SINGAPORE: A MINIMUM OF LAND, A MAXIMUM OF SUCCESS
Guests from Russia have become frequent visitors to the city-state by the equator. Wealthy Russians are looking for real estate by the seaside, while politicians and government officials are filled with wonder as to how, within a mere half-century, a dump has been transformed into Asia’s cleanest city and one of the world’s most thriving countries.
Not a Drop Wasted!
“Please taste it: don’t be afraid!” says Yap Khen Guan, Director of 3P Network, PUB, who hands me a bottle of water, smiling. A minute ago, he himself took a sip from the same bottle. Well, nothing unusual, except for the fact that this is the same water that had flowed through Singapore’s sewage, along with excreta and other nasty stuff. The island’s thrifty citizens had collected this water, purified it with the help of membranes and other high-tech processes and bottled it. The result is NeWater.
For many years now, Singapore has not discharged sewage into rivers and seas, says Mr. Yap. Sewers are not the only source of water destined for purification in Singapore, where also desalinates seawater and collects rainwater. Half of Singapore’s area is covered by a catchment network, with the ultimate goal to increase it to two-thirds. In future, not a single drop that falls from the skies will perish wastefully. Until relatively recently, Singapore had no potable water, and this vital resource had to be entirely pumped through pipes from neighbouring Malaysia. Today, the city-state sports 15 water reservoirs and the cult of pure water is hip and fashionable. Children are taught how to value it in school, and adults are given perks in the form of lower tariffs for using it prudently in their households.
Having taken good care of liquid waste, Singapore has not neglected the solid ones. Recycled garbage here gets a new lease of life as a building material used in land reclamation. Over the course of the last few decades, the island’s area has been artificially expanded by claiming 100 sq km from the sea. And today, the dwarf state is not 600, but 700 sq km!
The World’s Two Polar Opposites
Singapore and Russia are like absolute antipodes: we are the biggest country in the world; they are one of the smallest (Russia’s territory exceeds that of Singapore by 25,000 times!). Last winter, in Moscow, thermometers indicated -26°C outside, whereas in Singapore +26°C is the temperature under the shade. Also, Russia is the world’s richest country in terms of natural resources, while Singapore has no mineral deposits. Nor does it have agriculture as we know it: the island state can only afford 3 per cent of its land area to be used for farming.
With a population of nearly 5 million, the city-state imports 100 per cent of its meat, more than 96 per cent of its seafood and 80 per cent of its eggs. While Russia lives off oil and gas, Singapore nurtures an “intelligent” economy. The Lion City boasts the world’s busiest port and expertise in fields such as electronics and pharmaceutics; however, the country’s main income comes from various services: banking, legal, medical, hospitality, etc.
Most importantly, this teeny-weeny state demonstrates an economic efficiency about which the great and mighty Russia can only dream. Over the course of Singapore’s 45 years of independence, its GDP per capita has rocketed from US$1,000 to US$35,000. Today, the average Singaporean is four times wealthier than his Russian counterpart. In the IMF’s income review, Singapore comes in fourth; in the World Bank report, it is awarded first place as the country in which it is easiest to do business, whereas Russia is 120th. In the 2009 Transparency International survey, Singapore is the third least corrupted country in the world, with only New Zealand and Denmark ahead of it (Russia is, regrettably, at the 146th position).
To Kill a Dragon
In the past, keeping the government clean of corruption proved a more arduous task than purifying water from faeces. “The percentage, kickback, baksheesh, slush or whatever the local euphemism is a way of life in Asia: people openly accept it as a part of their culture,” writes Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s former Prime Minister of about 30 years and the father of the nation, in his book From Third World to First: The Singapore Story: 1965–2000. The wise Lee decided to heal the rotting fish from its head down. “We decided to concentrate on the big takers in the higher echelons and directed the CPIB on our priorities (the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau – 103rd ME), writes Lee. “For the smaller fish we set out to simplify procedures and remove discretion by having clear published guidelines, even doing away with the need for permits or approvals in less important areas.”
The Director of the CIPB was vested with power to investigate any minister. Courts were allowed to treat proof that an accused was living beyond his means or had property and a lifestyle that didn’t match his income. The fine for corruption was increased tenfold - to S$100,000 - and shady incomes were liable to confiscation. Lee Kuan Yew did not even cover for his relatives who were placed under suspicion. As he narrates in his book, “Phey Yew Kok, a PAP MP, was charged on the counts of criminal breach of trust involving a total sum of S$83,000… Phey Yew Kok decided the jump bail, and his two sureties lost their S$50,000 when he never returned. He was last heard of in Thailand, eking out a miserable existence as a fugitive… The most dramatic downfall was that of Teh Cheang Wan, then minister for national development. In November 1986 one of his old associates admitted under questioning by the CPIB that he had giver Teh two cash payments of S$400,000 each…A week later, <…> my security officer reported that Teh had died… a coroner’s inquiry found he had taken his life with a massive overdose of sodium amytal.”
Imprisonments, flights from the country and the suicides of high officials had a great impact: no one now dared to steal or embezzle. The head of the cabinet led by personal example: “My official residence belonged to the government. I had no perks, no cars with chauffeurs thrown in, or ministerial quarters with gardeners, cooks and other servants in attendance. My practice was to have all benefits expressed in a lump sum and let the prime minister and ministers themselves decide what they wanted to spend it on.”
While the stick was hard, the carrot was sweet: government officials and judges had high salaries. “Underpaid ministers and public officials have ruined many governments in Asia,” Lee Kuan Yew was convinced. Their incomes were increased to correspond with those of managers in commercial companies in order to attract young, intelligent and energetic people to government service. As a result, Singapore’s Prime Minister is the highest paid in the world, with Singaporean judges earning up to US$1 million a year. However, in times of hardship, initiatives are executed from the top: when the recent economic meltdown began, the salaries of senior civil servants were immediately cut by 20 per cent.
“Singapore’s story of fighting corruption is most impressive,” admits Sergey Mironov, the speaker of Russia’s Federation Council, who has been to Singapore twice. “While there are incredible work conditions for public officials, justice is meted out for any law violation, with the confiscation of property and imposition of both poverty and shame on the culprit’s family. In Singapore, every official knows that the only thing he should do to provide for his family is to be honest in his work. If he goes astray, society will cross him out.”
Why is Singapore the easiest place to start a business?
How is the city-state handling the global crisis and local traffic jams?
What are the fines for spitting or throwing a cigarette stub on the ground?
What are the punishments for more serious law violations?
Find out the answers to these questions and more in Part 2 of this story to be published in the next issue.
The article was first published in a Russian weekly Argumenty i Fakty (Issue 8 / 2010) under the title of A Wonder-is-land: What Tiny Singapore Can Teach Huge Russia.
The author expresses his gratitude to 103rd Meridian East and the staff of the Russian Embassy in Singapore for their assistance in preparing this article.
By Vitaly Tseplyaev