Saturday, August 29, 2009

The lesson of Water

Aug 29, 2009

By Lu Yuanbing

IT HAS been some time since I returned to China from Singapore where I had gone for studies. But I continue to cherish sweet memories of the island's clean and clear Singapore River.

Indeed, that river seems to have left an indelible mark in my mind, ever reminding me of the country's gentle people, its clean Government and the successes the Republic has achieved.

During my sojourn in Singapore, some of the stories that could be heard most often were about water.

Water can be formless yet it can also be powerful. Water droplets may well have no force but a torrent can wash away many things in its path. In fact, nothing can stop a rapidly shifting deluge. Likewise, Singapore's water story is a reflection of the character of its people.

Given its tiny land area, the importance of water to Singapore is very obvious. Its water supply comes from the neighbouring Malaysian state of Johor under two water agreements signed before Independence. It has not been unknown for Malaysia to resort to using its water as a bargaining chip in cross-border talks with Singapore over a number of issues.

This vulnerability once posed a nasty headache for Singapore. Now, however, the Republic not only has a sufficient supply of water but it is even planning to turn this Garden City into a Water City.

This achievement is a tribute to the diligence and collective wisdom of its people. During the mid-1980s, the Government began regarding water as a strategic issue and thus gave it top priority. It spared no expenses in bringing in world-class talent to build new technologies that would make the desalination of sea water economically feasible.

Within a few years, the country had put in place an islandwide system of rainwater collection and Newater plants to recycle water. It has also succeeded in extracting fresh water from sea water. Thus, the country now produces 40 per cent of its own fresh water supply.

This means that, even as the world was grappling with water shortages, Singapore has succeeded in resolving its water problem by developing what is called membrane technology. This has turned it around from being a country held hostage by another over its water supply to one that the world now knows as a global water hub. Singapore now even provides water solutions centred on membrane technology to countries the world over. It has given birth to an industrial sector based on environmental technologies with clever branding and smart financing. When you think about it, this story is a veritable miracle. But then again, this island has wrought many a miracle in electronics, education and medicine.

Appropriately, the people of Singapore I came to know also have the gentleness of water. The Singapore River meanders its way through the city, carrying boats filled with tourists on a river cruise. Strolling along the banks of that river are Singaporeans as well as people from many countries and regions. While basking in the sunshine and relishing in its clear skies and fresh air, they also experience the harmony that thrives in this multicultural metropolis.

I came to the realisation that, in spite of their astounding achievements as well as the international exposure many Singaporeans have, its people are not at all arrogant. People of all races live in harmony.

There is peace and order in the city. The city exudes a certain calm and humility, even poise. A lot has to do with its Government that is as transparent as the Singapore River is clear. However, it was only after a visit to one of its museums showcasing local history that I came to know how, during British colonial rule, the river was utterly filthy and polluted.

Then dotted with boats where labourers toiled, the river emitted such a foul stench that people had to hold their noses from quite a distance away. After independence, the Government began to clean up the river assiduously.

Today, the river is clear and clean while the Government is just and transparent. Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's former prime minister and currently its Minister Mentor, believes that the Republic's survival hinges on its political stability as well as incorruptible and efficient government officials.

To me, Singaporeans are fortunate. In 1996, MM Lee was accused of corruption. He had allegedly received discounts when purchasing property. MM Lee insisted that the Government investigate the matter and openly explained the facts in Parliament. It was established that the property developer had indeed given such discounts to all 'early bird' buyers. MM Lee once pronounced that the fact he was asked to explain his case in Parliament gave him hope for Singapore's future.

Granted there may still be some instances of corruption in Singapore today. However, guilty parties will certainly pay a hefty price for it. Though I have left Singapore for some time now, the imagery of its clean and clear river flowing quietly through this blessed city - and what that symbolises - remains vivid in my mind.

This is a translation of a column that first appeared in China's People's Daily on Monday.

[Yes, another glowing praise of Singapore from a foreigner. I can't help it. I like stories and impressions from outsiders - those that praise, as well as those that are constructively critical. For the constructively critical, the comments and criticisms should be based on actual experience rather than ideological armchair critique.]

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