Each time I visit Singapore, I am fascinated by the green grass and the beautiful trees, flowers, even shrubs. You may ask why, considering that there is so much more to see or do – like a visit to Clarke or Sentosa Island ! Well yes, but let explain. In the 1960s, when premier Lee Kuan Yew decided he wanted Singapore to become a garden city, he personally got interested in the subject of soil and vegetation, trees and drainage, climate and fertilizers.
He apparently became so involved in the subject that he even found out how in France, the broad tree lined boulevards were possible because a drainage system had been built below the pavements.
When he saw beautiful rolling meadows in New Zealand, he asked for the services of two experts from there 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 the equatorial region, it experienced torrential rainfall that would wash off the topsoil and with it the vital nutrients necessary for strong plant growth.
Under The Flyover
I know this is getting a little too detailed but do bear with me – In an equatorial forest, as Lee learnt, with big tall trees forming a canopy, the rain water drips down. But in Singapore, the trees had been chopped down, it would all come down in a big wash. So Lee decided that fertilizers would replenish the soil and began the task of making the compost from rubbish dumps, adding calcium and lime where the ground was too acidic.
Years later, when Singapore was already an acknowledged success, Lee asked his officials to find out which plants could survive below the flyovers where the sun did not shine much. And instead of having to water these plants regularly, which was expensive, he got his officials to find a way to channel water from the roads, after filtering it to get rid of the oil and grime from the traffic above.
When the flyovers became broader, shutting out the light completely, he ensured the roads were 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, sub tropical zones, looking for new types of trees, plants, creepers and so on. From Africa, the Caribbean, Latin, Middle and 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 will have a different city,” he said.
A Perfectionist At The Top
Now, having driven up and down Singapore, I can tell you that that the heat has not exactly gone away. My father used to tell me when he visited Singapore in the seventies that it was just like Madras (Chennai). Hot as hell and humid too. And yet, the greenery does have a calming and maybe cooling effect. Maybe it would be hotter if it were not for the greenery, considering Singapore is closer to the equator than Madras. In any case, Ive never heard anyone really complain about the heat in Singapore.
I am sure over the years, there have been other issues to consider, like pollution, clean drinking water and so on. Each of these civic issues is a case study in itself. So let me close this one with this quote from Lee. “A well kept garden is a daily effort and would demonstrate to outsiders the people’s ability to organize and to be systematic. The grass has got to be mown every other day, the trees have to be tended, the flowers in the garden have to be looked after so they know this place gives attention to detail.”
And that’s why I look at the trees, shrubs and manicured grass as I drive through Singapore. Because I know that they didn’t just happen to be like this. Rather because someone right at the top has been monitoring this effort closely, for over 30 years. A perfectionist who is worth studying, individually and collectively.
(Material On Lee Kuan Yew Largely Sourced From The Aspen Institute Readings)
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