Fri | Dec 14, 2018

Imani Duncan-Price | Singapore lessons: Sometimes it's about the will, not money

Published:Sunday | April 8, 2018 | 12:00 AM

Have you ever heard people say "If Jamaica just had more garbage bins, the place wouldn't be so dirty"? I used to believe it as well. After going to Singapore and Japan, I no longer do.

The two cleanest subways I have ever been on were in Tokyo and Singapore, and they move millions of people each day. In Singapore, no eating or drinking is allowed on the subway, and if you do, you are penalised with hefty fines. In Japan, it's discouraged in the culture. Indeed, in Tokyo, there are NO garbage bins - the Japanese just eat and drink and put their garbage in their bags and dispose of it at home. This boggled my mind but showed that there are other ways.

Some may say, well, they are just clean people culturally - Jamaicans are not. However, Singapore shows that with will, policies and laws that are implemented consistently, behaviour change will occur. And this does not require significant investment of capital.


Chewing gum, Spitting and a Garden City?


In a small-group conversation with the World Economic Forum's Young Global Leaders (YGL), former Singaporean Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong told us that people around the world laughed at Singapore banning chewing gum, believing it was trivial. However, he said that there was a reason - apart from it getting stuck behind seats at the movies and being a nuisance to citizens, for example. People would stick gum in the doors of the elevators of the hi-rises and the doors of the subways. This would make the elevators and subways unworkable, making it impossible for people to go home after work or school. The cost to fix was expensive for the government and the impact was negative on many citizens. So they banned it and put in cameras to catch people in the act and penalised them in a timely way. The result? People stopped chewing gum.

Interestingly, despite the change in the 'no gum' law in 2004, you would be hard-pressed to find people chewing gum in Singapore today. People's behaviour can change.

This was all part of a vision for a modern city for modern people. Indeed, in the late 1960s and 1970s, as Singapore urbanised and squatter settlements were transformed, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was worried that Singapore would become a grey concrete jungle, with only a few green areas in the more privileged and upper-class areas. So he introduced the vision of a "Garden City" to transform Singapore into a city-state with abundant lush greenery and a clean environment in order to make life more pleasant for all citizens.

It started with a massive tree-planting initiative and was followed up with various public engagement campaigns over many years like 'Tree Planting Day' - an annual event where everyone, including political leaders and private sector leaders, came out and worked. The "Use Your Hands" campaign involved people weeding gardens and created accountability between the people and the communal spaces. The government agencies and the private developers were mandated to set aside clear spaces for greenery in projects such as housing developments and in the construction of roads and car parks to bring life to the idea of the "Garden City". Today, it seems like every block has a park and rooftops are used as urban gardens and farms.

This vision of making Singapore 'a First-World oasis in the Third World' also underpinned the country's laws against spitting, littering, urinating anywhere but in a toilet, and other long-standing behavioural practices.

Funnily enough, the law against spitting was long on the books, but the British colonialists did not succeed in curbing the habit of the locals. When the Singaporean government began enforcing laws on the behaviour in1984, it was resolute. The government fined 128 people for spitting that first year and another 139 in 1985, all with very hefty fines and public knowledge.

In addition, anyone convicted of dropping litter can be fined up to S$1,000 (US$673) for the first conviction. Repeat convictions cost up to S$5,000 (US$3,365) and may lead to community service orders or anti-littering lectures, to curb repeat offenders. In the case of a third offence, law-breakers may be made to wear a sign reading "I am a litter lout". Enforcement of laws leads to behaviour change.


Is Cleanliness Linked to Growth?


Some say it's a coincidence that Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) jumped by more than five times between 1985 and 1990. The fact remains, though, that Singapore's GDP per capita in 1980 was a relatively low US$5,000; in 1985, it was US$6,781; and by 1995, it was US$24,937.

Rather than drawing a straight line between anti-spitting and anti-littering laws, gardens, and Singapore's economic development, Richard Vietor, a professor at Harvard Business School and the author of How Countries Compete, sees such measures as "part of a package of policies that together added up to a development strategy".

As indicated in my two previous articles, the formation of the Housing Development Board (HDB) to transform the squatter and slum life of Singapore to the 90 per cent home ownership in hi-rises along with the methodical development strategies to attract FDI at different stages of development was critical to the country’s result.

Re-organising government to target specific FDI to match the different educational levels of the country, negotiating for knowledge transfer to be done to local citizens, and re-investing revenues from those investments to improve the capabilities of the country’s infrastructure and the people through an inclusive education system so they moved higher and higher up the value chain was all key to Singapore’s development.

So with all that we know, what choices will Jamaica make for its future growth and development? The choices and results have been and will be ours.

- Imani Duncan-Price is chief of staff for the leader of the opposition, a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader, Eisenhower Fellow, and former senator. Email feedback to and