Singapore: From Asian Dump to Impeccable Cleanness in 50 Years

What did Singapore officials have to do to turn a dump into the cleanest Asian city and one of the most flourishing countries in the world in as little as 50 years?

Russians became frequent guests in this city-state on the Equator. Wealthy Russians are looking into buying houses on the beach, while politicians and officials are trying to solve the puzzle of Singapore phenomenon.

“Try it, don’t be afraid!” says a top manager of the Singapore National Water Agency, giving me a bottle of mineral water. A minute ago he took a sip out of the same bottle. There is nothing unusual about it except the fact that recently this water was running through the pipes of Singapore sewage with excrements and other stuff. Yet, the city’s frugal residents purified all waste waters with membrane and other technologies and then bottled it. Now they are enjoying “New Water.”

“Many years ago Singapore stopped dumping waste water into the rivers and sea. All waste water is purified,” the manager says. Singaporeans purify other water too. They distil sea water and collect rain water. Half of the island territory has water collecting systems installed. The government’s goal is to install it on three quarters of the island. It is expected that in the future not a single raindrop will be wasted. Singapore used to have no drinking water, and it had to be supplied through pipelines from Malaysia. Now the country boasts 15 water reservoirs. There is a cult of pure water. Students are taught to save it, and adults enjoy discounted utility payments for the ability to use water efficiently.

Singapore found a way to use solid waste as well. Reprocessed litter is turned into a construction material for building new territories. The island area was artificially increased by nearly 100 square kilometers. Now the area of microstate is 700 square kilometers instead of 600.

Singapore and Russia seem to be completely different. Russia is the largest country in the world, while Singapore is one of smallest. Russia’s area is nearly 25 thousand times (!) larger than that of Singapore. It was -15F in Moscow this winter, while it was 79F in Singapore. Russia is rich in natural resources, while Singapore has none. Singapore barely has any agriculture with 10 square kilometers of agricultural land. That’s enough to make a horse laugh. The island with the population of nearly 5 million people imports 100% of meat, over 96% of seafood, 93% of vegetables and 80% of eggs. Russia lives by means of oil and gas, while Singapore supports “smart” economy. The country has the largest port in the country, developed electronics and pharmaceutical sector, but the main profit comes from the service sector, i.e., banking, legal services, medicine, hospitality, etc.

This small country demonstrates economic efficiency that powerful Russia cannot even dream of. Within 45 years after obtaining independence, the country’s national profit recalculated per capita has grown from less than $1,000 to $35,000. Now the average resident of Singapore is four times wealthier than the average Russian. Estimating income of citizens of various countries, IMF experts ranked Singapore number 4 in the world. Last year, the World Bank ranked it number 1 in the list of the countries comfortable for conducting business. Russia was rated 120. Singapore was rated number 3 in the rating Transparency International 2009, following New Zealand and Denmark. Russia took 146th place.

It was more difficult to clear Singapore from corruption than to clear waste waters from excrements.

“Corruption was a trait of our Asian image,” recalls Lee Kuan Yew , the author of the memoir From Third World to First: The Singapore Story: 1965-2000. Lee Kuan Yew had served as the first Prime Minister of the Republic of Singapore for over 30 years, and virtually became the father of the nation. The wise man started curing the rotting fish from its head. Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) focused its attention on large-scale corrupt officials. The government intended to fight small fry through simplification of procedures and creation of clear and simple rules, all the way up to abandoning permits and licensing in less important social areas.

The director of CPIB was entitled to initiate investigation against any minister. Courts were allowed to view the mismatch between the officials’ salary and life style as a sufficient evidence of bribe taking. Fines for corruption were increased tenfold, to 100,000 Singapore dollars, along with the introduction of confiscation of illegal profits. Lee Kuan Yew did not protect his relatives and friends who fell under suspicion.

In his book, he wrote that one of the members of Parliament was charged with four episodes of misuse of authority. The total damage was estimated at 83,000 Singapore dollars. The minister was released on 50,000 bail, escaped, and lived a miserable life in Thailand. The most dramatic was an episode with the Minister of National Development, Teh Cheang Wan. One of his old partners confessed during an interrogation that Teh Cheang Wan received two sums of money, $400,000 each. A week later Teh Cheang Wan was reported dead. Autopsy revealed that he committed suicide by poisoning.

Imprisonment, escapes and suicides of high ranking officials producedthe required effect – everyone was afraid of stealing. The Prime Minister himself showed a good example. His residence belonged to the government; he did not enjoy any benefits, cars, drivers, gardeners, personal chefs or other assisting personnel. He introduced the procedure where the Prime Minister and other Ministers were paid a certain sum of money every month and decided on their own how to spend it.

Apart from a stick, the government also used a carrot, i.e., high salaries for officials and judges.

Lee Kuan Yew believed that ministers and state workers ruined many Asian governments. Under his guidance, state salaries were made equal to private sector salaries to increase retention of smart, honest and energetic managers. As a result, Singapore Prime Minister became the highest-paid minister in the world, and judges were making nearly a million dollars a year. Yet, in difficult times the government showed the example of self limitation, reducing paychecks of the top officials by 20% in times of financial crisis.

“Their experience fighting the corruption is impressive,” says Sergey Mironov, speaker of the Federation Council who visited Singapore twice. “[they managed to combine] wonderful working conditions for the government sector with vindication for a smallest diversion, followed by confiscation of the possessions, poverty, and shame. Every Singapore official knows that her children will be provided for, but honest work is the stipulation. But if you misstep, you are done.”

Arguments and Facts

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Author`s name Dmitry Sudakov