Keeping Singapore clean to the litter of the law

  Agence France Presse
December 23, 2001

INGAPORE is being spruced up for Christmas in a public humiliation exercise involving a conscripted "yellow" army of cleaners.

These are no ordinary cleaners -- they come from the ranks of Singapore's litter felons ordered to sweep the streets as punishment for illegally discarding scraps of rubbish.

In the city-state obsessed with cleanliness, businessman S. Singh was sentenced to several hours labour for dropping a tissue out of a car window.

"It flew out as I was using it," he told reporters as he joined more than 120 other litterbugs dispatched to clean up duty in the past week, including sweeping the inner-city shopping belt of Orchard and Scotts Roads.

To add to their humiliation, the litter criminals must wear distinctive bright yellow jackets with "Corrective Work Order" (CWO) stamped across the back, and the local news media are invited to record their clean-up efforts.

Armed with a broom, a dustpan and plastic gloves, they can be ordered to spend up to 12 hours cleaning sidewalks, lawns, carparks and public areas, although in most instances it is a three-hour tour of duty.

In the tiny republic which stresses the need for law and order and emphasises deterrent sentencing, a hardline on litter is not surprising.

Singapore still has hanging and caning for serious crimes, and dishes out fines for lesser offences such as jaywalking, feeding birds in public places, chewing gum and failing to flush the toilet.

The prospect of public humiliation, along with anti-litter counselling and pollution tours has had a profound effect on Singaporeans and made the city-state one of the cleanest countries in the world.

Taxi driver Mr Tay thought his throwing a plastic bag from the window of his vehicle had gone undetected until he received a corrective work order in the mail.

"They got my address by checking up on the license plate of my taxi," he said, adding remorsefully: "I have to face the consequences of my inconsiderate act."

First-time offenders who drop what the environment ministry calls "minor" litter -- a cigarette butt, bus ticket, sweet wrapper or matchstick -- face a fine of up to S$1000 (US$545) and litter counselling.

Repeat minor offenders, and all major offenders -- those who illegally discard a softdrink can and anything else not on the minor list -- are fined $2000 and slapped with a CWO.

"If you throw a major litter it is classified as a serious offence and warrents a CWO," an environment ministry spokeswoman said.

"We have also introduced what we call an 'educational element'," she said, explaining the pollution tours for litterbugs on the way to carrying out their corrective work order.

"People going for CWO are taken to rivers to see the rubbish that has accumulated at the float booms. It serves as a reminder of the consequences of their actions."

When Singapore's founding father Lee Kuan Yew launched the first Keep Singapore Clean campaign in 1968 he said there was "no hallmark of success more distinctive and more meaningful" than to be the cleanest, greenest city in South Asia.

His words have echoed through the decades since then in a country which prides itself in such projects as the campaign to find the cleanest toilet.

Since the CWO scheme was introduced in 1992, nearly 3700 people have been sentenced to clean the streets, with the numbers coming down rapidly since the penalties were strengthened four years ago, from 581 in 1998 to 306 this year.