Adding teeth to killer litter laws ‘may have toothless effect’

The scourge of ‘killer litter’ has been thrust into the spotlight following the death of an elderly woman at Eunos Crescent block. — Today pic
The scourge of ‘killer litter’ has been thrust into the spotlight following the death of an elderly woman at Eunos Crescent block. — Today pic

SINGAPORE, June 9 — Killer litter, a scourge that has refused to go away for more than four decades, has again been thrust into the spotlight following the death of an elderly woman — the first reported fatality since 2002 — after she was struck by a bicycle wheel allegedly flung by a teenage boy from the 14th floor of a Eunos Crescent block.

Despite government efforts to raise awareness of this public-safety issue — including taking a hard line, such as the option of repossessing an offender’s flat — high-rise littering remains a persistent concern and is, in fact, a growing problem in some estates, said Members of Parliament (MPs).

This year alone, there had been several media reports on injuries sustained from killer litter, as well as near misses, before MahaniAbdullah’s death on Friday in the Eunos case.

In January, two men were arrested for throwing out a sofa that narrowly missed a passer-by and, in the following month, three youths were arrested for hurling plastic bottles that injured a four-year-old boy.

While recent letters to newspapers have called for penalties to again be enhanced to include mandatory caning, for instance, MPs said adding teeth to laws might have limited effect, given that identifying culprits, let alone catching them red-handed, is a challenge.

Even installing surveillance cameras in areas where there have been complaints — the most common course of action taken — has not proven to be a guaranteed solution.

“Some perpetrators are very elusive and play cat-and-mouse games with enforcers. (They) can even restrain themselves during the period when the CCTV cameras are installed,” said Penny Low, MP for Pasir Ris-Punggol. The use of surveillance cameras to curb high-rise littering started in August 2012. Despite being deployed at close to 700 locations since then, only 95 litterbugs have been caught on camera.

Even Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan conceded that high-rise litterbugs are difficult to nab — only 19 offenders from more than 1,300 complaints were prosecuted last year — when Parliament debated enhancing penalties for littering-related offences in February.

MPs TODAY spoke to suggested alternative measures that might work better.

Christopher de Souza, MP for Holland-Bukit Timah, for instance, said litter thrown from height could be left strewn at void decks for a while, so the visual impact of, say, smashed bottles would shock residents into thinking about the consequences of someone being hit.

De Souza said that, only last week, there was a case of killer litter in his constituency, where a condominium resident threw a large object through his window, sending it and broken glass smashing into a car.

“I think if we have to rely on penalties, half the battle is lost. I think what we should really be doing is expressing concern on the ground, in the community, about the ill effects of killer litter,” he added.

Agreeing, Low said: “You can have all this deterrence, but you deter people from doing something only when they’re being watched. It’s not part of their culture; not part of their habits.”

The most effective type of deterrence would be “to cultivate civic consciousness (and) education and build good habits from young”, she added.

For recalcitrant offenders, Lee Bee Wah, MP for Nee Soon, suggested public shaming as a form of deterrence. “We are living in a high-rise environment. I think everyone has a responsibility to make sure our living environment is safe,” she said.

Noting that offenders did not fit a fixed profile — some are mentally unsound, for instance — De Souza said: “While we want to see a strong deterrent effect against people who do this voluntarily and maliciously, I also hope there’s some degree of compassion in the law to appreciate somebody who is unable to control his or her actions.” — TODAY