The litter of the law in Singapore
The New Zealand Herald
March 6, 2001

Woe betide litterbugs in Singapore who face heavy fines, community work and even counselling

THEY come from all walks of life and spread throughout Singapore in fluorescent yellow vests, picking up garbage. After a few hours, they gather at a reporting station, return the vests and have a drink before going home.

This may seem like a scene of voluntary community or charity work. But in squeaky clean Singapore, the people in the fluorescent yellow vests are litterbugs, paying the penalty for illegally discarding cigarette butts, bus tickets or matchsticks in public places.

The police forces of many countries struggle to cope with crimes such as burglary, let alone with what might be considered minor infringements such as litter.

But Singapore takes its cleanliness seriously and in this city-state of 4 million people, litterbugs beware. Otherwise a fine of several thousand dollars, hours of litter collection and even state-sponsored counselling await you.

Singapore is recognised as one of the cleanest, if not the cleanest city, in the world.

But in recent years, government statistics have shown the number of litterbugs is on the rise.

Singaporeans wrote in to newspapers to complain about the "disgraceful behaviour" and the parliament debated whether existing punishments were too lenient.

A university professor and a psychiatrist were invited on to a television talk show to add some intellectual weight to the subject and to try to explain why people cause litter.

The Corrective Work Order (CWO) scheme was implemented in November 1992 and some 4555 litterbugs were caught the following year.

The government hardened its stance in 1999 with tougher laws after a record 8652 litterbugs were caught in the act the year before.

Under amendments, litterbugs have to serve as much as 12 hours of community service, although most are given only a few hours in practice.

The maximum fine for repeat offenders is now $NZ6855 (S$5000), more than double the previous fine.

The number of litterbugs immediately halved. Data showed offenders totalled 4069 in 1999, but the number rose again in 2000 to 6092.

The community work, involving clearing areas that have litter, may be seen as a preventive measure because of the prospect for offenders to be embarrassed by the punishment.

But not all offenders see it that way.

"There is nothing to be embarrassed about," said a 19-year-old Malay woman, when asked if she felt embarrassed to wear a vest which reads on the back "Corrective Work Order".

"It's legal work that I am doing," she said with a shrug. She declined to give her name.

She was caught littering with her boyfriend, who was serving a CWO on the same day in a nearby residential area.

An elderly Chinese man in CWO vest appeared embarrassed. Wearing a cap, he kept his head low and refused to make any comment.

"It was pure bad luck," said another Chinese girl in her 20s, who claimed she dropped a plastic bag "by accident."

"Anyway, it is very embarrassing. I just saw someone I know walk by. I quickly turned my back to him," she said.

Not every litterbug will have to face the Corrective Work Order. That is imposed for repeat offenders or first-time major offenders.

The CWO only applies to Singapore residents, so tourists are exempt. Also, no foreigner residing in Singapore has yet served a CWO.

Small litter is considered as cigarette butts, bus tickets, sweet and cigarette box wrappers, carpark coupons and matchsticks.

Drink cans and rubbish other than the list of small litter is considered major litter, the Ministry of Environment said.

For repeat offenders, one other penalty awaits them - a counselling session.

"For 15 minutes, litterbugs watch a video which will explain how litter can be washed down into our watercourses and cause pollution in the environment. The purpose is to educate them and inform them of the consequences of their action," the ministry said.