Archive for March, 2015

Thoughts on Mr Lee Kuan Yew and the City in a Garden

To be honest, it’s hard to see him as a person rather than a character, since I’ve never personally met him. That said, I acknowledge both his contributions as well as his actions that I don’t really agree with, and while I can’t love him personally like many seem to be able to, I do respect the man quite a bit. He made a lot of hard decisions that may not have been popular, but what he felt was best for the country, and to some extent it worked. From here on out we should learn from both his mistakes and his many contributions, and move on as a nation to greater heights.

Many things have already been said about him, so I’ll mention what I’m grateful for. As a (relatively) young nature-loving person who has had the privilege of growing up in a city while surrounded by greenery, I feel it wouldn’t be right for me not to express appreciation for the man and his incredible foresight, that made Singapore the City in a Garden that it is today. There would not be nature to enjoy, nor a cause for me to champion if not for our Chief Gardener – my life would’ve been quite different I imagine.

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Mr Lee planting a Mempat tree back in June 1963

I won’t go into detail about the many things he did, like cleaning up the Singapore river, starting a tree-planting campaign – much has been said about all that. In fact, this article here is a great read (High 5 for LKY; Singapore’s Chief Gardener. Lee Siew Hua). Just know that the amount of importance he placed on the environment in the face of economic development was unsusual (a good thing), and ultimately what set Singapore apart from other developing nations at the time.

It was clear Mr Lee loved greenery, and though “sceptics today complain that the garden city is a high-maintenance artifice that is lacking in biodiversity”, we know that’s not completely true. Personally, while I’ve had my fair share of grievances and disagreements over things like the loss of green spaces, I have to appreciate the amount of effort put into conservation by such a small nation that is largely economically driven – it’s not the best job, but given our circumstances, it sure is a pretty darn good one. Now, greening measures are much more sensitive – attention is given to the kinds of species being planted, with native species being favoured, and development relatively more sensitive.

“Still, green activists give some credence to the notion that ‘top-down green is better than no green’”. While it is true that a large part of our natural heritage is gone, it is without a doubt that the whole city in a garden image that we aimed for has (intentionally or unintentionally) saved whatever native biodiversity we still have left – and that much we have to be thankful for.

And indeed, it is increasingly important for urban biodiversity to exist, for nature and natural spaces to be easily accessible to city folk. Esteemed conservation biologist Rob Dunn argued in a 2006 paper (thanks Zestin) that “Paradoxically, conservation may increasingly depend on the ability of people in cities to maintain a connection with nature. We term this concept the “pigeon paradox” because, if we are right, under the status quo a great deal of future conservation will rely in part on our interactions with urban ecosystems and the organisms, including non-natives such as feral pigeons (e.g., Columba livia), that call them home.”

“Although most ecosystems and species will not be saved in cities, their conservation may depend on the votes, donations, and future environmental leadership of people in cities; so, in the end, a great deal depends on urban nature. The urban jungle, with its many non-native species, may well be the breeding ground for future environmental action. What that urban jungle looks like, and how people interact with it, deserves more attention.”

It looks like Singapore is quite ideal as a case study in this aspect. Mr Lee may have valued the City in a Garden image in a more aesthetic sense, but as we have more recently come to realise, that decision he made back then has done way more than making the city a prettier place to live in. City folk can enjoy nature literally a stone’s throw from their offices and homes, and small refuges remain for our resilient biodiversity – that will continue to stay around as long as we are willing to safeguard them.

Unfortunately, the first Mempat tree planted by Mr Lee is no more, having been removed but not replanted when Farrer Circus made way for roadworks.

“The ‘pioneering Mempat’ was felled by progress, but the greening it heralded is alive”

Similarly, the pioneering father of our nation may be gone, but we should take it upon ourselves and do well to keep his green dream alive. Thank you for our beautiful City in a Garden, Mr Lee, and may you rest in peace.