Lee Kuan Yew built Singapore by making difficult decisions 


Singapore’s founding Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew knew that successful nation-building meant doing the right thing for the long term. This no matter the immediate price and never mind the short-term temptation of populism.  

“If you want to be popular, do not try to be popular all the time. Popular government does not mean that you do popular things all the time… Popular, representative government means that within each five-year period, your policies have demonstrably worked and won popular support. That is what it means. And if we flinch from the unpopular, we are in deep trouble,” he told new MPs entering Parliament during February 1977. 

Indeed, Mr Lee never flinched: Singapore’s future was ever on the line during the years he governed. His policies to build the nation often cost him votes and support, but they shaped the Singapore we live in today for the better.  

Water sustainability: From drought to security  

For example, Pioneer and Merdeka Generation Singaporeans will remember the water rationing exercises of the early 1960s. Then, the overall long-running scarcity of water and drought-induced 12-hour cycles of rationing were accepted facts of life. 

No wonder that Mr Lee recounted decades later that he knew “every other policy had to bend at the knees for water survival” during those nation-building years — and no wonder that he kept taking steps to shore up Singapore’s water security. 

Source: National Library Board, Issac Matthew / Unsplash 

These steps included challenging the Public Utilities Board to turn every drop of water in Singapore into potable water and cleaning up the Singapore River. 

None of these were popular all the way. In particular, the great river cleanup resettled over 40,000 squatters and 610 pig farmers; these meant votes against Mr Lee during the years following.  

Yet, these steps led to an enduring benefit. NeWater keeps our nation’s industries going. The Singapore River is now part of the Marina Reservoir, which supplies up to 10 per cent of Singapore’s needs.  

Above all, Singapore has a sustainable water supply. Other nations now find it very difficult to threaten us with the spectre of wilted greenery and dry taps. 

Area Licensing Scheme: Speed and space for the CBD 

 “Of course, the Area Licensing Scheme [ALS] was unpopular. Of course, car taxes were unpopular,” said Mr Lee to Parliament in that February 1977 speech. This was less than two years after the Scheme — the world’s first of its kind — was introduced to improve traffic flow in the Central Business District.  

Newspaper reports from the early days of the ALS bear out this hard truth. Taxi drivers appealed against the Scheme; it meant paying $3 daily in order to get into the Central Business District. The sector heavyweight Automobile Association publicly derided the ALS as “a blunt instrument hitting indiscriminately” at motorists.   

Source: National Archives of Singapore 

“But gentlemen, which would you have? A jammed-up Singapore with car owners exasperated, bus passengers exasperated, or 20,000 to 30,000 car owners having to lay up their cars and hundreds of thousands going through in buses or in shared cars?” said Mr Lee too in his Parliament speech. 

The ALS was effective. It sped up traffic flow in the CBD, increased bus rides, reduced air pollution and in an era when public funds were scarce helped save at least US$500 million for the era’s Government on the road and traffic improvements otherwise needed for a growing Singapore city.  

Jurong and Tuas: For pollution-free neighbourhoods 

On the subject of air pollution, Mr Lee was also adamant that an industrialised Singapore would not mean a polluted Singapore. 

“We are just one small island, if we were to spoil it, we’ve had it. Unless we protect ourselves by placing the right industries in the right places …we will despoil the city,” he outlined in Lee Kuan Yew: Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going

Here, Mr Lee made sure that multinational companies operating factories in Singapore were located at the western tip of Singapore at Jurong, and that they employed the highest standards of pollution control. Never mind that these standards could deter them from operating here: What was the point, afterall, of a workplace which made its workers sick and withered its surroundings? 

Source: National Archives of Singapore 

Today, this means Singapore’s neighbourhoods and New Towns have fresh air and at that there is minimal pollution from sectors like shipbuilding, timber, oil and gas tools and heavy manufacturing across the island — Jurong itself is clean and vibrant enough for lakes and the Chinese Gardens. This goes very well with the sustainable water taps and world-class public transport system which Singaporeans enjoy today. 

There will be more discussion of Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s policies at the PPF | Insights dialogue From Ideas to Action: Policies to Build a Nation this Saturday (Oct 7). The PPF | Insights series is an ongoing three-part initiative by the PAP Policy Forum (PPF) to engage Singaporeans in lively dialogues on the social and political issues affecting our lives.