National Environment Agency (Miscellaneous Amendments) Bill – Speech by Png Eng Huat

(Delivered in Parliament on 1 March 2016)

Madam Speaker, keeping Singapore clean and green, and safe from mosquito borne diseases is everyone’s responsibility. In a densely populated city like ours, community living is all about respecting shared spaces and taking shared responsibilities for the environment we live in.

In the area of shared responsibilities, residents can do their part to influence and encourage one another to keep their estates clean, green, and safe. The authorities, on the other hand, must do their part to educate the community and enforce the laws, if necessary, to bring home the message that this government will spare no effort to make our living environment pleasant for all.

Residents are already being roped in as volunteers to help educate the community on environmental issues. However, this bill has the power to expand the roles of these volunteers to include enforcement powers, which, in my opinion, should remain the sole responsibility of NEA officers for good reason.

Good neighbourliness is built upon soft skills, communications, and care for the common spaces. Allowing a resident to be able to penalise his or her fellow constituents now for alleged environmental infringements goes against what community living is all about.

Madam, some of these alleged environmental infringements are also potential flashpoints for neighbour disputes.   I am sure we have seen a fair share of neighbour disputes in our own constituencies involving alleged mosquito breeding potted plants, cooking smell, cat feeding, etc. Are we going to allow either party now to escalate such disputes to a level where a warring faction can take matters into his or her own hands by issuing summons to his neighbour or charging his neighbour for not providing proper identification on demand?

I am deeply concerned that this bill has the potential to make such disputes end in violence as the summons, deserving or not, will no longer be seen as coming from a neutral party. The potential for such community conflicts to escalate beyond control in this instance cannot be ruled out.

This bill will create confusion by adding another layer of enforcement action undertaken by appointed volunteer auxiliary officers, who are not deemed as agents of the agency, in addition to the mandated duties executed by officers of NEA, Town Councils, MCSTs, etc.

Madam, we are embarking on a slippery road to building more walls instead of bridges in our community if we allow NEA to appoint any volunteer to be an auxiliary officer to assist the agency in the performance of its enforcement functions.

But the fundamental questions remain – is there a shortage of manpower at NEA to warrant such a move to arm volunteers with enforcement powers? Is NEA losing the battle with litterbugs and dengue? If it is about manpower, will the agency consider hiring retirees and part-timers on contract basis to assist?

I do understand that for some policies to be effective, education and enforcement must go hand in hand. However, using volunteers to educate their fellow constituents through enforcement is certainly not the way to go because when the enforcement stops, the mosquitoes will return and so will the littering.

Madam, educating our society to care for the environment as a way of life, is vital to winning the war on litterbugs, dengue, and other environmental problems we are facing now.

I urge the NEA to tap on the volunteers to do more in the area of educating the public on environmental issues rather than to do more in the area of enforcement as appointed officers.

While we need effective enforcement efforts, we also need soft skills to make the message stick in the minds of the people. This, I believe, is more effective to combat environmental issues in the long run. I support the community volunteers initiative by NEA to keep Singapore clean, green, and safe but we should just leave the enforcement to the professionals.

Finally, this bill will incur extra financial expenditure. I wish to seek clarifications from the Minister on the nature of these expenditure. Will these appointed volunteer officers be paid any honorarium, stipend or payment in kind since they are being called upon to do more now?

Madam, I echo the call by my party member to send the bill to a select committee for review. In its original form, I do not support the bill.