The Singapore Water Story: Sustainable Development in an Urban City-State

When Singapore, smaller than New York City, broke away from Malaysia in 1965, its single biggest strategic vulnerability was water. On the day of Singapore’s independence, Malaysia’s prime minister told the British high commissioner that his country could keep Singapore under its thumb by threatening to turn off the taps. This was not just a theoretical possibility, for Singapore had suffered during World War II when the pipeline bringing water from neighboring Johor had been blown up.

This strategic weakness was very much on the mind of Lee Kuan Yew and his proto-city-state had already taken steps to secure this most vital of natural resources. Two long-term water agreements, signed in 1961 and 1962, had already guaranteed that water would be sent from Johor to Singapore for a period of, respectively, 50 and 99 years. The new country attached its water treaties to its declaration of independence submitted to the United Nations: the only national charter with a water treaty stapled to the back.

Lee Kuan Yew knew that these treaties would be worthless if Singapore was not prepared to protect its assets. Lee founded the Singaporean military explicitly to protect access to water : a point he made to Malaysia’s future leader, Mahathir Mohamad, and an account he recounted in his memoirs.

He [Mahathir] was direct and asked what we were building the SAF [Singapore Armed Forces] for. I replied equally directly that we feared that at some time or other there could be a random act of madness like cutting off our water supplies, which they [the Malaysians] had publicly threatened whenever there were differences between us … In [the Separation] agreement, the Malaysian government had guaranteed our water supply. If this was breached, we would go to the UN Security Council. If water shortage became urgent, in an emergency, we would have to go in, forcibly if need be, to repair damaged pipes and machinery and restore the water flow. I was putting my cards on the table. He denied that any such precipitate action would happen. I said I believed that he would not do this, but we had to be prepared for all contingencies.

In exploring exactly how Singapore prepared for contingencies and achieved water security, The Singapore Water Story is a detailed and often fascinating look at one of the most remarkable yet least remarked-upon political and environmental successes of modern Asia. It is an extraordinary story of how the country simultaneously made everyday life more pleasant for its people and enhanced national security through a focus on securing and diversifying its water sources. To reduce dependence on Malaysia, Singapore pursued the Four Taps strategy. It now gets water from desalination, recycling, and a vastly expanded national reservoir system, in addition to Malaysia.

At the center of the strategy was the country’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew. The authors, based on their interviews with Lee, tell us that he

became the only Prime Minister anywhere in the world in recent history taking special and continuing interest in water through the entire 31 years he was in office… No ministry could make any decision that could in any way jeopardize the country’s request for water security: they were simply vetoed by the Prime Minister.

Nothing was too small for Lee and his government. Singapore is sometimes derided as a nanny state and the clean-up efforts like the anti-littering and anti-spitting campaigns have been ridiculed. Here we have the numbers and the analysis that makes these campaigns understandable. To take an example, during the height of enforcement, between early 1979 and March 1982 “a total [of] 11,409 inspections were carried out in sewered areas and [a] further 4,139 in unsewered areas.” Domestic sewered premises were subject to 155,292 inspections, resulting in 1179 warning letters or notices and 80 prosecutions. Hawkers were subject to 61,509 inspections (107 were prosecuted); 86,569 premises in markets and food centers and 94,051 bin centers were also inspected. During this period 7,615 people were prosecuted for littering.

Later, in 1995, a national water-saving campaign was launched. This campaign included cutting water to 30,000 households for 14 hours for 6 days to banish any sense of complacency when it comes to water.

Singapore’s government had to accomplish this at a time of rapid population and economic growth. The city-state’s population increased five-fold (to five million) between 1950 and 2010 while water consumption went up more than twelve-fold, reflecting an economy that saw GDP per capita grow forty times.

As Kishore Mahbubani writes in the foreword, his family was one of many in 1950s Singapore that did not have a flush toilet in its house. Now every family does, dramatically improving individual well-being for Singaporeans. At the same time, rivers were cleaned up and water-related recreational and leisure activities promoted.

Perhaps reflecting a high degree of official cooperation, including interviews over two days with Lee Kuan Yew, the book is circumspect on much of the political drama involved with Singapore’s water story, notably the tensions with Malaysia as well as resistance to the thorough-going clean-up campaigns. But this book should be read by policy makers and environmental campaigners alike for its insights into Singapore’s remarkable water policy.

Singapore’s experience is in some ways unique, a reflection of the extraordinary way in which this small city-state has turned its lack of natural resources into a source of technical and government-led ingenuity. But Singapore’s experience also holds lessons for larger countries as well, for the resources constraints that Singapore has faced for decades will increasingly affect even giants like India and China.

Mark Clifford
Executive Director, Asia Business Council
Published in The Asian Review of Books, July 2013