Life After Death in Singapore’s Rivers


On 8 October, 1987, Judith Mayer, an Institute Fellow studying environmental protection , conservation, and sustainable development issues in Southeast Asia, wrote to Mr Peter Bird Martin, Executive Director, Institute of Current Word Affairs:

Dear Peter,

Strolling along the lower Singapore River last month, I hardly recognised the waterfront of my first visit there, ten years ago.  I remember describing that part of the river, running through Singapore’s old business district, as the most fascinating cesspool up its rivers and revive aquatic life in the dead waters.  The pace, scope, and intensity of this campaign is perhaps unmatched by those of water quality improvement efforts anywhere in the world.

On that introduction to Singapore, I remember wandering past the new skyscrapers of the multinational banks, angered by their contrast with the squalor below.  But the life along Singapore’s waterfronts interested me more than the sterility of the newer areas – -glossy in the corporate and hotel centers, drab in the more pervasive housing developments.  I followed the courses of Singapore’s major south – draining streams through trading, industrial, and finally incongruously rural areas until the streams became mere drainage ditches, lined in concrete.  I picked my way, gingerly, through bustling open-air food wholesaling districts, where vegetable garbage and packing materials were washed directly into storm drains.  I passed through boat yards where carpenters repaired sampans, tongkangs, twa-kows, and other Chinese-style vessels I never learned to identify.

Every few hours on these walks, I stopped at hawkers’ stalls near the river to try some new delicacy – – an endless variety of noodles or globby, luridly-colored bean-and-gelatin drinks.  I marvelled at the low overhead of these businesses, as cooks poured peels, grease, and washwater into the gutters or threw them onto the riverside mud.  Further upriver, the hammering and woodchips of cabinet-makers’ and coffin-makers’ yards gave way to the grunts, quacks, and putrid run-off of backyard pig and duck farms, curious anachronisms adjacent to the booming construction sites of Singapore’s now ubiquitous highrise apartment blocks.

It occurred to me that these riversides were none too healthy, and that the stinky waters themselves were devoid of any desirable aquatic life, as I carefully washed muck off my rubber thongs and feet each evening, even sacrificing a toothbrush to pursue the grease and grit that had seeped into callouses and under toenails.

In 1977, Singaporeans were self-consciously on the brink of middle-class nationhood.  Waterborne diseases were still more common  than the otherwise high levels of public health would lead one to believe.  Jet-setters rode glittering capsule elevators to the tops of corporate towers to see the panorama of boat life, squatter settlements flotsam and jetsam on the water and riverbanks.  The panorame allowed Singaporeans to romanticise the old town’s historical image, and transcend the conspicuous filth and untidiness of the rivers that flew in the face of high-tech lifestyle to which many Singaporeans had begun to aspire.

In early 1977, Singapore’s Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, challenged the government to clean up the nation’s rivers:  ” . . . In ten years, let us have fishing in the Singapore River and fishing in the Kallang River.  It can be done.”  In Singapore, what Lee says, the government does.  By the end of the year, the Ministry of the Environment had traced the most obvious pollution to its sources in the two river basins.  The Singapore and Kallang River basins together are roughly contiguous to the most highly urbanized areas of the island state.  Reports spelled out measures to clean up the waters and riverbanks, on various aspects of the clean-up.

Over the next year, the Ministry of the Environment prepared a master action plan for completing the project.  Some people joked that the plan’s ten-year target was Singapore’s race to the moon.

Noting that I was looking at similar issues in other Southeast Asian nations did even more.  Singaporeans are intensely proud, even chauvanistic, of their success in such fields compared with their neighbors.

Even if bureaucrats responsible for specific segments of a project can’t point to anything tangible in the way of progress – – yet – – they solemnly point to their Plans.  In Singapore, a plan is a Plan.  As a unitary state (i.e. one without built-in divisions and conflict in authority and jurisdictions) the government cvan speak with one voice.  The Ministry of the Environment, as the lead agency in the clean-up effort ordered by Mr Lee, did not need to concern itself unduly with conflicts in interest and jurisdiction between local, state, and federal agencies, for example.  Questions of equitably distributing the costs and displacement associated with the river clean-ups were not subject to the public debate, accusations, and eventual fine-tuning that Amercans call “the democratic process.”  But Singapore’s press had covered the clean-up in details, and had subjected the versions of the plans released for public consumption to general speculation and questions.

I learned that, according to the Ministry of the Environment, cleaning up the rivers had requird resettling 26,000 families.  Occupantsof five major squatter settlements were moved by the Housing and Development Board to government flats or compensated to vacate their unsewered reverine sites according to government scales of patyments.  2,800 small industries, such as charcoal dealing, engine repairing, metal working, and carpenters were moved to government industrial estates or “flatted factories” (multi-storey or strip-type structures and yards leased to businesses and provided with water, sewer, electric, and security services).  800 small boat operators on the Singapore River were moved to Port Authority mooring places.  Most of the 64 boat yards of 1977 went out of business, largely due to the general downturn in Singapore’s small shipping trade with the dominance of large container ships and the demise of the river-oriented economic activities associated with the river clean-up and riverside land clearing.

In fact, much of the “clean-up” consisted of removing exactly those activities responsible for the economic vitality of Singapore’s rivers since the 1820s, when the island was Stamford Raffles’ Strait Settlement.  It is difficult and not particularly meaningful to distinguish between actions the government would probably have taken in the name of slum clearance or urban redevelopment from those taken only in the interest if improved health, water quality, or riverside aesthetics.  While cleaning the river itself was not originally envisoned as an essential element of Singapore’s comprehensive national development plans, most aspects of the clean-up had already been incoporated in these plans before the clean-up was emphasized as a separate goal.  Those riverside activities not removed from the area have been closely regulated with clear and simple rules on what is allowed on the river and what is now prohibited.

Because the Prime Minister had personally backed the river effort, appropriating money for it was not much of a problem.  Many of the elements of the clean-up were already accounted for or easily added to the responsible agencies’ operating and capital budgets.  More important, perhaps, Singapore’s government has little trouble gaining control of any piece of land it needs in the interest of national development.  Land to be cleared as part of the river clean-up was often moved to the top of priority lists for acquisition.  Because Singapore’s massive program of public housing and slum or squatter clearance was all set up to deal with those dislocated from the riversides, few particularly unique logistics needed to be worked out.  Whether or not the people moved are happy with the radically different housing and working alternatives provided is another matter.  But they have clearly moved from the “old Singapore to the new.

With the courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore related archived photos, the scenes of Singapore River by Judith Mayer are shared here on this blog.


qrfqrfqrfqrfThis photo in November 1969 by George W. Porter, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore.  Cargo handling was often sheer muscle power as most cargoes were carrier by coolies from bumboats to godowns onto lorries parked along the river bank.

The work of the coolies working on the boats at Singapore River are described
here .



Taking a slow boat down the Singapore River


On 1 October, 1987, a couple of Australian tourists from Perth were the only passengers when River Attractions Pte Ltd ran the first of its bumboat cruises on the Singapore River.

For Mrs Joy Cooper, 71, and her daughter, Mrs Val Bell, 49, the lack of company was more than compensated for by the change they noted in the new “clean look” river.

The two had seen the river in its worst days.

“We remember when the river still had these bumboats along its banks, and it was crowded and dirty,” said Mrs Cooper.

The 90-minute cruise, which begins at Clifford Pier, takes tourists up the Singapore River to Liang Court before turning back.  Stopover can be made at Liang Court and the Raffles Landing Site.

The two women were impressed with their guide, Miss Catherine Chiang, 21, who talked about the activities along the river during the colonial days, the bridges under which the boat passed and the skyscrapers on the waterfront.

UN to tap Clean Rivers expertise

[Source:  The Straits Times, 9 December 1987]

The United Nations plans to get experts from Singapore to help Third World countries clean up their rivers and water resources.

The world body has been impressed with the success of the Republic’s Clean Rivers project – a 10-year campaign which ended recently.


Dr R.D. Deshpande, a UN environmental affairs adviser who has been involved in the Clean River project since 1983, held out Singapore’s success in cleaning up polluted rivers as a shining example for other developing countries to follow.

“If Singapore can do it, so can other countries,” said Dr Deshpande, who is with the UN Environment  Programme’s regional office based in Bangkok.

“The idea is for Singapore to share this experience and know-how with other developing countries.  It will benefit all the developing countries, including China.”

He recalls the state of the rivers four years ago:  “They were such a filthy sight, you wouldn’t believe the smell in those days.  They were a stigma on Singapore then, but now they are so beautiful.



The UNEP helps developing countries look after their environmental problems and provided Singapore with expertise and money in its river-cleaning project.

“We see Singapore as a case study on how to avoid the pitfalls of development,” said Dr Deshpande, citing the Republic’s strict control of pollution and waste discharge as examples of how such pitfalls were avoided.

In the course of cleaning its rivers, Singapore has developed a lot of expertise in the field which, he feels, can be shared with other countries.

He added that as a small island nation, we need to place more emphasis on the recycling of waster water.

This is done in many countries, even in the United States, which enjoys abundant water supplies.”

KL can learn from Singapore’s river clean-up

By Ziauddin Sharuddin
[Source: The Straits Times, 3 March 2007]

Malaysia will need 30 years to rehabilitate its polluted rivers and restore them to their original condition.

Some people were jolted by this statement from the Department of Irrigation and Drainage’s director-general, Datok Rosnani Ibrahim, as the targeted period was said to be long to see changes to the river conditions in Malaysia.

What is the follow-up action for river-cleaning efforts and can the period be shortened?  Malaysia can learn from Singapore’s success, the latter having till the 1970s wrestled with the same problem.

At that time, the Singapore River was badly polluted.

On Feb 27, 1977, then prime minister Lee Kuan Yew said in a speech at the opening of Upper Peirce Reservoir that Singaporeans should help keep the rivers clean.

“The Ministry of Environment must set a target.  In 10 years, we should be able to fish in the Singapore River and Kallang Basin was unveiled.

The project was carried out by pooling the expertise of various government agencies such as the Housing and Development Board, Urban Redvelopment Authority, Jurong Town Council and Primary Production Department.

The Ministry of Environment was responsible for monitoring the entire project.

However, how was the cleaning carried out?

A drastic measure was to relocate the sources of pollution along the rivers.  These included industries which disposed of waste into the rivers.  The agencies also relocated settlements along the rivers, while providing those affected with housing.  Hawkers were relocated to food courts complete with amenities.

One important decision took place in 1983 when barges, which used to play a major role in the trade and life of the Singapore River, were relocated to Pasir Panjang to allow aggressive cleaning of the river.  This allowed the river to be re-dug and refuse and mud-thrown away.

In September 1987, the environment ministry celebrated its hard work by organising as mass swimming event at the river.

Lee Kuan Yew What have I given up My Life

Today, the Singapore River has become a national landmark – but the project would not have become a reality if not for political will.

Dr Zaini Ujang, professor of environmental resources engineering and dean of the faculty of chemical engineering and natural resources at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, said Singapore implemented many new things for its river-cleaning programme such that the water resources management model is referred to internationally.

The Public Utilities Board has enormous power in water resources management, whereas that function in Malaysia is held by various agencies and state governments.

Dr Zaini said Malaysia could use Singapore’s approach to speed up the river-cleaning efforts could be implemented faster, that is, in just five years.

He is confident that efforts would be successful, provided there is political will, Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi had also expressed regret at the quality of river water here.

However, he said the government needs everyone’s help, particularly help from the private sector, non-government organisations and professional groups.

The commentary translated from Malay appeared in Malaysia’s Berita Minggu.

Do you remember about the building of the so-called “crocked bridge” first mooted by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in 2003?

Just before ending his 22-year tenure as PM, Tun Dr Mahathir announced that Malaysia would go ahead and build a crooked bridge – a six-lane S-shaped highway that would curve in such a way that it allows vessels to pass under it – if Singapore refused to demolish its half of the Causeway.

The Prime Minister of Malaysia has different dreams and different thoughts compared to the dreams and their thinking aloud of Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.

Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew said that “This is not a game of cards” at YouTube video here .

The decision of Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and founding fathers of the government in Singapore would affect the lives of Singaporeans, not by mere words in speeches in public.

As a case in point, it is interesting to know that PM Lee Kuan Yew did not agree with Dr Albert Winsemius that the the Singapore River is too polluted and impossible to clean up.

In his speech by Mr Masagos Zulkifli, Minister for the Environment and Water Reources at the opening of the Sustainable Singapore Gallery on 2 June 2018.

” … inside the Gallery, you will see a little porcelain figurine of a man, his grandson, and their dog out on a fishing trip.  The figurine was presented to Dutch economist Dr Albert Winsemius after he lost a wager that the Singapore River could once again sustain life.  Dr Winsemius was Chief Economic Advisor to the Singapore Government, and knew Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew well.  They agreed on many things and we implemented most of Dr Winsemius’ recommendations.  But when Dr Winsemius recommended covering up the polluted Singapore River to turn it into a sewer, Mr Lee Kuan Yew objected and instead promised Dr Winsemius that he would one day catch a fish in the Singapore River.  During his final visit to Singapore in 1993, he did catch a “Garoupa”  (Grouper), and said he was never happier to lose a wager.

The clean-up of the Singapore River took us a decade and cost $300 million.  The successful completion showed that despite the difficulties showed Singapore’s determination to grow our economy whilst protecting our environment.  Sustainable development is and has been the cornerstone of our policy making since our independence.

What kind of a Singapore would be like without the Singapore River ….. if Dr Winsemius’ recommendation were to be implemented.  The island of Singapore with the Singapore River when it was God-made and left alone to improve its environment man can do, not change it into a sewer.   God bless Singapore!



In 1977, work has begun to clean up the Singapore River and the hope is that it will become a clean and blue waterway teeming with fish.  The first target of the Port of Singapore Authority clean-up crew is the rotting lighters in the river.  The abandoned lighters, including sunken ones have been lying there for so many years – with no one doing anything to clear them  Many will be glad to see the wrecks removed to beautify the river.  [Source:  National Archives of Singapore].

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