Swatting litter bugs

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 June, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 June, 2004, 12:00am

When I first arrived in Singapore I was amazed at how clean the streets where. 'You could almost eat off the floor,' I recall telling my husband. Of course, coming from London, the contrast was striking. From Changi Airport to the streets of the downtown business district, everything appeared squeaky clean.

Three years on, and with my standards and expectations now so much higher, I do notice the occasional - and, dare I say, shocking? - piece of paper on the ground. What are the famed cleanliness police doing, you might ask? Actually, quite a lot, these days, as an increased elite force of undercover enforcement officers is patrolling the streets, fining culprits.

Singapore has long had a fining system for litter bugs. The penalty for first-time offenders is a S$200 (HK$913) fine, but repeaters can be charged in court, fined up to $1,000 and compelled to do community service.

Say what you like, but if fining is going to make the streets clean, I am all for it. It has obviously worked, as last year's survey by the National Environment Agency (NEA) showed that 87.8 per cent of Singaporeans 'do not and will not litter'.

I admit I have become consciously 'cleaner' since I moved here. Good examples prompt good behaviour, and while I might not have batted an eyelid at dropping the occasional crunched-up receipt on the ground back in London, it would never cross my mind to do so now.

Yet, even law abiding Singaporeans have to be reminded once in a while to do the right thing. So, last month the NEA stepped up its daily enforcement exercises from 600 to 800 hours a week, warning darkly 'our officers could be anywhere, any time'. And to prove their point, plain-clothes officers fined nearly 500 people in the first 10 days of their highly publicised new campaign.

Nothing works better here than doing a bit of blitz fining. A couple of years ago, the same thing happened in enforcing the use of rear seat belts. After a couple of weeks of heavy fining, everybody used their belts and the police did not have to spend any more time on this problem.

Not surprisingly, 95 per cent of the litter bugs are fined for tossing aside a cigarette butt. Smokers are now going to be able to kick the habit with the help of chewing gum, the sale of which has restarted after being outlawed for a dozen years.

Of course, they will have to remember not to toss away their chewing-gum wrapper or - God forbid - their gum.

The first offence carries a stiff maximum fine of S$1,000, with a maximum fine for a second and subsequent offences at $2,000 and $5,000 respectively.