Saturday, March 06, 2010 cannot do it without discipline

Early during Lee Kuan Yew’s term in office as Prime Minister, one of his many campaigns was Singapore as a “clean and green society.” A new Singaporean friend told me that when the Prime Minister was driven around the island, an aide always accompanied him. When he saw something that did not come up to his standards, the aide would take note and the responsible official would receive a call from the Prime Minister’s Office and sometimes from the Prime Minister personally. Such calls were not welcomed.

Singapore is still green, and with flowers - often orchids - blooming on pedestrian walk-overs and in other public spaces. And it is very still clean by US or European standards - in fact by the standards of virtualy any country that I have visited. It is a garden city, as Lee Kuan Yew intended it to be. But it seems to me that standards have slipped since the days of his active leadership.

The other morning, adjacent to one of the shuttle bus stops of the National University of Singapore Campus, there was a large trash bag on the ground, possibly awaiting pick up. The bag had broken open and a some trash was strewn about in the vicinity. A few of the back birds I call “Carews” (because of their distinctive call) were picking at the remains. I had a flashback to Sri Lanka, where trash piles are often found in public spaces, with large black crows - much larger than Carews - feasting.

There were perhaps twenty older staff and students standing by. It would have taken one of two of them no more than two or three minutes to clean up the mess, but none did (I was in the bus and so could not do so). They seemed to accept it as simply part of the landscape. I wondered if the response would have been the same ten for fifteen years ago - was this a special case in a special setting or are Singaporeans now viewing the maintenance of public spaces as someone else’s responsibility?

This lead to me to reflect on trash throwers more generally. It is hard to imagine that many people would argue for trash strewn public spaces as a matter of principle; they simply don’t want to take responsibility for the whole. Paradoxically, neglect of public spaces was worst in Communist countries i visited during the Cold War. In Singapore, there have been government campaigns to communicate high standards of public responsibility and civility. Many foreigners and even some Singaporeans deride this. I do not. The alternative, among other pathologies, is public spaces that resemble those of neighboring Malaysia and other developing nations, including those parts of Washington DC that resemble a developing nation.

At the entrance to the Lee Kuan Yew school, and at several other locations as well, there is a saying of the former Prime Minister (his present title is ‘Minister Mentor‘) featured prominently. “If you want to realize your hopes and dreams, you cannot do it without discipline.”

I believe that trash discarders in Singapore can, if observed, by the police, can receive heavy fines. Hopefully these laws are still being enforced. For repeat offenders, perhaps a few strokes of the cane would be in order as well.

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