Singapore – ‘You drop it, you break it, it’s finished’

Singapore: Sometimes today’s abnormal holds useful clues to tomorrow’s normal. Singapore is very far from normal, something that Lee Kuan Yew, the city-state’s prime minister from 1959 to 1990, is at pains to point out in his new book, Hard Truths. It’s one of the most gripping and personal accounts of the thrills and spills of politics that I have read.

Surrounded by countries that do not wish it well, and in competition with rising neighbours in Asia, Singapore’s future is far from guaranteed. One reason why the city-state is so keen on water recycling and desalination, for example, is that Malaysia has periodically threatened to cut off the critical water it supplies. As a result Singapore plans to be self-sufficient in water by 2061, when their agreement to draw water from Malaysia ends.

This propensity to think long is shot through Lee’s book. In one memorable section – and there are many – he recalls a visit to Boston in 1968, where he had an eco-epiphany. Like Sherlock Holmes and the dog that didn’t bark, he noticed that the trees and other vegetation in the city centre were a rich, verdant green. He asked why they weren’t as dusty and diseased as in Singapore? The answer: vehicle emissions were tightly controlled – something Lee promptly put into force back home.

Dismissed as “Disneyland with the death penalty” and as “an antiseptic island peopled by a passive citizenry and governed by paranoia,” Singapore demonstrates the power of triple bottom line strategy at the country level: economic competitiveness, social inclusion (up to a point) and a cleaner environment for all. It remains to be seen whether the People’s Action party (PAP), that has held power for over 50 years, survives Lee’s eventual death (he is still a cabinet member), but he aims to ensure his successors – perhaps seduced by consumerist lifestyles – do not forget how fragile the city-state’s success is.

While in the city last week, I spoke to hundreds of people in government, business and civil society, and found a growing interest in corporate social responsibility and sustainability. Although Lee is pessimistic about the likelihood of nation states getting a grip on the climate disaster he sees threatening the region, he is determined that Singapore adapts to climate change and develops new industrial clusters in areas like clean technology.

Their tiny country, Lee warns the rising generations of Singaporeans, “is like a chronometer. You drop it, you break it, it’s finished. Some countries, you get a second chance, you buy spare parts, you put it back again. I’m not sure we’ll ever get a second chance.”

And I’m not sure, if he’s right about climate change, whether by 2061 a huge number of Asians won’t find themselves more than inconvenienced in a Humpty Dumpty future. Our best hope: to win over cities, city-states and countries to the “one planet” way, before we lose our grip.

John Elkington is the executive chairman of  Volans, co-founder of SustainAbility, blogs at, tweets at @volandia and is a member of The Guardian’s Sustainable Business Advisory Panel.

This article was originally published in The Guardian, and has been reprinted in full with permission.

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