Singapore—the country where you can be fined for improper disposal of chewing gum—is a democracy. But most Americans would consider Singapore an authoritarian technocracy. And rightfully so; in Singapore, the President appoints heads of each ministry. The ministries enact the majority of the country’s planning and programming. Ministries also have a lot of power to write their own laws. Though the country’s Parliament is tasked with writing and passing statutory law, the Parliament has been controlled by the country’s Political Action Party (PAP) for over 50 years now, since the country’s inception. The presidency and prime ministry have been held by the PAP for the same length of time.
In short, the PAP has controlled Singapore for as long as the country has existed.
At its birth in the mid-1950s, Singapore was a developing country with many low-level needs. Water was scarce and had to be imported. Household and human waste filled the Singapore River. The squeaky-clean Singapore we have today is a result of decades of democracy-stifling rule by Singapore’s first prime minister, the emblematic Lee Kuan Yew. Visionary and charismatic, LKY shaped Singapore into the country it is today, through rigorous and thoughtful urban planning. Democracy and civil society were sacrificed in favor of a top-down, data-driven approach to public policy.
But things are changing in the Little Red Dot, particularly with respect to environmental and sustainability issues. In the mid-1980s, Nature Society (Singapore), or NSS, began making rumblings regarding Singapore’s economy-over-environment approach. They openly criticized the government’s decision to develop one of the country’s wetlands, Chek Jawa. And, in a startling turn of events, they won. Singapore reversed its development plans.
Since NSS’s victory at Chek Jawa, innumerable environmentally-charged initiatives have been incepted by the government. In itself, this is no surprise. Due to its size, Singapore has stressed sustainability for decades. Global awareness of climate change has likely also catalyzed Singapore’s eco-friendly efforts. But Singapore is involving its people and private sectors more than ever in ensuring sustainability. It’s asking for community insights. It’s bringing business and NGO interests to the table. It’s getting the general public interested in water use and refuse disposal. It’s collaborating with non-governmental actors to start new sustainability initiatives.
The increased influence of the civil society and private sectors on Singapore’s sustainability initiatives is a nascent subject that piqued my research interests. Through interviews, literature reviews, and sustainability site-visits throughout Singapore, I sought to gain an understanding of how these non-governmental sectors are expanding their role in the country’s sustainable planning. It’s an exciting time to be living in the Little Red Dot, especially for those who want a stake in the country’s sustained survival.