Singapore shows the way in innovative urban governance

  • Shivani Singh, Hindustan Times, Singapore
  • Updated: Jun 09, 2014 14:25 IST

'Singapore is a fine city' is a popular slogan on T-shirts, mugs and fridge magnets at souvenir shops in the island country.

It tells you how Singapore imposes frightfully strict fines for littering, spitting, chewing gum, or not flushing a public toilet after use. It also testifies the great quality of life its citizens enjoy.

Today, Singapore is one of the most efficient city systems in the world. A city-state of five million people, Singapore has been a pioneer in urban governance.

Hosting the World Cities Summit that concluded last week, its leaders showcased some of the best practices and innovations in city management.

While we still keep debating whether to impose congestion tax in Delhi, Singapore did it way back in 1975 to become the first city to control volume of traffic in inner-city district at a time when addressing air pollution and crowding of roads was not any government's priority.

The Singapore government combined road-pricing efforts with a rapid expansion of public transport. The result is an integrated network of mass transit (metro), light rail, buses and taxis as a viable option to private vehicles.

In 1990, it scored another first with its Certificate of Entitlement (CoE) for new car buyers who must place a costly monetary bid to have one.

Many of these innovations were forced by the city-state's limitations.

Lorong Halus wetland located in northeast Singapore runs along the Sungei Serangoon River and reservoir. Till 1999, it was a solid-waste landfill. A part of this old landfill has now been converted into wetland. It collects and treats the water that passes through the dumpsite so that it does not flow into the reservoir. Opened in June 2011, the wetland is now a popular tourist spot. (Shivani Singh/ HT)

An island country, roughly half the size of Delhi, with no hinterland, Singapore realised early that it had no scope for physical expansion. Although it did expand in the subsequent years by reclaiming 135 sq km from the sea, land is premium. And so are natural resources.

"We have always remained on an existential edge. We had no choice but to innovate," said Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore's minister for environment and water resources.

And innovate it did.

Much like Delhi, Singapore survives on borrowed water. Spatial constraints meant that it did not have enough land for storage.

While importing water from Malaysia, it thought of making an integrated water loop, tapping all possible sources: potable water from streams and rivers, waste water from homes and industries and storm water from the rain.

Singapore is the only country that has a closed water loop today, with two-thirds of city serving as water catchment - the largest in any urban setting in the world.

Extensive sewerage works since 1960 provided modern sanitation to all in the 1980s.

In 1977, then prime minister Lee Kuan Yew threw a challenge to his government. He wanted the fish to return to Kallang, Singapore's longest river and also its favourite dumping spot, within a decade.

By the time Kallang was cleaned up in 1987, 46,000 unsewered squatters, including pig and poultry farms, small factories, and street hawkers had been relocated to proper housing.

"The fish returned and 10 officials were awarded gold medals by the PM," said George Madhavan, director at Public Utility Board, Singapore's national water agency.

Singapore continues to import 250 MGD from Malaysia and the agreement holds till 2061. But looking for new sources, the city-state launched the NEWater in 2002.

Instead of pouring treated sewage into the sea, it is further purified using membrane technology. NEWater can meet 30% of Singapore's total water demand, mostly feeding the industry.

"Although it exceeds the drinking water standards, we need to re-mineralise it for long-term drinking purpose. The industries, however, love it because it is so pure," said Madhavan.

Thanks to demand-side management, conservation efforts involving citizens and use of efficient bathroom fittings and washing machines, Singapore's per capita domestic water consumption has been brought down from 165 per litre per day in 2003 to 151 litres. It consumes only 400 MGD.

In Delhi, roughly the same amount is lost in leakages and pilferage.

What has also helped the Singapore experiment is the continuity of political leadership.

Lee Kuan Yew, the minister-mentor who ran the island from 1959 to 1990, and his son, Lee Hsien Loong, the prime minister since 2004, have governed the city-state like patriarchs would run their home.

"We took a long view in its development, planning over generations, implementing programmes over several election terms and rallying Singaporeans to forgo some immediate gains for future dividends," Lee said at the opening ceremony of the World Cities Summit.

There are lessons for Delhi in garnering political will across party lines and thinking out of the box.

(The correspondent attended the World Cities Summit on Singapore government's invitation.)

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