Tracking Singapore’s transformation: How the city-state went from Third World to world-leading in 25 years

PHOTO: Cegoh on Pixabay

Cecilia Tortajada and Asit K Biswas

POLICY FORUM | January 3, 2018

Constrained by space and population size, Singapore has had to think smart to meet its challenges, Cecilia Tortajada and Asit K Biswas write.

Singapore’s Changi International Airport is a special airport. It is one of the busiest in the world, serving some 380 cities in about 90 countries through more than 100 airlines. It handles more than 58.7 million passengers a year – more than six times the city’s entire population.

For many travellers, the introduction to Changi Airport is a proxy for the rest of their Singapore experience. It is an illustration of how far the city-state has gone in such a short space of time.

When Singapore became independent in 1965, its economic and social conditions were poor. Trade with Indonesia, a key trading partner, had declined due to Indonesia’s strong opposition to the formation of Malaysia.

The economy further suffered because of the withdrawal of British troops during 1968–71. British military expenditure contributed to nearly 20 per cent of Singapore’s GDP and 10 per cent of employment.

During the 1960s, Singapore’s population growth was one of the highest in the world. Unemployment was widespread. The majority of the population was living in overcrowded housing without access to clean water, sanitation or proper waste disposal.

The question then is, how did Singapore achieve such remarkable progress in a short period?

Our view is that this has been possible because of strong leadership, starting with Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and his team.

Lee had no dogmatic beliefs and was the ultimate anti-ideologue. Fiercely ambitious for Singapore’s development, he guided its unprecedented economic and social growth for its people. Lee showed that forthright pragmatism is the antithesis of diehard ideologies and political opportunism.

Lee’s greatest challenge was to change the mindsets of Singaporeans who were very individualistic. They felt that it was their “God-given right” to do whatever they wanted and whenever they wanted.

At Independence, it was a common practice to spit anywhere and to answer the call of nature whenever or wherever one happened to be. Lee made rules that were strictly enforced. People misbehaving were caught and fined heavily. When people realised that Government was very serious, the mindset started to change. This gave rise to the standard joke: “Singapore is a fine country: you get fined for everything!”

Land-use planning

Singapore’s success has depended on its long-term land-use planning. A year after Independence, in 1966, the Land Acquisition Act was passed. This gave the government the power to compulsorily acquire land for public development. It also regulated the compensation that could be given to the landowners.

In 1971, Singapore announced a land use concept plan that outlined how the city would be laid out in the future. This 1971 Concept Plan has been updated regularly. Even now, after well over four decades, its essential features are discernible.

To ensure proper land use planning, the government acquired 177 square kilometres of land between 1959 and 1984, which then comprised about one-third of its area. The government became the biggest landowner by far by 1985, when it owned 76.2 per cent of Singapore.

The compulsory land acquisition and efficient use of land have meant that the costs of building houses, commercial and industrial premises and transportation infrastructure have remained reasonable. It has ensured that Singapore could institute proper long-term urban planning through its Urban Redevelopment Authority.

The 1971 Concept Plan ensured that all government agencies had a reference document which laid the foundation for Singapore’s urban development, including a central water catchment area, around which high-density satellite towns could be developed.

By the end of the 1980s, Singapore had undergone major transformations, including demographic changes, types of industrial development, changing perceptions and attitudes of the people, and rising environmental awareness.

This resulted in the new long-term Concept Plan of 1991 which established new regional commercial centres which were interconnected with transportation hubs. More land reclamation was planned so that seven small islands could be connected to create one large Jurong island where industrial development could be concentrated.

True to Singapore style, it was completed in 2009, well ahead of schedule. This 32 square kilometres artificial island is now the home of Singapore’s petrochemical and other industries.

Urban connectivity

Good urban connectivity was another important consideration. With increasing personal incomes, demand for cars was expected to increase. It was thus essential that roads remained congestion free. This was achieved by developing a functional public transportation system with appropriate last mile connectivity.

By 1990, it was apparent that the number of cars had to be restricted, so a quota system was introduced requiring people to bid for limited numbers of Certificates of Entitlement (CoE) to own a car. To further manage road congestion, Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) was introduced in 1998.

Singapore has steadily reduced the growth rate of cars in recent years. In February 2015, the rate of increase of new cars was reduced by half, from 0.5 per cent to 0.25 per cent. From February 2018 and for the rest of 2018, growth rates for cars and motorcycles will be zero.

To improve mobility and connectivity, the metro network has been expanded by 30 per cent during the past six years. More expansions of the metro system are planned, as well as improvements to the entire public transportation systems.

Food and agriculture

In 1965, family farms were considered essential for food security. Some 20,000 farms, using 25 per cent of land area, produced 60 per cent of vegetables needed. Land, water and environmental constraints ensured that farming changed from traditional to high-tech and intensive.

In 1980, the government decided that farming would no longer be subsidised. It should become fully commercial. In 1984, the policy was not to pursue food self-sufficiency because of land, water and environment-related constraints. Instead, Singapore would import from world markets and focus on producing food and services where it had competitive advantages.

Farmers who retired were compensated. Those who continued had to keep pollution within strict standards. This policy reduced the amount of land that was used for agriculture significantly.

Pig farming, which produces massive animal wastes that could not be disposed of in an environmentally-safe way, disappeared by 1990. By 2000, local production met only 1.5 per cent of poultry, 10 per cent of fish, 30 per cent of eggs and 6 per cent of vegetables. The rest were met through imports.

The city-state further ensured that food supply would not be disrupted in the future due to unforeseen circumstances by diversifying import sources. Singapore currently imports food from 160 countries.

Water security

At Independence, Singapore had only three reservoirs. These stored less than 20 per cent of water requirements. It had two water treaties with Malaysia, one expiring in 2011 and the other in 2061, which would provide additional water needed.

By 2010, Singapore had made enough progress in improving water management. It notified Malaysia that the 2011 water agreement would not be renewed.

Currently, Singapore has 17 reservoirs. It is making intensive efforts to ensure that by 2061, when the second water agreement with Malaysia expires, it will be self-sufficient in water. It should be possible to achieve its goal.

The future

Looking back over the past five decades, Singapore’s performance has been remarkable. However, the future will not be an extension of the past. Like all cities, Singapore will have to navigate uncharted waters of an increasingly turbulent and uncertain world. Its success will depend on the policies that will be formulated in the coming decades and how relevant and successful they become.

As Lee Kuan Yew once told us: “As you solve a set of problems, new ones appear. It is part of life.” Again, quoting Lee, “At the end of the day, is Singapore’s society better or worse off?” This will be the test Singapore will have to pass in the future.

Cecilia Tortajada is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Water Policy, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. Asit K Biswas is the Distinguished Visiting Professor, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. National University of Singapore, Singapore.

This article was published by POLICY FORUM, January 3, 2018.