National Environment Agency (Miscellaneous Amendments) Bill – Speech by Daniel Goh

(Delivered in Parliament on 1 March 2016)

NEA Auxiliaries with Enforcement Powers Will Undermine Community Ownership

Madam Speaker, this bill seeks to appoint individuals, including community volunteers, as auxiliary officers of the National Environmental Agency to police and enforce the law on public health offences. The Workers’ Party cannot support the bill in this form. Without expressed limits to the powers and without a specific regime, this bill allows the chief executives of NEA to turn community volunteers into functionaries of the state. I find this objectionable as it goes against the very spirit of involving community volunteers in public health and environmental protection. Its effectiveness in resolving the public health and environmental issues is highly doubtful. On the contrary, it will undermine community ownership of these important issues in the long run.

If the Community Volunteer Programme is Successful, Why Turn Volunteers into Auxiliaries?

When NEA launched the Community Volunteer Programme in 2013, it was envisioned that the programme would involve stakeholder non-governmental organisations to encourage the community to take ownership of the environment and help tackle the littering problem. Volunteers were trained to approach litterbugs and speak to litterbugs as fellow members of a community, as peers and fellow citizens or residents. Though issued with NEA authority cards, the volunteers could only demand the particulars of uncooperative offenders to hand over the details to NEA officers who will then investigate the cases before prosecution.

I believe the limitation of authority was not just meant to safeguard the public interest by preventing any abuse of power or conflicts between citizens. It was also the best way to secure community ownership through the powers of peer persuasion rather than the powers to warn and punish. As a leader of one of the stakeholder NGOs said, “The end game is not about us becoming pseudo police officers. The point is, we are trying to get more people to take more ownership of the environment, so that when they see ordinary people asking others not to litter, when we start these conversations, eventually, we can create a culture that is opposite of being indifferent.” (1) The key words here are “not pseudo police officers”, “ordinary people”, “conversations”, and “create a new culture”.

By all accounts, the Community Volunteer Programme has been successful. In less than 2 years, 259 volunteers engaged 830 litterbugs and only needed to report 10 uncooperative litterbugs (2). It goes to show that conversations between ordinary people invoking the morality of living in the same community work 99% of the time. Only in 1% of the time did the volunteers had to act like pseudo police officers. If this trend goes on, we would indeed create a new culture of caring for the environment. Which is why I find it very difficult to understand the necessity of giving the volunteers the full powers of an officer of the state.

What exactly is the government’s justification given the encouraging success of the Community Volunteer Programme in the first two years? Is it not an overkill to grant excessive powers to citizens to fine fellow citizens on the spot just because of 10 uncooperative litterbugs in the past two years? Should not the government allow the Programme to run for a longer period before making the assessment of the necessity of appointing volunteers as auxiliaries?

The Slippery Slope Down to a Culture of Antagonism

There is a real danger that if the full powers are granted, that we would indeed create a new culture – not a beneficial new culture of community ownership of the environment and public health, but a new culture of antagonism between fellow citizens. NEA said that it would provide the volunteers with the same training that regular NEA officers undergo. But we need to understand that volunteers, as much as we should value them, come with a different set of motivation. NEA officers, by virtue of their appointment and employment as an officer governed by clear organisational rules and culture, would naturally be more circumspect in the use of their powers than enthusiastic volunteers.

Already, a couple of the leaders of the stakeholder NGOs have made public statements that suggest the new powers could be taken too far. One said that he was keen to see the powers extended to booking those who smoke in non-smoking areas and those who park illegally (3). Another said that he would like to see volunteers appointed as block ambassadors to police their own blocks of flats (4). Where and when would volunteer auxiliary officers stop their policing of the community? Today is littering in the neighbourhood, tomorrow is proper recycling in the blue bins downstairs, the day after tomorrow is kids playing ball in the void deck, and the next day what neighbours do in their corridors and even inside their home in name of dengue eradication? This looks like a slippery slope down the road to a police state where neighbours prey on each other and erode the mutual trust that we have painstakingly built up over the decades.

Madam Speaker, the government has been moving away from a system dependent on punitive fines and corrective work orders to one that combines the fines with nudges of community education. It has worked well and there is no evidence that we are experiencing a littering or spitting or illegal smoking emergency. In the 2009 sociological study on littering commissioned by the NEA, which I participated as one of the three sociologists overseeing the study, the study shows only 1.2% of people surveyed admitted to littering most of the time. 62.6% reported that they never littered, and the rest said that they litter some times and know it is wrong to do so (5). The overwhelming majority of litterers just need reminding of the social norms.

The study recommended outreach and communication strategies aimed at reminding people of the norms and getting specific groups, especially students and youths, to internalise the norms. The problem with depending heavily on enforcement and the threat of summonses is that people will litter if they do not see officers or other people around. We want them to internalise the norms and not litter even if they are alone. The only way to do this is community education.

We are only second to Japan in keeping our streets clean and sanitary. If we want to emulate Japan’s culture of deep social consciousness and strong community spirit, then we need to invest in building that culture over the long term. The Japanese had a hundred years’ head start over us, since modernization beginning with the Meiji Restoration. We do not want to undermine the development by fostering an authoritarian culture of volunteers exercising power over other citizens in the name of the state. We need to promote an environment of trust between neighbours reminding each other to do the right thing, not instil fear and suspicion of each other that your neighbour is going to whip out his summons book because you were not mindful of the norms for one second. Let’s continue to enlist community volunteers to keep the conversations going, build up a cooperative culture of community ownership of the environment, and leave the dirty work of punitive summons to state officers who are best equipped to do the job. The Workers’ Party strongly supports the Community Volunteer Programme, but there is no justification for this bill in its current form.