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His Garden City

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Author: Jocelyne Sze

It’s been a fortnight since Lee Kuan Yew, the first prime minister of Singapore, passed away, and a week since his funeral. Since the news broke, news sites, bloggers, and social media users have posted obituaries, tributes, eulogies (or rants) about the legacy of Lee Kuan Yew and the impact he had on Singapore (I also blogged briefly on my personal blog), and I’ve spent whatever time I’ve had (when I wasn’t travelling) reading those I thought were most thoughtful and constructive. I thought about blogging about his impact on the Singapore environment, and his vision of Singapore as a Garden City, but was travelling to Sweden and didn’t really have time to collect my thoughts properly. And I saw that Sean had posted on a similar theme, that is way more thought out, meaningful and coherent than mine (read it after I finished drafting mine). So a quick post then.

I’m not gonna go into a political commentary about what he did in his time and if it was right/wrong, just gonna focus on what he and the old guard had done for our environment. I find it incredibly amazing how they managed to transform Singapore from a fairly shoddy city with dusty roads, rather gross rivers and generally poor urban environmental conditions to the Singapore I was born into (in 1992). I have always been interested in photos and videos of old Singapore, in the times before I was born, cos I can barely believe they’re still the same places (to be fair, it is now most likely drastically different, but the contrast wasn’t that much when I was a kid still).

Singapore in 1966. Wouldn’t look out of place in present day Bangkok. Image taken from: http://www.angelfire.com/tx5/sevensigs/singapore.htm

One of the most amazing challenge Lee Kuan Yew when he was Prime Minister (1959 – 1990) issued was the cleaning up of the Singapore River (one of many campaigns of the 70s). The following video is partly in Mandarin Chinese (sorry if you don’t understand it :/).

I’m thankful we have water bodies that look and smell nice, and are increasingly host to our biodiversity too (seen otters recently?) .

On a side note to the cleaning up of our waterways, the reminders/campaigns to save water have been so firmly ingrained in me that I can barely tolerate the UK culture of water usage (leaving the tap running the whole time, no matter what they’re doing). I once mentioned to a friend that we’ve always been taught to save water, cos water is a precious resource, and she kinda just shrugged and said they’ve got plenty of water in the UK.

It’s also very well known that Lee Kuan Yew was the one who started the tree planting campaigns to create a Garden City in Singapore, having planted his first tree, a Mempat tree in 1963 in Farrer Circus. Over time, the streetscape has become something that is quite uniquely Singaporean, with our tropical trees (I won’t pretend I know their names, apart from the rain tree and the tembusu) lining our roads and providing much needed shade. And we have now progressed from being a Garden City to becoming a City in a Garden, with vegetation not just growing from the ground up but hopefully on rooftops too. I’m thankful we have greenery to appreciate even amidst our steel-and-concrete high rises.

Singapore Botanic Gardens

Singapore Botanic Gardens

Of course, being pragmatic also meant that while we had increasing green cover from trees being planted on roadsides, we were losing precious forest habitats, such as the fragmenting of Bukit Timah Nature Reserve and Central Catchment Nature Reserve in 1986 by the construction of the Bukit Timah Expressway. More recently, there were the public fights to keep Bukit Brown, Bidadari and Pasir Ris forest patches (but of course Pragmatism won).

I’ve learnt a lot more about what Lee Kuan Yew had done over his lifetime the past two weeks than the past two decades of my life, and I sincerely admire his vision, his courage and his steadfastness (even if I disagree with some of his policies and the way he dealt with some people). I wouldn’t credit all of Singapore’s progress to him, for he also had an extremely capable cabinet of ministers, but I am grateful for his vision of a clean and green garden city, and for all he’s done for the country (and most of all the education I was able to receive). To steal a line from his daughter, Dr Lee Wei Ling’s article published today (5 Apr 2015), “I don’t think Singaporeans suddenly woke up on March 23 and decided they loved and were grateful to Lee Kuan Yew. His death was the occasion, not the cause, for the expression of feelings that were always there.”

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