# JOST A MON

Aug 5, 2008

## Fëanor's Law of Communal Cleanliness

Recently, CK had a post recently about cleanliness in Singapore. (One can't see the post anymore because his blog appears to be restricted by invitation-only. Dude, are you going to unlock it? We miss your insights!) He attributes it to a well-developed civic sense, indefatigable street-cleaners, and a punitive regime that discourages littering. In the comment trail, several folks point out that the fines appear to be insufficient because Singapore has been getting dirtier over time. Others blame immigrants. A couple of people mention the inculcation of basic civic courtesies at school, and profess to being horrified at the littering that happens elsewhere. Can't people clean up after their dog doodoos on the footpaths in various European cities? Get a goddamn poop-scoop, for Christ's sake, and use it!

My in-laws lived in England about thirty-odd years ago, and they remember it as a clean and racist place. Now it's less racist and dirtier. About twenty-five years ago, when we passed through Singapore, we found it incredibly neat. We did face quite a bit of disdain from the locals. Shopkeepers laughed at us. I found this rather peculiar, especially because there were Singaporeans of Indian origin who had been there for generations. Perhaps our accents and clothing set us apart. Indians at the time were the country cousins, I guess, thought to be poor and uncouth.

When I went back ten years ago, the situation was much improved. People were a lot politer. Or perhaps my skin was a bit thicker. And I saw that there had been a decided increase in litter between my visits. Meanwhile, my Malaysians friends assured me that Singaporeans were no different from anyone else - as soon as they crossed over the border to Malaysia, they would start littering with as much enthusiasm as their neighbours.

I suspect that there's a relationship between cleanliness (C) and racism (R). Something like:
$C&space;=&space;\frac{\alpha&space;}{R}$
A sociological theory in there, perhaps? A people maintain 'qualities' that they consider important, and resent outsiders that dilute them. This is basic xenophobia, and is possibly intrinsic to human behaviour. But as the outsiders settle among the indigenous, a gruff acceptance leads to decreased xenophobia and increased tolerance of various foibles. Such as littering.

What we need is a reverse experiment: a massive emigration from a clean country like Singapore into a racist litter-zone such as, I don't know, Luton. If Luton then finds itself less dirty and more cosmopolitan, I hope you'll all remember that you saw it here first: Fëanor's Law of Communal Cleanliness.

Or course, now I'm just daydreaming.

Paul said...

I don't understand the connection with racism. Maybe ethnocentrism? But nevertheless, this is an interesting subject in light of the fact that about 5 years ago a very large Mexican family moved next door. I live in a rural community on a 1 block long dirt road( my wife and I as well as the neighbors are all visibly white) and there was almost never any litter until the "neighbors from hell" moved in. Almost immediately, empty beer cans, food wrappers and other assorted garbage began showing up at all points along the street. The new neighbors seemed to take a lot of pride in their new place but displayed complete disregard for their neighbors. Along with the garbage, they also parked in the middle of the road, blocking traffic from either direction, drove at high speeds ( hard to do on 1 block), blasted very loud music and let their dogs run loose, free to crap where they pleased. We as a neighborhood welcomed them when they moved in, but now a VERY glad they have left ( victims of the mortgage situation here in the states).
I know that most people including myself are at least to some degree
racist, but I don't think that played as strong of a role as did "ethnocentrism" because they really didn't seem capable of grasping the idea that litter or parking in the road were that big of a deal, maybe because it wasn't in the area where they came from.

Shefaly said...

Feanor: I have thought about this post a bit and I think, it is more like C is inversely proportional to I (integration of the newcomer) into the norms of the community. Pretty much in line with what Paul is saying. An example would be dominantly Asian (not 100% Asian, but dominantly so) communities in London e.g. Wembley and OMG Southall, a visit where makes you think you are in some corner of old Delhi or Gujarat.

Since being in Europe, I have, for better or worse, lived in white-dominant communities. But since it was not my habit to clean my house and throw the rubbish on the street even in India, it was not onerous for me to continue doing this. My neighbourhood cleanliness has not gone up or down because of my presence (in comparison with how it was, when I moved there).

Fëanor said...

Please don't take the mathematical relationship too seriously! It was meant very tongue-in-cheek. But I must add that the effects of one family or one person on a community are statistically insignificant. To come up with anything reasonably sensible in a sociological application would require larger samples, as I am sure you'll agree.

Paul: In your example, I'd agree there may not have been any racism involved. I was merely riffing off the observation that 30 years ago England was cleaner and more racist. Over time, it's become more inclusive, and far dirtier.

Shefaly: Sure, (I)ntegration may be another factor (perhaps subsumed into the 'a' factor in my equation, heheh). But it doesn't square with the observation that London is cleaner now than it was in the 50s, but possibly not as clean as it was in the 70s. Of course, I only know this anecdotally - I haven't checked any official census of hygiene, etc. My underlying assumption is that a large immigrant population with somewhat less developed civic sense has integrated more or less ('integrated' in the sense that the larger indigenous population doesn't discriminate against them - much) into the overall London population, and cleanliness levels have fallen.

C K said...

Hey, I'm back! Thanks for the linkback.

The rest of the commentators sounded rather serious. So I shall attempt to lighten the mood here a bit.

Anyway, I'm very sorry to hear about about your experience in Singapore. Those ignorant buggers didn't realise that you're the Great Fëanor! Just point them to your blog and I'm sure they'll be awed.

Anyway, I think it's really the upbringing as kids tend to do what their parents do. If the parents just chuck their cigarette butt along the road, not only the kid will grow up smoking like a chimney, he/she will be chucking theirs all over as well.

Oh, will be dropping by regularly. Bro, your posts are really humourously insightful.

Cheers!

Szerelem said...

Singaporean are very racist still. I doubt it's as bad as when you were passing through 25 years ago, and also the economy is now very dependent on Indians but it's still pretty shocking for a place that keeps touting it's multiculturalism. I think the worst was when I was house hunting - you'd have these ads that blatantly say "no Indians/ Malays wanted" and have people hanging up on you if you said you were Indian OR best being asked "Are you fair or dark Indian?"

Fëanor said...

CK: Welcome back! The Great Feanor is somewhat less great this weekend, but shall aim to get back to greatness over the next few days :-)

Szerelem: sorry to hear about your househunting woes. So where did you find the enlightened landlord who would take you in?

Ros said...

I think the formula is good.... apart from the lack of a term independant of racism. Surely there is a basic level of crap on the streets from the people (like Goon) who don't know the difference between the floor and the bin? ;)

Seriously though, I suspect the increase in the poor quality of the streets is due to people's increasing belief that it is the State's responsibility to clean up after them and others- not so much a lack of racism, but a tolerance of all behaviour and particularly the belief that an individual is not resposible for their own actions.

But then, I do blame the welfare state and lack of personal responsibility for pretty much everything wrong in this country. ;)