To take your ideas to Policymakers, Join the Campaign of #PolicyPulse Write to

The Wonder that is Singapore

Delhi should take lesson from spectacular success of Singapore's flawless cleanliness

Nirupama Sekhri
Publish Date: Sep 23 2016 1:41PM | Updated Date: Sep 23 2016 2:49PM

The Wonder that is Singapore

On a recent visit, Ms. Sekhri bemoans the opportunity lost by Delhi’s AAP, which instead of over-reaching itself should’ve taken a few pages from the spectacular successes of Singapore’s PAP to offer the world its own version of successful, clean & green 


As you step out of the cool, glossy environs of the Changi airport, the glaring sun and moist heat slaps a reminder that you are in Asia. The next is the almost immediate signs you see along the road warning you about dengue.

Dengue is a tropical disease, and Singapore is as tropical as it can get – sitting just one degree above the equator, and a mere 165 meters (538 ft) above sea level. So the battle between the Aedes mosquito and the city-state is a long-standing one, which goes on round-the-year because Singapore doesn’t like Delhi enjoy the chilly, cleansing (being undercut relentlessly by the pollution) effect.

However, due to the flawless cleanliness of Singapore, you could spend days and weeks without spotting a fly or feeling the itch of a mosquito bite depending on where you’ve been spending time. Yet, the might of the mosquito cannot be under-estimated - almost 10,000 cases have already been reported with six deaths this year.

In its defence, a ‘dengue watch’ is resolutely sustained by the government and media alike. The National Environment Agency (NEA) maintains an up-to-date dengue website and tirelessly distributes attractive, easy-to-understand brochures and holds regular nationwide campaigns like ‘Do the Mozzie Wipe-out’. The local newspapers and magazines report regularly on dengue cases and on ‘active dengue clusters’.

The NEA officials can knock on your door and check for stagnant water if they suspect you’ve been careless, and a fine of 200 S$ up can be levied if any container, flower or plant pots, toilet bowl or cistern are found to be breeding mosquitoes.

One would imagine that ‘going green’ then would involve an unenthusiastic support for more growth of trees and plants. But, no - the Singapore Green Building Council (SGBC), a non-profit, private-public sector partnership that advocates green building design, practices and technologies and guides environmental sustainability in Singapore’s building and construction industry since 2009, is actively supporting buildings taking up as much green growth as possible.

Buildings are offered substantial incentives to grow plants and foliage onto floor and façade space. It is becoming increasingly common to see the otherwise bizarre sight of tall buildings sprouting undergrowth and shrubbery - corridors and roofs charmingly flaunt grass and vegetation!

Tackling the Housing Challenge

Relatively spacious housing-for-all is another wonder that Singapore has managed. Almost any city in the world has just the rich occupying large homes in ‘elite’ neighbourhoods, not so in Singapore. The HDB or Housing & Development Board, that still manages more than 80% of the housing, maintains a mix of expensive and modest houses in the same areas, and helps Singaporeans of any age and of any salary bracket to buy their own home. Less expensive homes in public houses too are roomy, airy and not cramped.

Another feature that the HDB maintains in all residential neighbourhoods is the avoidance of community ghettoisation – every block has to maintain a certain ethnic mix.

Rain and (not or) Mobility

Having left Delhi during stormy rain spells that stalled and paralysed the entire city and its suburbs, it was a delight to witness torrential rains in Singapore. From the 35th floor where we were living in, it was glorious to see sheets of rain cascading down with thunder and lightning providing sound, light and drama. The efficient drainage system just swallows up all the water with no morning-after headaches. Singapore receives a substantial 23.40 cm of rain annually, which rarely halts the fast pace of the city.

In fact, it is really safe and comfortable to get around the city. The MRT or Mass Rapid Metro swathes the city like a spider’s web. Started in 1987, it is the second-oldest metro system in Southeast Asia. Covering a length of 170.7 kilometres, it has a whopping average daily ridership of over 3 million a day, more than of the longer Delhi Metro (213 km) of 2.7 million.

It is easy to understand and navigate yourself through. During one of our metro trips, my 12-year old daughter followed signs to find us alternative ticketing machines to avoid the one with a long queue.

Despite the heat and humidity, Singapore is an easy city to walk in. We walked late morning through the Chinese and Japanese gardens tucked away on the Jurong East side. The lake and trees take away the sting from the sun and humidity.

Tourist Influx

The buzz of construction is ubiquitous and limits access on some roads and in certain areas. Yet, it is well planned and everyone is prepared for it so it isn’t disruptive. One major reason for this smooth passage is that land and mobility are planned and managed by the same government agency – the LTA or Land & Transport Authority, so the problems that often arise in Delhi, for instance, about the left-hand-not-knowing-what-the-right-hand-is doing is minimised.

The outcome of all this efficiency, ease and comfort is the enormous tourist influx that Singapore records – compared to about 8.02 million foreign tourists that arrived in India in 2015, a huge 15.2 million arrived in Singapore in the same year! And most of them are the rich, conservative, moneyed kind Arun Jaitley and Mahesh Sharma would both approve of – the price for chewing gum and doing drugs is too high: a hefty fine and your head, so the too casual and free-spirited prefer to give Singapore a go-by.

Not that Singapore totally disapproves of all sorts of addictions. Its two integrated casino resorts – one on the Sentosa island and the other in one of the most iconic buildings of the city, are the third most profitable in the world after Macau and Las Vegas.  While these resorts actively promote and welcome visitors from overseas, the Casino Regulatory Authority actively discourages or outrights bans local people from participating through its third party casino exclusion clause.

If people complain about a lack of intellectual or artistic activities to be pursued, there is the National Library to visit. Standing 7-storeys tall in the centre of the city, it has something to offer all types of readers. The children’s section is especially bright and user-friendly with a little tree house children can curl up in for an absorbing read.

The SAM or Singapore Art Museum too can have some really exciting exhibitions, like we visited - Odyssey: Navigating Nameless Seas – a very small but richly pan-Asian collection that explored an astonishingly myriad, complex range of themes from displacement and isolation to exploitation and poverty to pirates and mud-foxes in a delightful multitude of expressions – film, installation, engineering, among others. In an effort to encourage Singaporeans to visit, both, the library and exhibitions, are usually free of cost for them.

But, All that Glitters ….

All this gloss and glitter is not to say that there aren’t problems. The most obvious being of poverty. Perhaps not abject absolute poverty that we see in India, but certainly of relative poverty. The comfortable life-style comes at a high cost and you realise pretty quickly that a swish life is completely out of reach for the considerable number of the hard working-class in Singapore. This is highlighted even more clearly by the distressing number of old people you see working in menial and non-skilled jobs, like in directing traffic outside malls and hotels, serving at fast-food centres.

This need for a more equitable sharing of prosperity seems obvious and there is much discussion and debate going on about this. The resolution of this will be interesting given two facts.

One, that officially, Singapore has staunchly opposed being a welfare state like many European countries for instance. Every Singaporean contributes towards their retirement plan, housing and health benefits through-out their working lives, called the CPF or Central Provident Fund, which is then available to them on retirement, and this is what they are expected to live off after they have retired.

Secondly, the Singapore government doesn’t recognise poverty. The Department of Statistics does offer a measurement of S$ 1250 per month as the amount needed for basic living expenses and the Ministry of Social & Family Development supports voluntary welfare organisations (VWOs) to help people in need. 

However, this has been challenged and derided by many who feel that the CPF is unfair towards those working on low wages. By the time they retire the money they get has not factored in the steadily increasing cost of living in Singapore and they are left with a pathetic amount to live on.

A more realistic amount to ensure a person is well connected to the community and not living in isolation and relative poverty is pegged at S$2500-3000. And this would be quite a large number of people given that 10-11% of Singapore’s population is not living even by the government’s S$ 1250 cut off.

Should compulsory retirement be abolished? Should there be more flexibility in CPF to allow members to draw an income any time after 55? Should earlier withdrawal have a lower drawdown? Should there be an inflation adjusted Basic State Pension of $600 a month or more? Should Singapore revisit and revise its philosophy on providing social security? All these questions are being discussed and debated in Singapore.

And chances are that the government is listening, because the CPF has always been a highly emotive issue with the people, and it has to be carefully handled. This was displayed in the fall of the PAP stalwart – Howe Yoon Chong in 1984. He proposed the CPF withdrawal age to be moved up from 55 to 60 years. The fury of the people was shown in his immediate electoral defeat, and PAP calculated a drop of 12% support based on that one issue.

As we returned to Delhi with a thump of the aircraft’s underbelly, Arvind Kejriwal’s superlative naiveté struck with great force. If instead of bouncing and prancing all over the countryside, he had focussed on developing just Delhi with the unbelievable sweep of votes he had made in 2014, he too could’ve left the world with a wonder that could be Delhi.