A Cleaned City Is Not a Gracious City

My friend Liak Teng Lit is right to say that we are a cleaned city and not a clean city. In fact we are not even a thoroughly cleaned city. A few weeks ago, I joined a number of community leaders and concerned citizens on a Saturday morning to do some litter-picking. There were 82 of us. Armed with a garbage bag and a picker each, we fanned out into the vicinity of several blocks of HDB flats. Within less than 2 hours, we returned with bags full of garbage.

With community leaders and concerned citizens
We found them under bushes, beside parked cars, at the children’s playground, on and around benches. There were rusted cigarette lighters, small bottles filled with stagnant water, broken glasses, styrofoam and plastic cups, drinking straws, paper bags, plastic bags, tissue paper, etc etc.

Picking up litter
What is most troubling is that in some cases, the garbage bin is only a few steps away.

Last night my wife and I ate at a hawker center. There is in fact a tray return point though it is not too conspicuous. We sat near the tray return point and ate our food. I neatly collected the crockery in the tray and brought it to the tray return point, only a few steps away. We went for a stroll and about an hour later, we came back for our dessert. To our horror, the same table we left cleaned was by then piled up with fish bones, prawn peels, and other assorted food bits. The table was a mess with chilli and other sauces spilled all over the table top. Some of this liquid mess was dripping down the edge of the table, and on the floor there were a few pieces of fish bones.

And the tray return point is only a few steps away.

What can we say about such anti-social conduct?

The first thing is that in both cases, the folks who left garbage on the playground and in the bushes and those who left the table at the hawker center in a dirty mess have committed essentially the same anti-social act. They are all litter-bugs. I fail to see the difference between littering the ground and littering a table. Both are littering.

Second, both are guilty of inconsideration. With the army of cleaners at work every day, it is likely that those who enjoyed sitting on the benches at or near the playground found them cleaned but left them littered. In the same way, those who used the tables found them cleaned and left them littered. If they had been considerate, they would have thought about leaving it clean for the users after them.. But they thought only of themselves and not of others. As long as they get to use and enjoy the facilities, it does not matter whether others could enjoy the same after them. That is what being inconsiderate is about. To the extent that they are inconsiderate to others, they are being unkind, for kindness is about being other-centered. And they most certainly project our society to be not just filthy and unhygienic but also ungracious.

Third, both are being unkind not only to other users after them, they are also unkind to the environment. Our environment is very fragile. We see its mega effect in climate-change resulting in drought, floods, tsunamis and other natural disasters. What we do not realize is that by being unkind to our immediate environment, we are also inviting disasters, though on a different scale. By creating opportunities for mosquito larvae to spawn, we are waiting for dengue fever to happen. By leaving fish bones and half eaten food exposed for too long, we are inviting crows and other pests to pick at the leftovers and thus waiting for food poisoning to happen. By not taking care of our immediate environment, we are contributing to decay and death.

And I am not exaggerating for that is precisely what we are doing. Consider for a moment that we do not have cleaners to clean the grounds or helpers to clear the table. We will be transported back to a third world condition where we will be struggling to overcome potentially fatal illnesses and diseases resulting from living in unhygienic environments. We cannot afford to take our present hygienic environment for granted or assume that the authorities can regulate this all the time.

So what can we do about ensuring a sustainable hygienic environment for ourselves and for the generations to come? Let me suggest three simple ideas:
  1. Be considerate. Think of others. “Do to others as you want others to do to you” is still a piece of ancient wisdom for today. Be considerate of others means in this context, leaving the place cleaner than we found it so that others after us can also enjoy what we had just enjoyed.
  2. Take ownership. Ask yourself some simple questions. Would you have littered in your own home? If you see garbage lying around in your own home, would you leave it lying there? After a meal at home, would you leave your dining table in a mess with all the bones, leftover food and spilled sauces? The answer is obviously no. That is because you are house-proud. And you are house-proud because you have a sense of ownership. So why not take ownership of our public grounds and public eating places? Take pride in being a stakeholder of a clean and green home we call Singapore.
  3. Speak up against inconsideration. If you make a decision to be considerate to others, you should also expect others to reciprocate by being considerate as well. If you are considerate you have earned the moral authority to speak against those who are not. You can challenge them to be considerate because it is expected of them. But of course, you must do it in a gracious manner.
Be considerate and expect others to be considerate. That is the key to a truly clean and green home where we can take pride in. This is our home and pride of ownership must begin with us.

It wouldn’t be so bad being a cleaned city if it wasn’t totally dependent on 70,000 cleaners, but because 5 million residents have taken ownership to be kind, gracious and clean.


  1. 10 Reasons why Singapore is better than other countries:

    1)No narcotics drugs*
    2)No drug war
    3)No war
    4)No earthquake and tsunami
    5)No typhoon
    6)No guns
    7)No winter
    8)Clean and Green
    9)Kind Singaporeans* (millions of dollars are raised in charity tv events)
    10)No homeless people*
    (*Difficult to find the homeless as we do not have a serious drug narcotic issue.
    In other countries, there are homeless youth drug addicts, even families, that roam the street. Also we Singaporeans are KIND, if such news of plight are published in local newspapers, donations will pour in to help them)

    I LOVE SINGAPORE!!! (^_^)


    1. I agree with you on all the reasons why Singapore is better than other countries. Yes, there are many more good reasons why we should love Singapore. At the same time, we can always do better especially in respect of your point #8 "Clean and Green". We are consciously green in terms of not developing on some 40% of our open land. But we are surely not green in terms of recycling. And as I have attempted to say, we are not a clean city, only a cleaned city.

  2. Like you, I too think that we should practice cleaning up after ourselves. It is a simple gesture and does not take up a lot of time. After all, if school students can return their plates to tray stations in canteens, I don't see why adults can't follow this practice in eating establishments such as hawker centres and fast food outlets.

    Thank you for this blog post, Dr. Wan. It was a pleasant and enlightening read indeed.

    1. You are very encouraging. Thank you. Recently, I received an email from a member of the public who said that she has decided to return trays wherever it is possible. I am sure that there are many like you who have decided to do the same. We can and will win one at a time.

  3. Unfortunately, I have visited homes of friends who have maids and they DO leave their dirty dishes and food scraps on the table after the meal.

    1. Yes, very unfortunately. The point I am making is that we are house-proud and we do not leave our own dining table in a mess. That we do depend on helpers to clean up after us addresses the way we keep our own house clean. If we do not have helpers, will we leave our own house in a mess? The answer is "No, of course!" The fact is we are finding it more difficult to find people who are prepared to work as cleaners in public places. It is time we clean up after ourselves. And it will help if we take ownership of our public spaces, take pride in them, and do our part to keep them clean.

  4. Thank you, Anonymous, I think you just gave me the answer as to why our maid stayed with us while her friends all work for families in smaller condos and grown up kids. With three kids (15, 6 and 3 yrs), we always make sure our table is in a presentable state, no eating allowed besides dinning/kitchen area. I remember my late grandmother (born in 1901)used to take out her own used tissue to wipe the table in small eatery. Her reason was that "so the next person has a reasonably clean table". Thanks Dr. Wan for this post.

    1. Yes, teaching our children not to depend on our helpers to do everything is a very good idea. After all, it is for our own kids'benefit and personal growth in personal responsibility that they are taught from an early age to clean after themselves. We cannot assume that we will always have domestic helpers. We also cannot assume that our kids will be able to have helpers in the future. More importantly, we teach them to be considerate to others both at home and in public places - a value that will set them up for success in social intercourse and interpersonal relationships.


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