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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