Whenever friends visit from overseas, they have good things to say about Singapore in two distinct areas: food and cleanliness. I wholeheartedly agree about the food, but with regard to cleanliness, I find myself clarifying that Singaporeans in general don’t litter because we don’t want to get slapped with a fine for it. The clean environment is a result of a deterrent, and not out of concern for our environment.

It’s something we’ve learnt from a young age. A couple of months ago I was walking down Orchard Road between Wisma Atria and Ngee Ann City when a young boy walking alongside his mother flicked the candy wrapper he had in his hand onto the ground. The young mother scrambled to pick it up and turned to berate her son.

“Haiya boy! You throw this on the floor later police come and catch you,” she said in typical direct Chinese translation.

To be honest, I wasn’t surprised she used the scare tactic because Singaporeans are brought up this way.

I know you can’t give a young kid a lecture on environmentalism every time they litter, but scaring them is not the way to go. What happens when that fear factor is absent? I’ll tell you.
In February, my fiancée and I took a trip to Yogyakarta, Indonesia. On one of the days, we took a guided tour through Jomblang Cave with 10 to 15 others. We rappelled down 60 metres to explore the dark and muddy caves.

When it was time to go, the group gathered at the rappelling point and waited for our turns to be hoisted. While we were standing around, a young Singaporean woman (I could tell from her accent) fished out a lollipop from her pocket, ripped the wrapper off and nonchalantly chucked the piece of plastic on the ground. I immediately got her attention and told her she shouldn’t do that. Realising her faux pas, she quickly bent over to pick it up. Stuffing the wrapper back into her pocket, she muttered under her breath that there was already so much litter around anyway. I think I might have burst a blood vessel trying to comprehend her logic.

Her failure to see the bigger picture is a clear indication of why we need to rethink how we educate our youth about respecting our environment. The concept of understanding the consequences of our actions is a far better technique than simply fearing the punishment.

When I was in Japan last week, I was waiting for a bus when a young girl, no older than five, dropped her cup of drink. The contents, presumably a soft drink of sorts, spilt out on the sidewalk. Her father picked up the cup and put it in a plastic bag. At that point I expected them to leave but instead, the man reached into his backpack, took out some wet wipes and proceeded to clean up the mess. He made sure his young daughter watched him and you could see the remorse on her face. He didn’t need to say it, but it was clear he was teaching her that if she didn’t clean up after herself, someone else would have to. I’m sure that incident is seared in her memory, because it is in mine.

I love that Singapore is clean and green, but I think we need to take it a step further. If we can get people to understand the consequences of their actions, we could do some actual good for the environment.

Of course, this concept doesn’t need to be exclusive to environmentalism. It can be used to educate about a plethora of topics including racism and sexual harassment. I know it’s easier said than done, but change has to start somewhere.

So the next time your kid does something wrong, teach them about it instead of simply threatening them with the police or the karang guni man. You’ll be surprised at what they can comprehend.

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