Singapore

Okay for volunteers to fine offenders?

The National Environment Agency (Miscellaneous Amendments) Bill passed yesterday gives individuals such as community volunteers the powers an NEA officer has when it comes to environmental offences. But the bill was passed only after a lively debate. FOO JIE YING (fjieying@sph.com.sg) reports on both sides of the argument

YES: Everyone has active part to play

YES, community volunteers should be given enforcement powers.

Everyone needs to play an active role in keeping Singapore clean.

By expanding the Community Volunteer (CV) programme, passionate individuals can take greater ownership of our environment, and better complement the National Environment Agency's (NEA) enforcement efforts, said Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli.

When the CV programme was launched in 2013, volunteers, made up of civic group members, had the power only to ask offenders to pick up and bin their rubbish.

If they refuse, volunteers can only take down their particulars.

Now, a passionate individual who is not from any civic group can join the programme. They can fine litterbugs on the spot. (See report above.)

As someone in a non-governmental organisation for the past 15 years, first-time MP Louis Ng welcomed the move.

"This empowerment of volunteers is something that will be welcome, especially by the animal welfare groups," said Mr Ng, who founded the Animal Concerns Research and Education Society.

"It's also for the community to play a part rather than for the Government to do everything," he added.

NOT NEW CONCEPT

The concept of empowering civilians is not new, said Nee Soon MP Lee Bee Wah as she cited Mumbai and Britain as examples.

As a ground-up initiative, it will help foster social norms, said Ms Lee, who runs a monthly litter-picking programme in her ward.

"I hope it will remind would-be litterbugs that there are eyes around them. There are people who love, who care for the environment watching them all the time," she said.

Ang Mo Kio MP Gan Thiam Poh agreed: "With more eyes and ears on the ground, we are taking a step in the right direction to eradicate littering."

NO: Potential flash points for disputes

NO, leave enforcement powers to the professionals.

Rather than building bridges in the community, we are building walls by endowing community volunteers with enforcement powers, said Hougang MP Png Eng Huat.

Such alleged environmental infringements can also become potential flash points for neighbour disputes, he said.

The Workers' Party MP, who said he does not support the bill, added: "The fundamental questions remain: Is there a shortage of manpower in NEA to warrant such a move to arm volunteers with enforcement powers? Is NEA losing the battle with litterbugs and dengue?"

Mr Masagos later clarified that this move will not help to save resources. Rather, it is to "allow more members of the public to participate and take greater ownership of the environment", he said.

But non-constituency MP Daniel Goh disagreed, saying: "There is a real danger that if full powers are granted, we will indeed create a new culture... not a beneficial culture of community ownership of environmental and public health issues, but a new culture of antagonism between fellow citizens."

Associate Professor Goh also questioned the justification behind giving powers to CVs.

SUCCESSFUL

Citing the success of the CV programme, he pointed out that in less than two years, 259 volunteers engaged 830 litterbugs.

Only 10 uncooperative ones were reported - proof that "conversations between ordinary people invoking the morality of living in the same community work 99 per cent of the time", he said.

He asked for the community volunteers to keep these conversations going.

"Leave the dirty work of punitive summons to the state officers who are best equipped to do the job," he said.

WHAT IS THE COMMUNITY VOLUNTEER PROGRAMME?

The Community Volunteer (CV) programme was introduced in 2013.

Under the scheme, volunteers are trained to educate and encourage litterbugs to pick up their litter. If the offender refuses to do so, the volunteer can take down his particulars and pass it on to the National Environment Agency (NEA) for enforcement purposes.

The volunteers came from non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as the Singapore Kindness Movement, Singapore Environment Council and Cat Welfare Society.

With the NEA (Miscellaneous Amendments) Bill, individuals not affiliated with any NGO can be part of the NEA's expanded CV programme.

These individuals under the CV programme will be given powers similar to NEA enforcement officers once authorised by NEA's chief executive. This includes fining litterbugs on the spot.

Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli assured the House that there will be a stringent screening criteria.

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