From slums to riches: How Lee Kuan Yew built Singapore

Romesh Navaratnarajah26 Mar 2015

Lee Kuan Yew

The late Mr Lee felt poor housing conditions in Singapore’s early years would negatively impact the population and focused on improving the public housing system while pushing for more green spaces.

For Singaporeans, the name Lee Kuan Yew is synonymous with modern Singapore.

“I have spent my life, so much of it, building up this country. There’s nothing more that I need to do. At the end of the day, what have I got? A successful Singapore. What have I given up? My life,” is a quote from Mr Lee in 2011.

Born in 1923, Mr Lee led the nation from 1965 when it declared its independence from Malaysia and served as its first Prime Minister for over three decades.

Devoting his whole life to Singapore, he used his tremendous foresight to transform Singapore from a Third World to a First World country, such that policy makers from around the world were fascinated by its transformation.

Calling him a visionary, US President Barack Obama said: “He was a true giant of history who will be remembered for generations to come as the father of modern Singapore and as one the great strategists of Asian affairs.”

Notably, Mr Lee inspired various development policies, from homeownership and urban planning to the greening of Singapore.


Housing a nation

In the early 1960s, Singapore was dotted with slums and squatters, and homelessness was high. An advocate of public housing, Mr Lee set up the Housing and Development Board (HDB) and began the ambitious task of housing a nation.

“This was the plan which we had from the very beginning, to give everybody a home at cost or below cost and as development takes place, everybody gets a lift, all boats rise as the tide rises,” he was quoted as saying in an online report.

He believed that owning a home gives Singaporeans a sense of equity, that they own a part of the city, making them care more for the community.

Mr Lee also felt that homeownership would give Singaporean families an asset and a means of wealth accumulation.

Today, Singapore has one of the world’s highest homeownership rates, with 90 percent of Singaporeans owning their homes, majority of which are HDB flats.


City in a garden

The making of a Garden City was a key element in the development strategy of Mr Lee who was a nature lover, according to National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan in a blog post.

Mr Lee saw this as a means of distinguishing the city-state from other cities, particularly within the region. He believed that a well-tended city would help convince potential investors that the country was well run.

With a keen eye for detail, Mr Lee took a personal interest in everything related to the greening of Singapore – including plant types and drainage systems.

To ensure that different ministries worked closely together to make greenery an integral part of the city-state’s infrastructure, Mr Lee set up the Garden City Action Committee. He also created the National Parks Board as he believed “an agency with staff trained in horticulture, botany, and other areas required in maintaining greenery was needed to oversee the Green Campaign”, noted Mr Khaw.

Currently, almost 10 percent of Singapore is set aside for parks. Lush greenery covers the island, while roads are lined with shrubs, trees and plants.


Pioneer of urban planning

Although land is limited, Mr Lee wanted Singapore to retain its sense of space.

“From west to east and east to west, we’ll knock down the whole city and rebuild it… we spread out throughout the island, so it’s not crowded and we’ve got the space for greenery,” he said in an article published in international magazine Urban Solutions.

“We’re going to build taller buildings, but we can’t build them closely together. There must be a sense of playing fields, recreational areas for children and old people – a sense that this is a full country with all the facilities which you expect of a large country but in a confined space,” he added.

Mr Lee also saw the need to improve public transportation. While he was in favour of more affordable transport like buses, he was convinced that while the cost would be high for a rail system, it would remove traffic from the road and allow buses to move freely.

He also felt that a good city should provide a safe and comfortable environment. “It is no use having good surroundings,” he said. He explained that the police must be effective, not visible.

He also pushed for Singapore to be a hub due to its convenience.

“For aircrafts, it’s the efficiency of the airport and the inter-connectivity. If air passengers have to stopover, they prefer Singapore,” said Mr Lee, adding that “we made it comfortable and easy for the traveller”.

He shared that many airlines fly to Singapore direct from other cities, giving the city-state an enormous advantage.

“If they move to Kuala Lumpur or Jakarta, then the headquarters of these companies will move… We must make it attractive for corporations that want to base here,” he said.


Romesh Navaratnarajah, Singapore Editor at PropertyGuru, wrote this story. To contact him about this or other stories email


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