by Suresh Nair
Turning Singapore into a “Garden City” was one of the causes the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew was most committed to. So much so that he didn’t miss a single Tree Planting Day in 51 years.
Mr Lee planted his first tree in June 1963 to kick-start the national effort for tree planting. The Mempat tree was planted in the middle of a roundabout – neither the tree nor the roundabout is there now because the Farrer Circus site was affected by road projects in the mid-1970s.
His second tree, a Yellow Flame at the Tanjong Pagar Community Centre, was planted in 1971 when the Tree Planting Day became official. It is still standing – in fact, it has grown from barely a metre tall to about 20 metres.
Now Singaporeans commemorate Tree Planting Day every year on the first Sunday of the month of November by planting trees in public spaces like schools, parks and housing estates.
Mr Lee’s longest serving personal security officer from 1970 to 1990, Mr Karuppiah Kandasamy, recalled how the former Prime Minister planted more than 60 trees in the last 50 years, like the Angsana tree in Lower Delta (June 1975), the Senegal Mahogany tree in the Botanic Gardens (November 1980), the Weeping Ru in Telok Blangah Crescent (November 1993) and the Chiku tree in Redhill Close (November 1999).
Mr Kandasamy exclusively revealed that nothing about Singapore terrain and trees escaped Mr Lee’s watchful eye. He vividly recalled an incident in the early 1980s. As Mr Lee was travelling to visit the refurbished Nee Soon town, he noticed a tree-branch with dried leaves along the side of Thomson Road. The whole tree was green except that particular branch, which immediately caught his attention. He wanted to know why.
Mr Kandasamy said: “I checked and found that a naked electrical wire had run over that branch and caused the damage. National Parks Board (NParks) was informed and action was taken immediately. When returning from Nee Soon, he was informed about this matter and the quick action taken.”
Cleanest and greenest city
Mr Lee was very exacting about cleanliness and the “Keep Singapore Clean campaign”, launched on October 1 1968, remains one of Singapore’s first national campaigns as an independent nation. Mr Lee’s aim was to make Singapore the cleanest and greenest city in the region by addressing the problem of inconsiderate littering.
Mr Kandasamy said: “I remember that he took a very personal interest, year after year, in this campaign and by planting millions of trees, palms and shrubs it reached out to every stratum of society and sought to instill in Singaporeans the importance of keeping public places clean. It was part of a larger public cleansing plan that included changes in public health laws, relocation and licensing of gypsy hawkers, development of proper sewage systems and disease control.”
“Mr Lee took pride that greening was the most cost-effective project he ever launched. He firmly believed that improved environmental conditions would not only enhance the quality of life for Singaporeans and cultivate national pride, but also attract foreign investors and tourists to Singapore.”
Following the success of the inaugural Keep Singapore Clean campaign, the programme continued yearly. The government also introduced various environment-related campaigns to supplement the main campaign. For instance, in the 1970s, there were campaigns such as “Tree Planting”, “Clean Water”, “Use Your Hands” and “Keep Your Factory Clean”. In the 1980s, there were others like “Keep the Toilets Clean”, “Please Keep My Park Clean” and “Keep Our Buses and Interchanges Clean”.
In 1990, the “Keep Singapore Clean” campaign was merged with the Garden City campaign to form the Clean and Green Week. The new annual programme adopted a more holistic approach in generating greater community awareness and participation in the caring of the environment.
Mr Kandasamy said: “What endeared him to the grassroots was his ability to bond with the ordinary Ahmad, Ah Huat, Lingam or Tommy and he inspired trust by being trustworthy. He built a strong foundation of trust early in his political career.”
He describes Mr Lee’s core values as “Confucian values” and can be summarised as respect for authority and order, while putting the good of society above that of the individual.”
Devotion to work
In terms of devotion to work, Mr Kandasamy summed him up as more than a workaholic. “He was such a disciplined gentleman, he worked day and night. He did his work at home and office. Almost every day, he goes to bed past midnight. Many people thought that, as Prime Minister, he could go to office as he liked or go to bed as he wished. When I was on duty, almost every night, I saw him working from his room till past midnight.”
Born in Singapore on September 16, 1923, Mr Lee became the founder Prime Minister of on June 5, 1959 and led Singapore into a merger with Malaysia. He resigned as Prime Minister in November 1990, passing the baton to Mr Goh Chok Tong.
If he could turn the clock, Mr Kandasamy, now 75 and working in the private security industry, wished he could have told Mr Lee that he symbolised a “mega-God to millions of Singaporeans”.
“In my eyes, after serving him two decades, he was like a mega-God. He dedicated his life for Singapore, fought the toughest battles against the Communists, the Hock Lee bus riots and Singapore Chinese Middle School Students’ Union mob violence, the racial riots in Kallang and Geylang Serai and the withdrawal of British military bases (which were then 20% of Singapore’s GNP) for the happiness of millions of Singaporeans,” said Mr Kandasamy.
“He played a very big part in the transformation of Singapore from swamps to skyscrapers, from a Third World country into one of the world’s richest and most civilized countries and into a new type of global political entity. Critically, he rallied Singaporeans to excel.”
“He shaped the younger generations to become literate, bilingual, intelligent, efficient, confident, law-abiding and worldly-wise. This is just a glimpse of the colossal accomplishments of our founding Prime Minister.”
Green may well have been Mr Lee’s favourite colour because of his ultra-dedicated passion to make Singapore a “Garden City”. Mr Lee will always be revered as the engine and architect of modern Singapore. We will not forget his sacrifices. In Nee Soon and every corner of the island, we must now build on this strong green foundation.