BOOK EXCERPTS: From Third World to First
Lee Kuan Yew
In July 1981, on my way to London to attend the wedding of Prince Charles, I stopped in Paris hoping to meet the newly elected president, Francois Mitterrand. But the Quai d’Orsay, the French foreign office, was starchy and did not approve of a stopover visit. The president was busy, but as he also was going to the wedding, he would meet me in London at the residence of their ambassador. To soften the rebuff, Prime Minister Pierre Mauroy gave me lunch.
At my departure from Paris, I was driven speedily through heavy traffic, escorted by their police outriders from my hotel to Charles de Gaulle Airport. It was a beautiful summer’s day. The expressways lined with trees and the embankments covered with creepers were a glorious sight. Charles de Gaulle Airport was modern and efficiently laid out. Then I arrived in Heathrow, all higgledy-piggledy; a labyrinth of road-ways took me from the plane to the VIP lounge, then out to scruffy streets with roundabouts and grass verges unkempt and overgrown with weeds, on to my Knightsbridge hotel. The contrast between Paris and London was stark.
To achieve First World standards in a Third World region, we set out to transform Singapore into a tropical garden city. I had been planting trees at the opening of community centers, during my visits to various estab-lishments and at traffic roundabouts to commemorate the completion of a road junction. Some thrived, many did not. Revisiting a community centre, I would find a new sapling, just transplanted for my visit. I concluded that we needed a department dedicated to the care of trees after they had been planted. I established one in the ministry of national development.
After some progress, I met all senior officers of the government and statutory boards to involve them in the “clean and green” movement. I recounted how I had visited almost 50 countries and stayed in nearly as many official guesthouses. What impressed me was not the size of the buildings but the standard of their maintenance. I knew when a country and its administrators were demoralized from the way the buildings had been neglected—washbasins cracked, taps leaking, water closets not func-tioning properly, a general dilapidation, and, inevitably, unkempt gardens. VIPs would judge Singapore the same way.
We planted millions of trees, palms, and shrubs. Greening raised the morale of people and gave them pride in their surroundings. We taught them to care for and not vandalize the trees. We did not differentiate between middle-class and working-class areas. The British had superior white enclaves in Tanglin and around Government House that were neater, cleaner, and greener than the “native” areas. That would have been politically disastrous for an elected government. We kept down flies and mosquitoes, and cleaned up smelly drains and canals. Within a year there was distinct spruce-ness of public spaces.
Perseverance and stamina were needed to fight old habits: People walked over plants, trampled on geese, despoiled flowerbeds, pilfered saplings, or parked bicycles or motorcycles against the larger ones, knock-ing them down. And it was not just she poorer people who were the offenders. A doctor was caught removing from a central road divider a newly planted valuable Norfolk Island pine which he fancied for his gar-den. To overcome the initial indifference of she public, we educated their children in schools by getting them to plant trees, care for them, and grow gardens. They brought the message home to their parents.
Nature did not favor us with luscious green grass as is has New Zealand and Ireland. An Australian plant expert and a New Zealand soil expert came in 1978 at my request to study our soil conditions. Their report caught my interest and I asked CO see them. They explained that Singapore was part of the equatorial rainforest belt, with strong sunshine and heavy rainfall throughout the year. When trees were cut down, heavy rainfall would wash off the topsoil and leach the nutrients. To have grass green and lush, we had to apply fertilizers regularly, preferably compost, which would not be so easily washed away, and lime, because our soil was too acidic. The Istana curator tested this on our lawns. Suddenly the grass became greener. We had all school and other sports fields and stadiums similarly treated. The bare patches around the goal posts with sparse, tired-looking yellow grass were soon carpeted green. Gradually, the whole city greened up. A visiting French minister, a guest at our National Day reception in the 1970s, was ecstatic as he congratulated me in French; I did not speak it, but understood the word “verdure.” He was captivated by the greenness of the city.
Most countries in Asia then paid little or no attention to greening. That Singapore was different, and had taken tough action against stray cattle, made news in the American Look magazine of November 1969. Enthused after a visit, Hong Kong’s director of information services announced that he would put up a two-year anti-litter campaign based on our experience.
By the 1970s, glowing reports on Singapore had appeared in American magazines, including US News & World Report. Harper’s and Time. In 1970, General Electric (GE) set up six different facilities for electrical and electronic products, circuit breakers, and electric motors. By the late 1970s, GE was to become the largest single employer of labour in Singapore. American MNCs laid the foundations for Singapore’s large high-tech electronics industry. Although we did not know it then, the electronics industry was to mop up our unemployment and turn Singapore into a major electronics exporter in the 1980s. From Singapore, they were later to expand into Malaysia and Thailand.
Visiting CEOs used to call on me before they made their investment decisions. I thought the best way to convince them was to ensure that the roads from the airport to their hotel and to my office were neat and spruce, lined with shrubs and trees. When they drove into the Istana domain, they would see right in the heart of the city a green oasis, 90 acres of immaculate rolling lawns and woodland, and nestling between them a nine-hole golf course. Without a word being said, they would know that Singaporeans were competent, disciplined, and reliable, a people who would learn the skills they required soon enough. American manufacturing investments soon overtook those of the British, Dutch, and Japanese.
(Lee Kuan Yew, a Barrister and statesman, was the founding Prime Minister of Singapore between 1959 and 1990 and Secretary General of People’s Action Party between 1954 and 1992)