Jail litterbugs? That’s a crazy idea that might work, I thought, when I saw the letter to The Straits Times’ Forum. But the suggestion was met with more derision than agreement online. Many agreed with me that it would be crazy. Not many thought it would work.
Dr William Wan, general secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement, had made the call as a measure to tackle the problem of littering in Singapore.
“It is time we made a social compact to generate the will to be gracious and not to litter,” he wrote.
His suggestion, though, isn’t for first-time offenders, but for subsequent offences. It found some support among netizens. Facebook user Jazelle Ong shared the letter and wrote: “Plus caning, too! On top of Corrective Work Order, of course.”
Another facebook user, Mingli Lin, obviously irritated by the sight of litter, said: “YES!! Agree!! Always there’s some gathering or event and trash everywhere! Come on! Not hard to pick up after yourselves. Think cleaners are your maids meh…”
Several others agreed. But most netizens found the idea too harsh.
“Jail is scary. Does it help or is it warranted under any circumstances. I think a stiff fine plus 100 hours of community work will change the mindset,” wrote Wong Hw when he shared the letter to Facebook group Soul of Singapore.
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Some even questioned the sanity of such a suggestion. And everyone The Pride spoke to felt it was too much.
“I believe a hefty fine and/or a Corrective Work Order (CWO) are sufficient to combat the issue,” said teacher Gavin Ong, 46.
“Not a good idea,” said retired police officer Lionel de Souza, 74. “The chances of them meeting and befriending seasoned criminals in jail would be too great.”
“No need to be so drastic,” said Ivan Chan, 51, a doctor.
“In my humble view, such a suggestion is backward and often counterproductive. This “one-dimensional” approach might achieve a short-term goal but will lack sustainability as can be seen from past endeavours,” said lawyer Josephus Tan.
“Sending litterbugs to jail is not the answer,” said social commentator and former CEO of the Singapore Environment Council Jose Raymond, 46.
What then, would be the answer? How best to deal with this littering problem?
“Make them eat the litter,” said Raymond.
“Education,” he offered. “There’s been a shift in the demographics of Singapore over the last two decades and almost half of people residing in Singapore now are foreigners. This requires a recalibration of programmes which are targeted and which reach out to groups most likely to end up being littering culprits. This education process needs to be ongoing.”
So he’s saying the litterbugs are mainly foreigners and new citizens?
Without saying that in so many words, he replied: “There’s enough anecdotal evidence to show that our new citizens aren’t in tune with our cleanliness ethos.”
But don’t kick foreigners and new citizens out of the country yet.
“They need to be made aware of what makes Singapore clean and green and it’s the duty of everyone in Singapore to make them understand why it’s important to maintain that ethos.”
Tan, well known for his work as a pro-bono lawyer, agreed that education would be a better way. He said: “Our society has evolved and in our present day and age of social media, awareness through education (and not punishment) is a better approach.” He did concede, though, that it might take a generation or more to attain that level of graciousness.
Dr Chan and Ong, the teacher in favour of CWOs, felt that enforcement would be more effective in preventing litter.
“What we lack is enforcement,” said the doctor. “More officers are needed. It would be self financing,” he said tersely.
Ong laid out a method he felt would tackle the problem: “Stringent enforcement, and fines big enough to hurt the pocket. Fines based on income or wealth might be worth exploring.
“The CWO (currently an order to clean up public places under the supervision of health inspectors for a period of up to three hours) must be shameful enough – for instance, it should be performed under the judgmental eyes of a peak hour crowd,” he added.
Ex-police officer de Souza also agreed that a more painful CWO would be the key to fixing the problem: “The current work order punishment should be imposed with the litter bugs cleaning the area where they live and with longer hours of cleaning.”
Academy trainer Angie Seah, 50, feels that community service would help litterbugs become more responsible for their actions. She said: “Make them help the needy and the aged. Or maybe make these litterbugs do the work of the old cleaning ladies you see, but pay the cleaning ladies anyway. That way, they’ll be doing something useful. They will also learn that littering is an irresponsible action.”
Irresponsible as the action may be and no matter how ungracious it is, none of those The Pride spoke to felt that sending litterbugs to jail would solve the problem.
Dr Wan, though, thinks severe fines and a jail term are necessary.
“I am afraid that this is the only way to enforce good habits. We have to be harsh to be kind to ourselves,” he wrote.
Lawyer Tan insists we shouldn’t go that route.
“If we allow such a suggestion to take root, society is not just going back 20 years but it will open the floodgate to severe penalties for every other “graciousness-related” issue. It would create an angry and litigious society in the process,” he said.
“If we start sending people to jail for littering, should we also consider the same for those who do not return their trays at the hawker centre after eating?”
So, Dr Wan, while my spontaneous reaction was to agree with you, I have since reconsidered my position. Perhaps we should call for the other suggestions to be implemented instead?
We can throw litterbugs into the bin if these don’t work.