focus on not just enforcement but do extensive research and run creative projects at the community level to ensure that people play an active role in this vision and people have a sense of ownership of our living space.
Madam, let me also add that as someone who has worked in the NGO sector for the past 15 years, this empowerment of volunteers is something that would be welcomed, especially by the animal welfare groups. In fact, this is something they are calling for, for the past few years. This call is for the community to play a part rather than the government doing everything. This Bill is a positive step forward.
Madam, I support the Bill.