How S’pore’s water conservation message got diluted by recent successes

Siau Ming En

TODAY | March 11, 2017

When Singapore decided to shift its immigration and Customs checkpoint away from the old Tanjong Pagar railway station in 1998, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad told a rally in Johor Baru that their country’s “good nature” should not be taken for granted by others.

“Cut, cut, cut,” chanted the crowd, urging their government to cut off Johor’s water supply to Singapore.

The relocation of the checkpoint was one of several sticky points that were part of quid pro quo negotiations during the Asian Financial Crisis, when Singapore sought future water supplies in return for financial aid to Malaysia. This was not the first time Singapore’s northern neighbour had threatened to stop supplying water.

That very same year, a team from the national water agency PUB was sent to the United States to study their water-reclamation projects, hoping to revive an earlier failed experiment with water membrane technology. Within a decade, Singapore launched NEWater in 2002 and built its first desalination plant in Tuas in 2005.

The development of the “four national taps” strategy in the early 2000s, consisting of local water 
catchments, water from Johor Baru, NEWater and desalinated water, marked a big turning point: Singapore had turned its vulnerability into strength and became recognised internationally for its water resource management capabilities. The Republic can, if necessary, become completely self-sufficient after 2061, when the 1962 Water Agreement with Malaysia would expire — a position previously espoused by government leaders over the years.

However, it was during the same time that the message of water as “a strategic issue and a matter of national security” — as several Cabinet ministers took pains to stress during the recent Budget and Committee of Supply debates — gradually became lost on Singaporeans, experts told 

While the recently announced 30 per cent hike in water fee was a necessary “shock treatment”, the authorities would not have to resort to it if the messaging had been consistent and water priced correctly all these years, they argued.

“We should have emphasised that while we gained greater water security as a result of NEWater and desalination, that security comes with a price – higher water prices,” observed Associate Professor Donald Low, a behavioural economist from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP). He pointed out that Singaporeans’ attitudes shifted after the NEWater breakthrough. Prior to that, it was constantly drummed into people’s heads that Singapore is very dependent on the water supplied by Malaysia.

“So when we make a big show and tell of … how we can export our water capabilities, (people think) it must be the case that we have solved our water vulnerability, that we have turned this vulnerability into a source of economic advantage,” he added.

World-renowned water expert Asit Biswas, a Distinguished Visiting Professor at LKYSPP, went so far as to say that Singapore has “become very complacent about water”.

He noted that since Singapore’s founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew retired from politics in 2011, “water has not received the same priority in the political process”.

Prof Biswas said “it’s one thing to say it’s a national security issue”, but another thing “to follow it up in the public messaging on why it is a national security issue”. He recalled how the late Mr Lee had famously declared at a water event in 2008 that “every other policy has to bend at the knees for our water survival”.

Prof Biswas said: “I don’t think after his departure, we have had the same sense of urgency … People are taking water for granted. Everyone is saying we are one of the best in the world (at water management).”

The water tariff hike — first announced during the Budget last month — was the first in 17 years. It sparked a huge public discourse, prompting Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Chan Chun Sing to acknowledge: “The fact that we have such an intense discussion reflects that we have left this issue off our national psyche for too long.”


For so long, water has been an issue intertwined with Singapore’s history, even before independence.

When the Japanese forces captured Bukit Timah Hill in 1942 during World War II, they promptly cut off Singapore’s water supply — a strategic move that contributed to the surrender of the British. Some 20 years later, Singapore faced one of its worst droughts ever, and a water-rationing exercise was conducted for 10 months.

On the very day that Singapore achieved independence, on Aug 9, 1965, Malaysia’s first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman told the British High Commissioner in Malaya: “If Singapore’s foreign policy is prejudicial to Malaysia’s interests, we could always bring pressure to bear on them by threatening to turn off the water in Johor.”

Since then, water was the leverage Malaysia had over Singapore, and the Republic had been reminded of it whenever bilateral relations hit a rough patch.

There are two water agreements between Singapore and Malaysia. The first was inked in 1961 and expired in 2011. The second, signed in 1962, will lapse in 2061. The agreements were guaranteed by the 1965 Separation Agreement, which was registered at the United Nations. This means that any breaches in the water agreements would undermine Singapore’s 

In the two decades or so after Independence, Singapore focused its attention on water resource and conservation efforts, which sought to drive home the message about the country’s vulnerability. PUB held its inaugural water conservation campaign in 1971, and a year later, it published the Water Master Plan — Singapore’s first long-term blueprint for water resource development. The authorities also started exploring the feasibility of various water sources: In 1974, for example, Singapore built its first experimental water reclamation plant. But the pilot did not work out because the technology then was too expensive and 

In the meantime, Singapore faced threats from Malaysia about cutting off the supply of water from Johor, including in 1986 when then-Israeli president Chaim Herzog made a state visit to Singapore, which was met with protests in Malaysia.

During the Asian Financial Crisis, the two countries held talks over the cost of buying water from Malaysia, and these discussions were tied to a financial recovery package. However, negotiations stalled. In 2002, the talks collapsed, prompting the threats again.

At the turn of the millennium, Singapore began making headway in developing its water resource capabilities. After PUB’s study trip to the United States, Singapore conducted various tests at a water reclamation plant in Bedok. In 2000, it successfully reclaimed water. Two years later, NEWater was officially launched, and soon after, Singapore was exporting its water purification technologies around the world.

A deep tunnel sewerage system was also built to channel used water to a centralised water reclamation plant, and Singapore became fully sewered. “Technically, we can recycle every drop indefinitely. Unless you drink water in Singapore and then catch a flight out, we can take it back, clean it and use it for industry. So with the breakthrough, I tell you, great relief,” then-Environment and Water Resources Minister Yaacob Ibrahim said.


Singapore’s water story is a classic case of it being a victim of success. “We have assumed that everything is hunky-dory, we don’t have a problem, we have solved our water problem for the next 50 to 100 years,” said Prof Biswas.

Looking back, everyone could have been wiser in making sure Singaporeans did not lose sight of its vulnerabilty, he added. Nevertheless, there was a lack of public messaging, he said.

When water levels at Linggiu Reservoir in Johor fell to historic lows in 2015 and last year, government leaders — including then-Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan — took the opportunity to remind Singaporeans of the scarcity of water. Nevertheless, Prof Biswas felt the Government could have gone further, to underscore Singapore’s vulnerability, he said.

Dr Cecilia Tortajada, a senior research fellow at the LKYSPP Institute of Water Policy, added: “But what was missing was the connection. That 50 per cent of our water still comes from outside, PUB has been highly efficient — everything they have been able to do, they have done it — and so it’s now time for the population to (play an) active part — that is to use less (water).”

The Government could have also taken the opportunity to educate Singaporeans about the cost of producing water when it last raised water prices in 2000, Prof Biswas said.

“Singaporeans are not paying for all the costs of water and the Government is not telling them,” he said.

Both Prof Biswas and Assoc Prof Low cited how the Government’s approach to water contrasted with what it does when it comes to other limited resources such as electricity and roads. Unlike water, Singaporeans have grown to accept the price fluctuations for electricity, Assoc Prof Low pointed out.

“People have gotten used to … the idea that the price of electricity is going to be determined by supply and demand factors,” he said. “With water, for a variety of reasons, that message either hasn’t sunk in or people don’t even realise that Singapore is a price taker.”

Apart from the fact that the electricity market has been privatised, Assoc Prof Low attributed the situation primarily to how the authorities may have unintentionally “created a false sense of security around water”.

There is also a gap between what Singaporeans know about the scarcity of water and actually putting that knowledge into action to conserve water, he noted.

Agreeing, Dr Tortajada noted that there is an abundance of public information about the scarcity of water. Yet, Singaporeans had difficulty linking it to the latest hike in water prices. “(The increase) should not have been a surprise to Singaporeans,” she said.

She noted that during dry spells in recent years, PUB came out to reassure Singaporeans that the water supply will not be affected. “Their statements were, ‘the drought is very serious, but don’t worry, we’re in charge’,” she said, adding that the agency could have been bolder in getting Singaporeans to play their part. “(But) the message should have been, ‘the drought is very serious, we’re in charge and you have to use less’. The communication should have made people aware that they are also responsible.”

Still, some experts noted that the Government faced a dilemma which is common in public communications. “On one hand, you need to shake the audience from their apathy in order to get them to do something, on the other hand, you also do not want to cause panic,” said Dr Tracy Loh, a senior lecturer at the National University of Singapore (NUS) Department of Communications and New Media. In the case of water, the Government has to assure Singaporeans that there is an adequate supply of water, and at the same time, get them to conserve water.

And as far as national campaigns are concerned, PUB’s save water campaigns in recent years and its Water Wally mascot – which made its debut in 2005 – never quite caught on domestically, the experts pointed out.

Dr Loh said: “The mascot and campaign never achieved the publicity and reach of (earlier) campaigns such as the courtesy campaign or the productivity campaign.”

A Water Wally television commercial – featuring a controversial scene where the mascot peeped at a child showering – and the “Shower Dance” drew a negative reception, Dr Loh noted. “All these issues makes it hard for the public to take the message seriously,” she said.

The experts reiterated that the breakthrough in NEWater technology was a key reason behind the shift in public attitudes. Since the early 2000s, the implicit message has been that Singapore has solved its water security, they said.

Since Singapore’s independence, water has been framed as a scarce resource, and a matter of survival and national security, said Associate Professor Shirley Ho from Nanyang Technological University’s Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information. This was reinforced by images of survival: People queuing for water during rationing exercises, for instance. But the success with NEWater came along, and the message became diluted, she said.


While there has been much discussion about the quantum of the latest round of water tariff hike, some experts felt that the move was, in itself, a way to focus the public’s minds on the issue and drive home the water conservation message.

The 30-per-cent quantum was a “short, sharp, shock treatment” to remind Singaporeans of the importance of water and its scarcity, said Associate Professor Toh Mun Heng from NUS Business School. “The fact that it has aroused much attention and discussion is an indication of the success of the ‘campaign’,” added Assoc Prof Toh, an expert on strategy and policy.

At the core, water pricing is the most effective way to regulate demand, LKYSPP water policy expert Eduardo Araral said. “The Government can cry out loud but it will have little effect if the price of water is very low and does not reflect its scarcity value,” he added.

Turning to other countries, Prof Biswas noted that Sao Paulo, Brazil has been facing its most serious drought in the last 40 years. Water is provided for by Sabesp, a water and waste management company owned by the state. Prof Biswas said that while the firm made strides in improving its water efficiency processes, they also reached out to the public, communicated the problem and got them to reduce their consumption. The company also provided discounts to incentivise people to use less water. In a year, the city reduced its per capita water consumption from 146 litres per day to 120 litres per day.

Similarly, Spanish cities Barcelona and Zaragoza also managed to drastically reduce their per capita water consumption by increasing water tariffs, education and managing demand. Their authorities are also “telling their people they have a problem every day, and the people feel the problem”, said Prof Biswas.

Apart from households, Assoc Prof Araral stressed the need to educate other users, which may be less sensitive to higher water tariffs. “They have to take personal responsibility for reducing consumption regardless of the price. There has to be an ethos of conservation and this takes time to develop. The schools would have to reinforce this message regularly,” he added.

Going forward, it cannot be business as usual and the public messaging has to change, the experts said. Singaporeans need to know that even with new technologies, water will remain a scarce resource, said Assoc Prof Ho.

Dr Loh felt that logic alone is insufficient and future campaigns have to incorporate “emotional elements to tug at the heartstrings” in order to change attitudes towards water. “The problem is that people know about the issue at some fundamental level but they are not realising (its) importance… Unfortunately, just by stressing the facts alone or knowing about water scarcity on the intellectual level is insufficient,” she added.



  • PUB launched its first national water conservation campaign, adopting the slogan “Water is Precious”
  • Community activities showed people the dos and don’ts of using water and the campaign was publicised in newspapers, and on radio and television. A television cartoon series featuring mascot Bobo the Water-Saving Elephant was also created.
  • Then-PUB chairman Lim Kim San, who was also Education Minister, stressed that “to save water only when there is a drought is not good enough for us in Singapore. Saving water must become a daily habit with us”


  • A month-long “Let’s Not Waste Precious Water” campaign was launched on top of water conservation talks in schools
  • A Water Conservation Unit was formed to visit large industrial water users and suggest how they can reduce water consumption
  • The public was educated on what to do in a water crisis while a water conservation course was introduced at secondary level to help students understand Singapore’s water challenges


  • Public appeals to cut down unnecessary water use were made after a long dry period. Then-Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and Finance George Yeo reminded people that water is a “matter of life and death”.
  • Water Conservation Tax was introduced to discourage the excessive use of water and revised in 1997.
  • A six-day campaign involving a water rationing exercise was conducted with 30,000 households.


  • During the 2002 National Day Parade, Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, ministers and participants toasted with NEWater to show that it was safe to drink. NEWater Visitor Centre was opened to provide public education on the technology, while PUB embarked on a publicity campaign including mobile exhibitions, briefings, and public talks
  • Campaign on Singapore’s water supply strategy of having four “National Taps”
  • Water Wally, a blue water droplet, was introduced as PUB’s mascot in 2005
  • 10 litre Challenge to encourage every individual to reduce daily water consumption by that amount


  • Outreach on social media platforms such as Facebook and YouTube, with PUB making regular updates to engage online users
  • Water campaigns also targeted foreign workers to participate in water conservation efforts. Roadshows were held at areas they frequented while brochures for them were printed in Tamil, Chinese, Thai and Burmese. Educational materials in Bahasa Indonesia, Tamil and Burmese were also shared with training providers for maid agencies

This article was published by TODAY, March 11, 2017.