Cleaning a Nation: Cultivating a Healthy Living Environment

Cleaning a Nation: Cultivating a Healthy Living Environment

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Singapore counts among the cleanest cities in the world—a status achieved through decades of state-led efforts and increasing public engagement.

In the 1960s, many parts of the city were no better than slums. The government of a newly independent nation faced the challenge of overcoming filth, lack of modern sanitation, cholera and malaria infestation, as well as high air, noise and water pollution. Singapore’s founding fathers were quick to recognise the importance of creating a healthy living environment for its citizens, and also for attracting international business and investments.

A key factor of Singapore’s success has been the establishment of a physical infrastructure to achieve and maintain high standards of cleanliness. Long-term engineering solutions were favoured, such as building good drainage, sewerage and waste disposal systems. At the same time newly created institutions and regulations brought environmental issues into the limelight, and values about cleanliness were instilled into people through a combination of enforcement—such as fines, Corrective Work Order for litterbugs, and the famous chewing gum ban—and public education campaigns.

In 1972, several departments under various arms of the government were merged to create a ministry dedicated to the environment, making Singapore one of the first countries in the world to do so. The ministry’s mandate was broadened to include air and water pollution to facilitate a holistic approach to managing the environment.

In order to ensure good governance, the state of public services continues to be monitored on a regular basis in order to identify areas of improvement, especially in terms of efficiency and overall coordination. This has given rise to a “whole-of-government” approach to public cleaning, which is linked to a healthy environment and a high quality of life for Singaporeans.

Singapore’s approach to cleaning has evolved steadily from predominantly government-led planning, regulation and enforcement between the 1970s and 1990s, to increased collaboration between citizens, community and civil society after 2000, especially in areas such as recycling and waste reduction, and public hygiene.

As Singapore’s affluence and population density increase in the future, a greater degree of ownership and self-discipline among residents will be necessary to ensure cleanliness of their living environment. While the state will continue to play its part, ultimately it would fall upon citizens and civil society organisations to transform Singapore from merely a “cleaned city” to a truly “clean city”.