Contest to snap Singapore's dirtiest places bares it all

A sea of litter floating in Marina Reservoir, near Marina Bay Sands.

IMAGINE this: a picturesque bay with glittering waters and a world-famous skyline... and floating garbage everywhere in sight.

Meanwhile, tranquil beaches and parks are left littered with trash such as plastic bottles once the visitors have gone home.

Does not sound like Singapore to you? Think again.

An anti-littering volunteer group, the Waterways Watch Society (WWS), organised what to many might have sounded like an odd contest for a country with a worldwide reputation for being spotless. It asked Singaporeans to send in photographs of some of the dirtiest places here between February and April this year. It picked 10 winners in May from about 60 submissions.

Shots emerged of a part of Marina Reservoir close to Marina Bay Sands literally covered in a sea of trash washed in by rain.

In another, a road divider along Prinsep Street was piled with so much rubbish it resembled an open dumping ground; as did Pasir Ris Park after picnickers brazenly left their leftovers behind.

The dozens of photographs sent in showed void decks, parks and roadsides from Toa Payoh to the Central Business District strewn with rubbish. "It wasn't a surprise for us," said WWS chairman Eugene Heng, who plans to make the contest annual and post the most striking photos on its Facebook page. "For our group, whenever we go out, our mission is to look for litter. And the sad thing is, we're never disappointed.

We always find litter."

Singapore's reliance on an army of about 70,000 cleaners to keep the island spick and span has been highlighted more regularly since November 2012, when Keep Singapore Clean head Liak Teng Lit called the nation "a cleaned city, not a clean city".

In that same month, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that people were getting blase about littering and that standards of cleanliness were slipping.

MPs such as Nee Soon GRC's Ms Lee Bee Wah occasionally give cleaners in their wards a day off so that residents can see the litter situation for themselves.

This Saturday, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan will join a litter-picking session in Bedok South, where the WWS plans to exhibit selected photos.

The perception that Singapore is clean persists largely because workers sweep up litter "365 days a year", said Mr Liak. "Most Singaporeans don't leave home until 7am or so. By that time, the cleaners have already done their first round," he said, adding that wet markets and hawker centres are problem areas. Carparks, planter boxes, parks and the ground floor of HDB blocks also attract litterbugs, he said, while events like concerts often leave a mess.

"In the 1980s and 1990s, we were clean. Because of education and very firm enforcement, people did not dare litter," said Mr Liak.

"But enforcement has gone down compared with before... More and more people are not afraid of being caught."

Civil servant Alice Kho, 31, who submitted the Prinsep Street photo, said other passers-by who saw the rubbish did not bat an eyelid. "Maybe it becomes a normal thing for some people. They get used to it."

The Government has been cracking down on littering. On April 1, it doubled the penalties.

Recalcitrant litterbugs now face fines ranging from $2,000 to $10,000. A volunteer corps was also set up to take them to task.

Mr Heng, whose volunteers have found bicycles and even television sets in the Kallang Basin, said of the photo contest: "One key point is to tell people: 'You think Singapore is clean? It's not.'

"We hope to shock people, to make them ask why it's like this."

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