You know what? Just pick up the litter

By the time you read this piece, Singapore should be a bit cleaner.

Or maybe a lot, depending on how many people respond to the call to clean up the country today.

The Public Hygiene Council's We Clean Up! campaign will see more than 100 groups picking up rubbish all around the island today.

But it hopes to make a bigger difference, and has called on everyone else not involved in these groups to pick up at least three pieces of litter today.

When I first heard about this, I thought: So much effort by so many people to get you and me to do what we should naturally be doing on our own.

These 100 groups have to mobilise volunteers, organise them and spend a few hours today to clean up their little part of Singapore.

But they know their efforts will not achieve much or have a lasting impact if the rest of the population isn't moved to do their part to stop littering.

What motivates these people to do this when they know it can be such a daunting task? And why do the rest need these few to tell them to do what they should know is good for themselves and the community?

Unless we know the answers to these questions and understand them at a deeper level, I am afraid that Singapore will not make much headway in this cleaning-up exercise

So what is it that these groups are trying to achieve?

When I asked council chief Liak Teng Lit, he said he wanted more people to know the amount of litter around, so they would know the size of the problem, and the best way to do this was to get as many people as possible to go out and pick up litter.

Most Singaporeans don't realise how much rubbish is tossed away as litter because paid cleaners get to it first.

"Those who pick up litter get to see the actual condition before the cleaners do their magic.

They become more conscious of the presence of litter in less obvious locations, for example in bushes and drains," said Mr Liak.

"They also get more emotionally connected with the issue. Before they pick up litter, either they are not conscious of the presence of litter or they blame poor cleaning services for the problem.

After they pick up litter, their mental frame is, 'Why are litterbugs so inconsiderate? Are they expecting me to pick up after them?'. Subsequently, they are more likely to remind litterbugs not to litter."

He is an outspoken, passionate spokesman of the anti-littering cause, and I hope he will succeed where many others have failed. How many?

Here's an extract of a 1995 report from this newspaper with the all-too-familiar headline "New approach to keep S'pore litter-free": "Twenty-seven years of anti-littering campaigns have helped Singapore become clean and green, but have not cut down on Singaporeans' reliance on an army of cleaners to pick up after them. So this year, the Environment Ministry is trying out something new - for everyone to feel that it is his responsibility to keep Singapore clean, and not just that of the ministry, the town council or the cleaners."

That was 20 years ago, but the report could well have appeared in today's paper.

Nothing much has changed on the littering front, and this place is still reliant on paid cleaners, and still trying to launch the next campaign to get people to change their social behaviour.

Why has it been so hard?

At one level, you can understand why.

Companies find it as challenging to change their corporate culture, as do individuals when trying to alter their bad habits.

A multimillion-dollar industry has emerged, with many change gurus selling their theories and methods.

Even dying heart patients resist when told that they need to change their lifestyle or die.

One study found that nine out of 10 such patients, when studied two years after their heart bypass operations, had not changed to a healthier lifestyle as recommended.

If even the prospect of death isn't enough to make people change, what hope is there?

Fortunately, there are people like Mr Liak and his volunteers who believe it is possible.

They spend much time and effort organising these activities, and also trying to understand what works best to motivate people to change.

They go to great lengths to study what experts say and what the latest evidence is from behavioural science.

When Mr Liak spoke about the act of picking up litter triggering an emotional response from the person, it was straight out of what some change gurus believe is required to make change happen.

They say you can't do it through logical arguments or coercion.

According to one expert, Alan Deutschman, in his book Change Or Die: "What we need is someone who can give us the belief and the expectation that we can change. It's kind of a leap of faith. It comes from having a personal relationship and being inspired by their belief in us."

Deutschman cites the example of General Motors in the 1980s, when it had to close down a factory in the United States because the workers were "unmanageable".

Toyota acquired the plant and it tried a different approach. It took the American workers to Japan to let them see how things were done there and to change their thinking about what was possible.

"You can't just tell people something. You have to prove it to them through experience," Deutschman writes.

These experts might be right about their theories, and the clean-up campaign today might be the start of something big that really works.

Or they could be wrong and we'll need some other approach, perhaps borrowed from some other guru.

It does seem like a very tough nut to crack.

Yet, at the personal level, it is such a simple thing to do.

When you see litter, pick it up. If you see someone littering, tell him in a polite way not to do it.

Why is something so simple so hard to achieve community-wide?

I don't have the answer to this puzzle, and perhaps we shouldn't spend too much time puzzling over it.

Just pick up the litter.

This article was first published on May 3, 2015.
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