The Story behind Clean and Green Singapore

One November morning in 1964, the Singaporean Prime Minister looked out from his office window and saw some cows grazing on the Esplanade. Several days later, he learnt that a lawyer died after his car hit a cow while he was driving on the main road outside the city.

Triggered by these two episodes, Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew (1923-2015) called for a meeting. In the meeting, he chalked out an action plan to ensure that no stray cows were ever found wandering in the city.

Familiarly known by his initials LKY, he was the country’s founding prime minister. In 31 years (1959-1990) as the top Singaporean statesman, he is credited for propelling Singapore from a third to the first world.

When LKY found out that the cow herders were driving their cattle into the city so that they could feed on the grass of the roadside and the public lawns, he chalked out an action plan.

According to it, the cow herders were given till 31 January 1965 to remove their animals from the city. They were told that disobedience would result in the cattle being taken to the abattoir and the meat distributed to the welfare homes.

By end of December 1964, fifty-three cows were rounded up and the action plan was carried out. Since then, Singapore has never had problems with animals straying in the city. Many Singaporeans are familiar with the story. It has been recounted in various books.

One such book that has the story is LKY’s memoir, “From Third World to First.” In it, he shares the story of how after independence, he looked for some dramatic way to distinguish Singapore from other third-world countries in the region. He settled for a clean and green Singapore.

From the word go, LKY realized that a green city had multiple benefits. It not only raised the morale of the people but also gave all the residents pride and joy in their surroundings. He believed that if the country was organized with first-world standards, then it would not only attract tourists but also lure foreign investors. One arm of his strategy was to make the country an oasis in Southeast Asia.

In his memoir, he talks about how one could tell how well a state was managed by the greenery in its cities. The ‘flash of genius,’ occurred to him in 1968. At the time, he was in Boston on a sabbatical. He said that he noticed that all city foliage was a verdant green.

At the time, Singapore, bushes by the roadside were covered with grime from the diesel exhaust fumes of cars and trucks. So, when LKY returned home, he followed up on that idea. He made it mandatory for all vehicles to do emission inspections. This act instantly helped revive the greenery.

In his memoir, LKY recollects how he found out that most of the trees did not survive after the tree-planting ceremony. So, on 11 May 1967, he introduced his vision of a ‘garden city’ to the people of Singapore.

A few years later, in November 1971, he launched the annual Tree Planting Day. This is much like our Social Forestry day. Through tree planting, students, grassroot leaders, and residents living in both public and private housing estates were made to have skin in the game. Setting an example, he planted trees and did not miss a single tree-planting day till he passed away in 2015.

He started cleaning and greening Singapore at a time when the greening of cities was not on the priority list of most of the neighbouring countries. Like with the introduction of any new idea or change, the most challenging part of greening Singapore was making the behavioural change. So, he started from ground zero. The public was sensitized about the benefits of greening and awarded severe penalties for violation.

LKY said that “perseverance and stamina were needed to fight old habits. People walked over plants, trampled on grass, destroyed flowerbeds and pilfered saplings. There were instances where people parked their bicycles or motorcycles against the larger saplings, knocking them down. It was found that it was not only the poorer people who were the offenders. For example, a doctor was caught removing a newly planted Norfolk Island pine from a central road divider that he fancied for his garden.

To change mindsets, schoolchildren were required to plant trees and care for them. They were also encouraged to cultivate gardens. This ensured that the children not only became custodians of the gardens but also harbingers carrying messages home.

Unlike Bhutan, Singapore is not blessed with fertile soil. Because the land area is largely constituted of mud flats, not everything grows there. So, in 1978 LKY engaged experts from Australia and New Zealand to do research. This was a game-changer. The experts quickly discovered that due to the heavy rain and the harsh sunshine throughout the year, once trees had been felled, the topsoil was leached of its nutrients.

As per the experts’ recommendation, compost was used regularly and lime was added to the soil to reduce the acidity. These measures did the trick. After tests on the Istana lawns proved successful, the whole city was greened up.

Saplings were planted in the month of November because with the onset of the monsoon, they required little watering at that time of year. LKY sent out teams of botanists to various botanical gardens, public parks and arboreta in tropical and subtropical zones with a similar climate in Asia, Africa, the Caribbean and Central America.

Out of the 8,000 different varieties of plants, the botanists brought back, they managed to successfully propagate about 2,000 to grow in Singapore and add variety to the existing greenery. According to the records, by the end of 1970 over 55,000 new trees had been successfully planted.

To give teeth to his policy, LKY introduced the Parks and Trees Act in 1975. This required the relevant government agencies and private developers to set aside space for trees and greenery in their various projects.

In his book, he recounts the story of the French minister who was invited as a guest at the National Day celebrations in the 1970s. He states, the minister was “ecstatic as he congratulated me in French; I did not speak French but understood the word “verdure.” He was captivated by the greenness of the city.”


At 718 sq km, Singapore is about one-third of the size of Thimphu dzongkhag but has 5.64 million people living in it as of June 2022. Singapore went through some of the things that Bhutan is going through now but effectively dealt with it.

For example, in the 1960s, people in Singapore were spitting all over the place. To combat it, early in his stewardship, LKY introduced anti-spitting campaigns. In his memoir, he writes that despite efforts, even after two decades of campaigning, a few taxi drivers would still spit out of their car windows. Similarly, some people would still spit in the food centers and markets. Using school children, messages were sent about how spitting would spread tuberculosis. Eventually, with persistence, he prevailed.

LKY said that he and his colleagues worked hard and with persistence to change the mindset of the people. From the word go, he was determined to make Singapore a clean and green city-state for everyone.

In 1969, four years after 53 stray cows wandering in the city had been slaughtered, the country was criticized in an article in the November 1969 issue of the American magazine ‘Look’ for the action plan it had put in motion in December 1964.

As a result of LKY’s 1967 vision of transforming Singapore into a tropical garden city, and the consequent implementation of the Parks and Trees Act of 1975, the number of new trees planted increased from about 158,600 in 1974 to 1.4 million by June 2014.

With its tree-lined avenues, and manicured lawns Singapore has for some time been known as a garden city. The clean and green city attracted not only tourists but also helped bring in foreign investments. With the cleaning and greening of Singapore, his wish to do something dramatic to transform the city and make it different from other countries in the region was realized. Lee Kuan Yew has been credited as the driving force for a clean and green Singapore.

Contributed by 

Tshering Tashi