A Tribute to Singapore’s Chief Gardener, Lee Kuan Yew

“If a garden is well maintained and neatly landscaped, there must be a dedicated and efficient gardener.”

– Mr Lee Kuan Yew (1923-2015)


From Garden City to City in a Garden, Singapore has been utterly transformed by the work of our late founding father, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, whom we dub affectionately our Chief Gardener.

In Chapter 13 of his book From Third World to First, Lee Kuan Yew details his experiences and intentions in transforming Singapore’s physical landscape into a tropical garden city, an “oasis” as he called it.

During those early days, the challenge of improving the living environment of Singaporeans was intricately connected to the push for modernity, particularly the behaviour of the people. In the quote below, Lee Kuan Yew promoted environmental education in schools and cultivated a sense of pride for our green surroundings:

“Perseverance and stamina were needed to fight old habits: People walked over plants, trampled on grass, despoiled flowerbeds, pilfered saplings, or parked bicycles or motorcycles against the larger ones, knocking them down. A doctor was caught removing from a central road divider a newly planted valuable Norfolk Island pine which he fancied for his garden. To overcome the initial indifference of the public, we educated their children in schools by getting them to plant trees, care for them, and grow gardens. They brought the message home to their parents.” 

Despite all odds, his ambitious plans of improving environmental quality were successful. Most notably, the Singapore River cleanup of the 1980s and the construction of reservoir and canal networks are outcomes we continue to appreciate today. In a moving story about the Red Box that Mr Lee carried with him, Minister Heng Swee Keat writes that Mr Lee saw trash floating in the Singapore River, and immediately sought to do something about it.

Lee Kuan Yew became our Chief Gardener when he saw the value of the shade provided by street trees and roadside vegetation. He set in place tree-planting programmes, which are ubiquitous in community gatherings even today. His vision of a lush, thriving city is what we see today in our streetscapes of verdant sidewalks planted with familiar Angsana trees, Yellow Flame trees and others. These trees mitigate the temperature increases caused by the urban heat island inevitably enveloped the city as urbanisation reduced vegetated land cover.

“I have always believed that a blighted urban landscape, a concrete jungle destroys the human spirit. We need the greenery of nature to lift our spirits.” 

– Mr Lee Kuan Yew, 1995

While one may argue that garden may not necessarily mean nature, and that street trees are not ecologically sufficient, there has been a shift in perceptions to embrace urban biodiversity conservation. Today, NParks, Singapore’s statutory board for providing and enhancing greenery in our urban environment, has advanced the vision of a Garden City into a City in a Garden.

Lee Kuan Yew’s key contributions to the biodiversity community are undeniable, as a leader who valued greenery and vegetation even when development priorities came first, and set in place the institutions that would champion the cause for biodiversity later on. To that, we salute our Chief Gardener, Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

Other Tributes: 

NParks: A Special Tribute to Mr Lee Kuan Yew The Man Behind the Greening of Singapore

Otterman’s Blog: A message to the biodiversity community about our Chief Gardener 

Channel NewsAsia: Mr Lee Kuan Yew was Singapore’s ‘chief gardener’: Khaw says in teary tribute

Words by: Judy Goh | Graphic by: Jacqueline Chua

Water everywhere… Happy World Water Day!

Hey everyone! World Water Day is today, and we’ve come up with this special post to share how forests, such as the Central Catchment Nature Reserve, and water, such as our Macritchie Reservoir, go hand in hand to ensure a thriving ecosystem!


First, a brief history lesson. The BES Drongos lead nature walks around the oldest reservoir in Singapore, standing at 147 years. First completed in 1868, Macritchie Reservoir was named after James Macritchie, an engineer that looked to expand it to accommodate an increasing population. When the impounding reservoir was built, the plantations around it were closed down and the forest was allowed to naturally recover from the agricultural deforestation that had been taking place. This dense thick vegetation served a purpose: it protected the reservoir as a precious water resource! Things have changed now. Since the nature reserve and Macritchie Reservoir were opened to the public, it has become a recreational hub for joggers and secondary water sports enthusiasts. But, people are not the only ones who benefit from the water; flora and fauna residing in the area also rely on the reservoir’s water. This is not just only for hydration, but as a living habitat for some species as well, such as turtles.


Water quality in our reservoirs is important to monitor, not just for human consumption, but also as an indicator of how healthy our ecosystem is. Interestingly, dragonflies are known to be indicators of good water quality because they thrive in such areas.

IMG_2984 The presence of forests around the reservoir aid in maintaining this high quality. Leaf litter all around the forest is able to trap potential water pollutants like rubbish such that it does not reach even close to the reservoir. Also, bacteria in wet forest soils carry out denitrification, which is the process of converting nitrates into nitrogen gas to be released into the air. This prevents nitrates, a form of nutrient, from entering the reservoir and causing algal blooms which are capable of killing aquatic wildlife.


Additionally, forests improve infiltration and stabilize slopes with presence of plant roots, which reduces erosion of soil into the reservoir. The roots of trees create gaps in the soil so that when it rains, water can sink into the soil before subsequently being absorbed by the roots. These root systems of trees and other plants also keep soils porous. Water is filtered through various layers of soil before entering ground water and this process thus allows for toxins, nutrients, sediment, and other substances to be filtered of the water, and kept from entering the reservoir body as well. Without forests, soil is more prone to erosion, so sediment would make the water body murky and also affect the visibility of animals in the water.

IMG_2655 These characteristics of the nature reserve are also re-created with deliberate greenery design in MacRitchie Reservoir Park as part of PUB’s Active, Beautiful and Clean Waters programme. One example is the submerged boardwalk, where plants on the reed beds similarly serve to absorb pollutants, removing these harmful substances from the water supply before it even reaches the reservoir’s filtration system.

An intermediate egret looking for lunch in the reservoir.

With several countries experiencing issues of water scarcity and water pollution, clean water sources are without doubt important not just for our daily lives, but also for the survival of species in green spaces around us. In Singapore, the presence of the MacRitchie Nature Reserve and other forests help tremendously in keeping water in our many reservoirs clean. Thus, should we continue to cherish both the water we drink and our environment we live in, Singapore will indeed have many more prosperous years to go.

Words by: Chow Tak Wei