In 1960 Singapore was – in the words of its first Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew – a third world country. ‘Normal’ for many Singaporeans looked something like this:
In 1965, when it separated from Malaysia, Singapore had a long way to go. It had no natural resources, faced several threats to its existence, and many people didn’t think it would make it as an independent state.
The story of Singapore’s transformation is long, involved, and has its share of controversy. One key piece of the puzzle was the success of Singaporean leaders to change the culture.
From Garden City to City in a Garden
Here’s one example I hugely admire: the (re-)greening of Singapore. Lee Kuan Yew took part in tree-planting campaigns as early as 1963:
… but things really kicked off in 1971 when Singapore held its first Tree Planting Day. More than thirty-thousand trees were planted that day, and they kept it up for the next twenty years, planting more than ten-thousand trees every year.
Tree Planting Day was absorbed into a broader ‘Clean and Green’ day in the 1990s, but it’s still going. Today, Singaporeans are proud of their city’s greenery, and it would be unthinkable for any development or civic space in Singapore not to include plenty of trees, recreational space and features to reduce its environmental impact.*
Clean and Green is the new normal for Singapore, but it wasn’t inevitable – it took early steps (those first tree-plants), a big push (Tree Planting Day 1971) and more than twenty years of consistent work – with hundreds of thousands of trees planted – for it to become part of Singaporean culture (‘people like us, do things like this’).
The same goes for the Singapore’s strong culture of education, decent public housing, and quality infrastructure: people made it.
*I know, these things are relative