Singapore to Shame Litterbugs to Keep Island Clean

Singapore, where painting graffiti can get you caned and drug smugglers are hanged, is trying a new tactic against the city-state’s litterbugs: Embarrassing them in front of their neighbors.

After studying the causes of littering for a year, the government on Monday boosted police patrols of “littering hotspots,” added more and larger public trash cans and warned that two or more littering violations could lead to sentences of picking up trash in busy public areas while wearing a bright orange vest.

“We will continue to take a tough stance toward litterbugs and improve the bin infrastructure,” said Andrew Tan, head of the National Environment Agency. “Despite the progress over the years, littering remains a concern.”

The shame campaign is the latest twist in a years-long effort to reinforce a squeaky-clean image that helps Singapore regularly top expat quality-of-life polls. Singapore has one of the lowest violent crime rates and highest standards of living in the world.

Singapore also has a well-earned reputation for harsh punishments of minor crimes. Vandalism carries a fine of up to 2,000 Singapore dollars ($1,415) or up to three years in jail, in addition to three to eight strokes of a cane.

The government hopes public cleaning assignments – community centers, shopping malls and bus stations – will shame Singaporeans into putting garbage where it belongs.

Singapore “will be making work orders more visible to the public by conducting more exercises in public areas with heavy human traffic,” the environment agency said in a statement. “Many offenders felt that it’s very embarrassing.”

Along with stricter enforcement of laws by police – litter offenses rose to 41,392 last year from 3,819 in 2005 – the government is recruiting volunteer “Litter-free Ambassadors” to scold neighbors who litter and to “adopt a zero-tolerance attitude towards litterbugs.”

“It’s just like how people who cut queues are now frowned upon because it is socially unacceptable,” Tan said.

The heart of the anti-litter campaign remains a hefty fine – raised last year to SG$300 ($212) from SG$200 ($141) for first-time offenders – and the environment agency said Monday it may raise it still higher.

The fine jumps to as high as SG$5,000 ($3,535) for multiple offenses, reason enough for most Singaporeans to toe the line. But not everyone agrees.

“I think shaming someone goes too far,” said Diana Johat, a 27-year-old bank worker. “Singaporeans really care about money, so a big fine really hits them where it hurts.”

“The culture here is to instill the fear that if you don’t follow the rules, there will be big consequences.”

An environment agency study, which surveyed 4,462 people, found that Singaporeans litter because they can’t find a trash can, are too lazy to search one out or out of habit. More than 90 percent of those caught littering during the last five years were smokers flicking cigarette butts to the ground.

The environment agency said it would install more ashtrays, but the lack of a trash can was no excuse to litter.

“Everyone needs to learn to hold onto their rubbish till they find an empty bin,” the agency said.

Some commentators blame the increase of foreign workers, who account for about a quarter of Singapore’s 5 million population, for the litter problem.

“The befouling of Singapore’s streets and waterways has grown worse in recent years, exacerbated by an influx of foreign residents bringing with them different social norms,” the Straits Times daily said Monday.

Some foreigners objected to being singled out though they admitted that the litter laws in their home countries aren’t enforced as strictly as those in Singapore.

“It’s not true all foreigners are messy,” said Vincent Chin, a 24-year old tax consultant from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. “I’m a very tidy person, even though I come from a place that’s pretty dirty.”


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