Between 1858 and 1947 Singapore was one of several colonies on the Indian subcontinent that came under the stranglehold of British rule. During 1963, the city became part of Malaysia and shortly afterwards the British regime ceased control and on August 9th, 1965 Singapore became its own independent nation for the first time.
This was a substantial turning point in the country’s history because it had been plagued by an unsustainable economic model, extreme pollution and numerous social and political challenges. By 1965 the Singapore River had become literally an open sewer and it was clear that something drastic had to change. Beginning in 1822, numerous efforts to clean up the river had taken place, but none had successfully completed this task to the level that was needed.
Thankfully, the newly formed government led by Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew had a vision of a nation that would become democratic, independent, a model for global sustainability and an economic powerhouse. At the forefront of this massive undertaking was the creation of the country’s Parks and Recreation Department (PRD) in 1963. This department would later become the National Parks Board that still exists today.
During March of 1969, Prime Minister Yew set into action a complex plan that would clean the city’s river to the highest of environmental standards. It took a painstaking 10 years to clean the river and in total close to 30 years to re-structure the city. Mr. Yew believed so much in the ability of plants and greenspaces to transform mental well-being that he chose to design the city in a way that ensured its citizens lived sustainably and spent a lot of time outdoors within the community.
Yew’s viewpoints have been mirrored by scientists for many decades. Numerous studies have found that people live shorter lives without engaging in regular contact with the natural world. A Dutch study of nearly 251 thousand residents notes that, “The percentage of green space in people’s living environment has a positive association with the perceived general health of residents.”
Between 1965 and 1979 economic development in Singapore began to flourish as a result of industrialization, large corporate investment and the creation of a tax holiday system to entice foreign investors. The city’s location on one of the largest ports in Asia gave it a strategic advantage over many of its regional counterparts for exporting refined goods and importing raw material. The port’s location also benefited Singapore’s manufacturing sector.
The services industry continued to expand and soon attracted the attention of large oil companies such as Shell and Esso. This paved the way for Singapore to become the 3rd largest oil refining nation in the world by the 1970’s. After decades of abuse, the government made it more of a priority to do business in a more sustainable way and chose to clean up the pollution because the city had been damaged so severely.
Masagos Zulkifli, Singapore’s Minister for the Environment and Water Resources explains that a shift in mindset within the country was needed to restructure the country’s value system. “Our approach has been to build a liveable and sustainable city, through pragmatic policy making based on sound economic principles and science; a focus on long-term planning and effective implementation; and the ability to mobilize popular support for the common good.”
Singapore also completely overhauled its education system with the vision of having one of the strongest education systems in the world. It was imperative that the younger generation were highly educated; specifically, in technological fields such as engineering and design to help drive the economy and mitigate past economic failures. It was also perhaps even more pivotal that the nation’s citizens were educated extensively regarding the importance of living sustainably.
By the 1980’s and 1990’s economic development continued to accelerate, and more green initiatives began to take shape. This transformation is signified by Lim Liang Jim, the Group Director for the National Biodiversity Centre at the National Parks Board. “From 1965 we merely wanted to rise above the region we found ourselves in. Lee Kuan Yew had a plan. Keep us clean. Keep us green. We are going back to history, to ensure that we build from the ground up and ensure that the youth of Singapore don’t take our 50 years of history for granted.”
According to 2015 World Bank data, Singapore is covered by 23.1% forested land. This equates to more than the tropical African country of Madagascar (21.4%) and nearly as much forest cover as nations such as Nicaragua (25.9%) and Chile (23.9%) respectively. As well, according to Treepedia, Singapore is comprised of 29.3 % forested land, 2nd in the world only to Tampa, Florida.
This culmination of 50 years of transformation came to fruition with the opening of the, ‘Gardens by the Bay’ development on June 29th, 2012. The unveiling of Supertree Grove, the Flower Dome, Cloud Forest, and Dragonfly Lake has helped make Singapore one of the world’s most treasured destinations.
‘Gardens by the Bay,’ has been visited by more than 50 million people, while the garden itself contains 1.5 million plants and is an astounding 250 acres in size. The project is one of the most famous natural developments within an urban area on the planet. It has won numerous awards including the 2012 World Architecture Festival Building of the Year for its creation of the Flower Dome and Cloud Forest.
This historic moment proved to be an amazing symbolic representation of Singapore overcoming so much adversity from its past. The transformation in just 50 years gives amazing inspiration to other nations and regions in the world, it shows that with enough dedication, planning and hard work that nearly anything is possible. The journey the nation took was not easy, nevertheless, it reflects the inner-strength and discipline of the Singaporean people.
It is imperative that other countries in our world follow Singapore’s lead and continue to demand change from their leaders so that sustainable cities around the globe become the norm. We must as a global society maintain our connection with nature by doing whatever it takes to preserve the planet’s biodiversity and natural ecosystems. Our planet must be treated with the utmost respect or the natural world as we know it will cease to exist.
Featured Image Credit: Creative Commons Open Licence via Pxhere
Featured Photo Credit: Esaias Tan via Unsplash