Making of a garden city


Whether personal or societal, transformations generally require will and vision. In the case of personal transformation, unless one is a schizophrenic, a combination of intelligence, basic human values, determination, foresight and will is sufficient. For social transformation, something more is needed. Clearly leadership matters.

Here’s something to think about. Below the fold is an extended excerpt from the book, “Lee Kuan Yew: The Man and His Ideas” by Kwang, Tan and Fernandez. Indian leaders ought to take note. Or at the very least, they should read what Lee Kuan Yew has accomplished.

When Lee Kuan Yew wanted Singapore to become a garden city, to soften the harshness of life in one of the world’s most densely populated countries, he did not write a memorandum to the environment minister or to the head of the agency responsible for parks and trees.

He did not form a committee nor seek outside help to hire the best landscapists money could buy. For one thing, in the 1960s, when he was thinking of these matters, money was in short supply. In fact, having been unceremoniously booted out of Malaysia, the country’s economic survival was hanging in the balance. For another, there was no environment minister to speak of then, so low down in the list of priorities were these matters. When jobs had to be created and communists fought in the streets, only the birds were interested in flowers and trees.

But Lee was interested. And he became personally involved in the project of transforming Singapore from just concrete and steel to concrete, steel, trees, shrubs, flowers and parks. He would become personally knowledgeable about soil and vegetation, trees and drainage, climate and fertilisers. And he surveyed the world for ideas, taking advantage of his travels abroad to look out for them. In France, for example, he discovered that the broad tree-lined boulevards were possible because a drainage system had been built below the pavements. Around each tree was a metal grating through which surface water flowed into the underground system.

The problem of the grass in Singapore, which everyone could see in the bald, yellow football fields, needed a nationwide solution. When he saw beautiful rolling meadows in New Zealand he was moved to ask for the services of two experts from the country under the Colombo Plan technical assistance scheme. Lee was told that Singapore did not have a grassland climate in which rain fell gently from the skies. Instead, being part of an equatorial region, it experienced torrential rainfall that would wash off the topsoil and with it the vital nutrients necessary for strong plant growth. In an equatorial forest, with tall big trees forming a canopy, the rain water drips down. But in Singapore, where the trees had been chopped down, it would all come down in a big wash.

But Lee was not one to let climate get in the way. Fertilisers would replenish the soil, and so began the task of making compost from rubbish dumps, adding calcium, and lime where the ground was too acidic.

Years later, when economic survival was no longer an issue and Singapore’s success was acknowledged worldwide, he was still working at it to make the garden city possible. When expressways and flyovers sprouted all over the island, he had officials look for plants which could survive below the flyovers where the sun seldom shone. And instead of having to water these plants regularly, which was costly, he got them to devise a way to channel water from the roads, after filtering it to get rid of the oil and grime from the traffic above.

The constant search for solutions would not end. When development intensifed even further and the roads and flyovers became broader still, shutting out the light completely from the plants below, he did not give up. The road was split into two so there would be a gap in the middle with enough space for sunshine and rain to seep through and greenery and vegetation to thrive below. “I sent them on missions all along the Equator and the tropical, subtropical zones, looking for new types of trees, plants, creepers and so on. From Africa, the Caribbean, Latin, Middle, Central America, we’ve come back with new plants. It’s a very small sum. But if you get the place greened up, if you get all those creepers up, you take away the heat, you’ll have a different city,” he said.

Making Singapore a different city! That has been Lee’s constant obsession. Even when the difference had to do with trees and flowers, subjects which one would not normally associate with the man who has been at Singapore’s helm for 38 years, 31 of which he served as prime minister, his approach to the problem has been typically hardheaded and pragmatic. For him, the object of the exercise was not all about smelling roses. In the end it was about keeping Singapore ahead of the competition. A well kept garden, he would say, is a daily effort, and would demonstrate to outsiders the people’s ability to organise and to be systematic. “The grass has got to be mown every other day, the trees have to be tended, the flowers in the gardens have to be looked after so they know this place gives attention to detail.” [Source.]

8 thoughts on “Making of a garden city

  1. As always, reading about MM Lee is a treat.

    On the other hand, reading about our city leaders is tedious and tiresome at best, sickening at worse.

    A few days ago, Mumbai’s municipal commissioner testified in the HC that a baby stolen from a (municipal) hospital is no different from a mobile phone getting nicked. Neither are the municipality’s fault and hence the parents do not deserve any compensation.

    Not very different from Chidambaram proclaiming, with his false gravitas, that securing india from terrorists is difficult.

    Wonder what LKY would say about such retards. But this is the system we have chosen to create.

    So, this is what we will get.tathaastu!


  2. The man’s greatness lies in the earnestness with which he did his job. His assuming of responsibility, rather than being assigned it. And, of course, believing that solutions exist, if one is willing to look for them. A clear case of: if you want to change something, start it/with yourself.

    Lovely extract.


  3. I really don’t know about this deserve business. First, it suggests that now that you’ve made a mistake in choosing, you better live with what you get. Second, that we are base, and it’s fitting that we get such politicians. I object especially to the word ‘rulers’. Nobody is ruling anybody here, they are all elected representatives. Jeez! what do we teach in schools?


  4. > Jeez! what do we teach in schools?

    Good point — we teach the following in school:

    Hindus were evil, feudal, divisive and casteist.
    Aurangzeb was a breath of fresh air.

    Mauryas cetralises power because they were despots.
    Mughals did so to ensure better admininstration.

    By the way — what is Jeez? 🙂


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