SINGAPORE - He is the uncrowned King of the Longkangs. Over the last 15 years, Mr Eugene Heng has spent every Saturday and Sunday rooting around for rubbish.
The chairman of environmental group Waterways Watch Society (WWS) and his volunteers spend two hours on boats patrolling the Singapore, Kallang and Geylang rivers, which empty into the Marina Reservoir.
They fish out plastic bags, styrofoam boxes, beer cans, discarded shopping trolleys, rattan chairs and whatever else escapes the 25 full-time workers who clean up the Marina catchment each day.
They also go out on bicycles and kayaks looking for damaged embankments, fallen tree branches or pollution, so they can alert the authorities and action can be taken quickly. In addition, they make weekly appraisals of how well the Kallang Riverside Park's grounds and toilets have been cleaned. The results are then submitted to the overseeing National Parks Board (NParks).
The rest of the week, Mr Heng conducts almost daily workshops to demonstrate the impact of litter and pollution on the environment, educating school students, corporations and foreign visitors.
The 64-year-old, who was awarded the Public Service Medal in 2005 for his efforts in keeping Singapore's rivers clean, now wants to move beyond supervision and patrol.
Of late, he has been making an impassioned case to the Government to grant WWS more direct "ownership" of Kallang Riverside Park. He hopes to be given full responsibility to manage it on behalf of NParks, with some financial support, in a manner similar to how New York's Central Park is run.
In 1998, the City of New York signed a management agreement with the Central Park Conservancy, a civic group dedicated to restoring the park to its former splendour as America's first major urban public space.
The Conservancy was made responsible for the operation and maintenance of the playgrounds, benches, wildlife, trash removal, and events and programmes for volunteers and visitors. Central Park has since set new standards of excellence in park care and become a model for urban parks worldwide.
"My vision is that we've been in Kallang Riverside Park for 15 years, and we can actually do more if we're given more stakeholders' empowerment and authority in managing this public park for the public.
"The agencies overseeing the park's greenery, water, bridges, drains, beach - NParks, PUB, the Land Transport Authority, the National Environment Agency, the Urban Redevelopment Authority - all have specific missions. In contrast, we, as an NGO, see the functions not in a silo but laterally. We can recommend changes and activities to beautify and enhance the park that we ourselves want, which will hopefully reflect what the people want."
Discount for litter
Mr Heng has also been canvassing the Government to consider using non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as WWS to roll out more fun, affordable and educational water activities at Singapore's reservoirs, such as rubber duck water-cycling, family kayaking and bicycle rental.
His proposal: Allow a trusted NGO to manage a fun activity centre, where every "customer" must listen to an obligatory five-minute overview of the reservoir and learn about its history, its value and the need for everyone to play their part in practising good social graces while enjoying the environment.
"For a small token sum, Singaporeans can enjoy cycling or kayaking at our reservoirs. If they manage to bring back any piece of litter, a discount will be given to them," he suggests.
Permits cannot keep being awarded on a commercial basis, as they are now, he stresses - instead, they can be given at a special low rate to non-profit NGOs.
"Often, the authorities will consider only commercial business options for such public parks. But the result is more litter. We cannot think only of making money all the time. It's also about engaging the public in terms of good social behaviour, the value of water and sustainability issues."
What he has in mind is education leavened with "fun, enjoyment and lifestyle" for all generations. He envisages a place where the elderly can sit, relax and enjoy the fresh air, without paying anything, and watch the young dragon-boating and flying kites.
He concedes, of course, that giving people greater access to reservoirs and parks runs the risk of more litter, pollution and illegal activities. "That's a reality, but we have to manage that. If we give that as an excuse not to do much with public parks, then what's the point of building them? If we don't try a new public-private partnership model, we will never know," he says.
Meanwhile, he likes to jest that WWS is already the "guardian of the foundation of the Nicoll Highway Merdeka Bridge". The organisation's office, set within the Kallang Riverside Park, occupies over 30,000 sq ft literally underneath the Merdeka Bridge.
The disused space used to be where weekend squatters and foreign workers slept occasionally. They also stored household goods, weekend party gear and even housebreaking tools within the crevices of the concrete boulders.
Now, the area is fenced up and used to house the society's many buggies, boats and bicycles for patrols. There is also a recycling point and a classroom, where WWS hosts visitors.
While he waits on the authorities' decision, Mr Heng is already scaling up and out.
WWS, which has nearly 100 members and 300 volunteers, mostly tree-hugging retirees, students and foreigners, recently hired its first full-time staff. It has also received Institution of Public Character (IPC) status, which allows it to collect tax-exempt donations.
Soon, it will set up its first branch office, in a container on Punggol Waterway, to teach residents how to enjoy and protect their environment. If successful, WWS hopes to spread out to other new towns around Singapore.
The oldest son of a salesman and secretary mother, Mr Heng never cared much for nature while he was growing up in a Mackenzie Road terrace and later a Bukit Timah bungalow.
At Anglo-Chinese School and Raffles Institution, he was decidedly "indoorsy", playing badminton and chess and producing Shakespearean plays. He went to work after national service armed with a banking diploma from the Chartered Institute of Bankers in London.
It was at work that he learnt to care for nature.
When he first reported for work as a bank teller at the Bank of America at Raffles Place in 1968, bumboats still chugged along the inky Singapore River, a cesspool of oil spills and garbage.
He used to lunch at the old Boat Quay hawker centre, watching as chicken bones and leftover sauces were tossed into the river. But watching the river being cleaned up from 1977 to 1987 made him realise "change can happen, but the harder work is sustaining it".
While climbing the ranks at the foreign bank, he was made its environment coordinator for Singapore and then Asia in the 1980s. It was then that he instituted practices such as the recycling of ink cartridges and double-sided printing.
He was also appointed to the Government Parliamentary Committee (Environment) from 1995 to 2000 and sat on PUB's board from 2001 to 2005, where he learnt about water conservation.
When the committee decided in 1997 that a society should be set up to help monitor and protect the cleaned-up Singapore River and Kallang Basin, he was "arrowed". A "green convert" by then, he accepted.
That was how a man who did not know how to swim or operate a boat came to register WWS in 1998. Armed with $50,000 in seed money from the Environment Ministry and granted the space under the Merdeka Bridge, he donned a life vest to do Sunday boat patrols and went about getting a boat licence.
Meanwhile, by 2002, he had worked his way up over 33 years to the highest post a local could attain at the Singapore branch of the Bank of America - country operations head. Soon afterwards, however, he resigned following the discovery that two of his former staff had siphoned funds from the dormant accounts of deceased customers.
He had no hand in the fraud, but took responsibility as "captain of the ship" as the employees implicated were under his watch. He was 52 then.
"It felt like I was walking away from family," he recalls of his abrupt departure after just a day's notice. "Many people told me a person in my position would have gone into depression. But it never crossed my mind even once."
Mr Heng cast off his old life as a bank executive and dived headlong into his new cause - saving Singapore's waterways - which gave him a new lease on life in return. He increased the frequency of patrols and expanded the mode to include bikes and kayaks, submitting weekly reports and photos of his observations to the relevant authorities.
He launched into water advocacy and education, and now, he hopes, park management. For the past 12 years, the Christian has lived off his savings and this ethos: "Do what your heart wants you to do. Don't do it for money. Don't do it for other people."
His wife, retired bank officer Betsy, and their 34-year-old daughter and 32-year-old son affectionately call him the Longkang King (King of the Drains).
Others are less kind. He has been called a "foolish man doing the Government's job for free".
Environmental education is a lonely, oft-spurned cause. "There's a lot of money in Singapore for charity, especially to help the poor, the sick, the elderly and kids, but it's not diverted to environmental sustainability," says Mr Heng. "The returns from that are very intangible, with results that take a long time to show. With the poor, you can immediately give them an ambulance or a pair of crutches or pocket money.
"But, my friend," he leans in and warns, as waves of Nicoll Highway traffic rumble ominously overhead, along with a sudden peal of thunder, "don't take the environment for granted. The haze came just like that."
Eugene Heng on...
His worry for Singapore
"We are too dependent on other people cleaning our dirty linen. And the majority of them are foreigners, who may not want to do this job in future. We are also running out of space to dispose of our waste. At the rate we're going, with our expanding population, in 35 to 40 years, if we do not manage to reduce our waste by recycling and not buying more than we need, very soon, Semakau Island will be full."
"We can't buy another island. We can't throw our waste to our neighbours' house. We can't throw it into the sea.So it's important that we do our part to stretch this 35 to 40 years to maybe 100 years."
His hope for Singapore
"I would really love to see Singapore reach the standard of Japan and Korea in environmental sustainability, where there are less bins around, where people don't throw things whether anyone is looking or not. Tell others to comply with good social norms and recycle where they can."
"My vision is for a less-dependent Singapore with fewer cleaners supporting us. I understand there are about 70,000 people in cleaning services here and 12,000 alone in waste management. My goal is to see this number more than halved in five years' time."
Danger of lawlessness
"In Singapore, if you pass laws but don't enforce them, it encourages lawlessness. Those who are penalised are the law-abiding. You see people throwing things anywhere they like."
"You see cars parked at junctions, zebra crossings, even zigzag lines. When enforcement officers do come by, the habit is to chase the offender away rather than fine him. Is that working hard or smart? All these things add up and encourage people to say, 'Ah, never mind.'"
His pet peeve, plastic bags
"The damage of plastic bags is horrendous. We've found many fish suffocated by plastic bags in the reservoir. They clog up the drains, create stagnant water and floods. Why do people throw away plastic bags? It's a lack of social understanding. What I don't want, I just throw. We should start off with all supermarkets charging for plastic bags, not just one retailer or only once a week. Those are half-baked initiatives. You want to do it, be serious. Maybe it should be legislated."
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.