Why We Should Rally Against the Garden City

“Singapore today is a verdant city…This was no accident of nature. It is the result of a deliberate 30-year policy.” – Lee Kuan Yew, 1995[1]

 “Some say we should not engage in activism. Instead, we should leave everything to our politicians and just vote for a change instead. But what do we do when there is no political will? What do we do when the politics needed are nowhere in sight?” – Greta Thunberg, 2019[2]

On September 21st 2019, two thousand people made history by staging Singapore’s very first climate rally. Bold signs that read “no planet B,” “respect your mother (Earth),” and “I stand for what I stand on” decorated the Speaker’s Corner at Hong Lim Park.[3] With the planet warming at an unprecedented rate, attendees of the SG Climate Rally were not alone in their demands for government leaders to take more aggressive steps against the climate crisis. Reportedly 7.6 million people around the world took to the streets during the September 2019 climate strikes.[4]

Despite the public outcry, some may argue that the Singaporean state has a rather impressive environmental track record compared to other countries.[5] Ever since Lee Kuan Yew envisioned Singapore as a “garden city” in 1967, the state has spearheaded a myriad of greening initiatives, ranging from massive tree-planting to strict pollution control.[6] In fact, Singapore’s government prides itself for establishing its anti-pollution unit as early as 1970 and launching one of the world’s first environmental ministries.[7]

Singapore offers a rather unconventional approach to addressing the climate crisis. Instead of adopting a more “democratic environmentalist” approach, which is driven by public participation and civil society, Singapore leans towards what theorists call “authoritarian environmentalism,” or state-led, non-participatory environmental policy-making.[8]While environmental matters are commonly framed within democratic discourse, there is a growing sentiment that democracy has failed to properly respond to the climate crisis. Some scholars even go as far as to say that “the destructive tendencies within the heart of democracy itself” inherently creates a potential for an environmental crisis.[9] Where does such skepticism towards democracy stem from? And does it warrant a rejection of more democratic approaches to environmentalism?

A Case for the “Garden City”

Proponents of authoritarian environmentalism argue that democracy caters to the electorate’s short-term desires, making it more difficult to address long-term issues like climate change. It is all too easy to ignore all the worries about the rise of 1.5C in global temperature when one can simply switch on the air conditioner.[10] Some tiny island in the middle of the Pacific Island sinking seem like a faraway tale to the average Singaporean voter.[11] This criticism is neither new nor exclusive to environmental concerns. Numerous scholars – including the 20th century political economist Schumpeter who called voters “bad judges of their own long-run interests”[12] – have repeatedly expressed that voters tend to focus on their own short-term needs and profit, rather than long-term ones.[13] Some even claim that humans have biologically evolved to adapt to local environmental conditions, narrowing their emotional commitments to limited space, time, and community.[14]

By extension of this argument, critics of democratic environmentalism question whether average voters are capable of understanding the technicalities behind environmental management. Despite the abundance of scientific explanations for climate change, there are still climate deniers amongst us. Donald Trump, who pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement, has consistently expressed skepticism towards climate change: he tweeted, “Brutal and Extended Cold Blast could shatter ALL RECORDS – Whatever happened to Global Warming?”[15] Of course, Trump’s inability to distinguish weather from climate is not a reflection of the entire electorate. However, the fact remains that there is a sizable portion of voters who, like Trump, may not share the necessary scientific knowledge to understand the climate crisis properly. The possibility and dangers of public ignorance always lurks behind participatory decision-making. 

YouGov-Cambridge Globalis Project 2019 Survey: % of 25,325 respondents who do not believe human-driven climate change is occurring[16]

Rather than ameliorating these tendencies, frequent election cycles in democracies can end up indulging them. To gain favor with the electorate, politicians focus on short-term projects that produce immediate results (e.g. they would prefer to put more criminals in prison rather than address the deeper systemic socioeconomic root causes of crime). Politicians have no incentive to represent the interest of future constituents or invest in long-term projects, which would only be interrupted by short-term elections. The inability to think about distant possibilities is detrimental for environmental causes, since the consequences of the climate crisis is not always immediately visible.

Perhaps, Singapore’s technocratic government can offer a solution to these adverse effects of democracy. In The Climate Change Challenge and the Failure of Democracy, Shearman and Smith applauds Singapore’s authoritarian and “illiberal democracy” for bringing about the city’s economic success, high standards of living, and political stability, despite its lack of natural resources.[17] They attribute these achievements to its meritocratic government that is unhindered by opposition. Indeed, Singapore prides itself for its technocratic approach that responds efficiently to citizens’ needs by “learning from international experience in devising policies, and using data and scenarios for long-term planning.”[18]Rather than regarding public participation as an end itself, Singapore’s elite-led government acts as the “promoter and vigilant guardian of [the] collective interest.”[19] This mode of governance allows them to pursue long-term plans without the fear of interruptions by election cycles. Consequently, the government can replace voters’ short-termism and ignorance with “visionary leadership and careful, long-term planning.”[20]

Why We Still Need Democratic Contestation

Singapore’s approach seems to be working. Afterall, Singapore ranks amongst the greenest cities in Asia by the Asian Green City Index.[21] Perhaps, for a well-oiled city like Singapore (pun intended), there is no particular need for a more democratic, participatory approach…or is there?

While the Singaporean government has managed to actualize its vision of a “garden city,” it has always defined its “national interest” in economic terms.[22] Since its independence from Britain and Malaysia, Singapore has adopted the “developmental state model,” prioritizing economic development over other social and political goals.[23] As a small nation-state with little natural resources, early post-independence leaders believed that a state-led modernization and industrialization would be most pragmatic, and their legacy continues; up till today, much of the decision-making power lies within elite government agencies (e.g. the Economic Development Board and the Ministry of Trade).[24] As the public increasingly turns to the state for economic and social resources, economic success helps legitimize the regime[25] and becomes the standard for the state’s performance.

With economic development being the utmost priority for government leaders, economic rationale frames all other governing issues, including the environment. Thus, Singapore’s vision of the “garden city” must be understood not as some biophilic end goal, but rather a part of a broader economic project. In fact, Lee Kuan Yew himself was very transparent about his developmentalist agenda behind greening initiatives. In his memoir, he writes,

After independence, I searched for some dramatic way to distinguish ourselves from other Third World countries. I settled for a clean and green Singapore…for if we had First World standards then businessmen and tourists would make us a base for their business and tours of the region.[26]

One might think that as long as Singapore continues to have greening initiatives, it would not matter whether the state was driven by economic gains. The problem, however, is that if economic success is the ultimate end, environmental efforts would be limited to areas that have economic utility. For instance, in comparison to areas that are more relevant to material living conditions, such as water treatment and beautification programs, Singapore has consistently neglected other areas including nature conservation and greenhouse gas emissions.[27] Even the state’s selection criteria for conservation sites is largely concerned with their utilitarian value – “the ability to coexist with nearby developments,” “potential for recreation, education and scientific purposes,” “the opportunity costs of alternative uses of the site” – as opposed to biodiversity or the presence of threatened wildlife.[28] The examples demonstrate not only that economic concerns takes precedence over environmental ones, but also how it frames environmental discourse. For many who believe that the climate crisis requires a radical change from the current capitalistic mode of operations (e.g. Naomi Klein), this tendency to frame environmental issues within an economic rationale is severely inadequate.

My aim is not to assess whether the Singaporean government has done enough for the environment nor am I giving a hard-cut rejection of authoritarian environmentalism. Rather, I am arguing that while Singapore’s technocratic regime can offer long-term planning in lieu of short-termism and public ignorance, we cannot immediately assume that it is preferable or objectively good. Even with so-called “environmental goals,” these goals are subsumed under the developmental model, which is inherently “more interested in the means of development than any qualitative evaluation of what counts as ‘authentic or ‘ethical’ development.”[29] Simply put, long-term planning is far from being value-neutral or self-evident; state leaders have evidently promoted economic prosperity and material comfort as the nation’s primary value.[30] But on what basis can the elite claim that these values are more important?

Singapore has long treated environmental issue (or governance in general) as a matter of competence, entrusting the nation’s fate into the educated elite. In an interview, PM Lee repeatedly treated questions of opposition in terms of skill and capacity. Defending why Singapore does not need opposition parties, PM Lee states, “There’s no chance of the opposition having enough capable people to take over. It’s as simple as that.”[31] Perhaps, PM Lee’s concerns are valid. Yes, we do want competent leaders. But why should the national interest be defined in economic terms? Why can’t it prioritize the environment? Before discussing how we should get somewhere, shouldn’t we think about where we are going?

While concerns for short-termism and public ignorance may be valid, we must be careful not to assume that what constitutes “long-term interests” is a given. My contention is that these questions cannot be answered technocratically by a few elites, because the question of where is – at its core – a matter of values and ethics, not about knowledge and capacity. Thus, it requires the wider public to engage with each other. I don’t mean state-mandated consultative channels that help finetune policies, but ultimately leaves the state’s broader political economic agendas unchallenged. No, participation should operate at the level of value-formation as exemplified by the SG Climate Rally. By demanding policies that run counter to industrial growth (e.g. divestment from fossil fuel companies), the SG Climate Rally challenged leaders and the public to reconsider what Singapore should prioritize. It was not simply a demand for better environmental policies, but a shift in values.

[1] “Special Tribute to Mr Lee,” Government Agency Website, National Parks Board, accessed November 22, 2019, https://www.nparks.gov.sg/about-us/special-tribute-to-mr-lee.

[2] Greta Thunberg, “‘Our House Is on Fire’: Greta Thunberg, 16, Urges Leaders to Act on Climate,” The Guardian, January 25, 2019, sec. Environment, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jan/25/our-house-is-on-fire-greta-thunberg16-urges-leaders-to-act-on-climate.

[3] Audrey Tan and David Fogarty, “Big Turnout at Hong Lim Park for First Singapore Climate Rally,” The Straits Times, September 21, 2019, https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/environment/hundreds-turn-up-in-red-at-hong-lim-park-for-first-singapore-climate-rally.

[4] “7.6 Million People Demand Action After Week of Climate Strikes,” 350.org, September 27, 2019, https://350.org/press-release/6-6-million-people-demand-action-after-week-of-climate-strikes/.

[5] Daniel P. S. Goh, “The Politics of the Environment in Singapore? Lessons from a ‘Strange’ Case,” Asian Journal of Social Science 29, no. 1 (2001): 11.

[6] Lee Kuan Yew, From Third World To First: The Singapore Story:1965-2000 (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish, 2000): 202, 208.

[7] Goh, “The Politics of the Environment in Singapore?” 11

[8] Bruce Gilley, “Authoritarian Environmentalism and China’s Response to Climate Change,” Environmental Politics 21, no. 2 (March 2012): 288.

[9] David Shearman and Joseph W. Smith, The Climate Change Challenge and the Failure of Democracy (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2007), 4.

[10] The effects of 1.5C rise in global temperature are in reality profound. According to the 2018 IPCC report, climate-associated risks include, but not limited to sea-level rise, mass species extinction, heat-related morbidity, reduction in food availability, extreme weather, etc. Source: IPCC, 2018: Summary for Policymakers. Retrieved from https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/sites/2/2019/05/SR15_SPM_version_report_LR.pdf

[11] Scientists predict that the Polynesian country of Tuvalu may be uninhabitable within the next 50 to 100 years. See https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2019/may/16/one-day-disappear-tuvalu-sinking-islands-rising-seas-climate-change

[12] Joseph Alois Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (1942; reprint London/New York: Routledge, 2014), 260.

[13] See Michael K. MacKenzie, “A General-Purpose, Randomly Selected Chamber,” in Institutions For Future Generations and Charles Daniel, “To What Extent Is Democracy Detrimental to the Current and Future Aims of Environmental Policy and Technologies?,” POLIS Journal 7 (2012): 92–127

[14] Shearman and Smith, The Climate Change Challenge and the Failure of Democracy, 9.

[15] Retrieved from https://twitter.com/realdonaldtrump/status/1065400254151954432?lang=en

[16] Image source: Oliver Milman Fiona Harvey, “US Is Hotbed of Climate Change Denial, Major Global Survey Finds,” The Guardian, May 8, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/may/07/us-hotbed-climate-change-denial-international-poll.

[17] Shearman and Smith, The Climate Change Challenge and the Failure of Democracy, 125.

[18] Parag Khanna, The Future Is Asian (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2019), 288.

[19] Beng Huat Chua, “Towards a Non-Liberal Communitarian Democracy,” in Communitarian Ideology and Democracy in Singapore (London/New York: Routledge, 1995), 106.

[20] Heejin Han, “Singapore, a Garden City: Authoritarian Environmentalism in a Developmental State,” The Journal of Environment & Development 26, no. 1 (March 2017): 18.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Chua, “Towards a Non-Liberal Communitarian Democracy,” 106.

[23] Han, “Singapore, a Garden City,” 6.

[24] Ibid

[25] Ibid, 7.

[26] Lee, From Third World to First: The Singapore Story:1965-2000, 200.

[27] Han, “Singapore, a Garden City,” 11.

[28] Harvey Neo, “Challenging the Developmental State: Nature Conservation in Singapore,” Asia Pacific Viewpoint 48, no. 2 (August 2007): 191.

[29] Neo, “Challenging the Developmental State: Nature Conservation in Singapore,” 188.

[30] Chua, “Towards a Non-Liberal Communitarian Democracy,” 106.

[31] Kuan Yew Lee and Kwang Han Fook, Lee Kuan Yew: Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going (Singapore: Straits Times Press, 2011), 2.

Works Cited

350.org. “7.6 Million People Demand Action After Week of Climate Strikes,” September 27, 2019. https://350.org/press-release/6-6-million-people-demand-action-after-week-of-climate-strikes/.

Chua, Beng Huat. “Towards a Non-Liberal Communitarian Democracy.” In Communitarian Ideology and Democracy in Singapore. London/New York: Routledge, 1995. http://web.b.ebscohost.com.libproxy1.nus.edu.sg/ehost/ebookviewer/ebook/bmxlYmtfXzY4NjUwX19BTg2?sid=ef2e1977-e027-479c-8e7c-63fe10a6501b@pdc-v-sessmgr06&vid=0&format=EK&lpid=acid23&rid=0.

Gilley, Bruce. “Authoritarian Environmentalism and China’s Response to Climate Change.” Environmental Politics 21, no. 2 (March 2012): 287–307. https://doi.org/10.1080/09644016.2012.651904.

Goh, Daniel P. S. “The Politics of the Environment in Singapore? Lessons from a ‘Strange’ Case.” Asian Journal of Social Science 29, no. 1 (2001): 9–34. https://doi.org/10.1163/156853101X00307.

Han, Heejin. “Singapore, a Garden City: Authoritarian Environmentalism in a Developmental State.” The Journal of Environment & Development 26, no. 1 (March 2017): 3–24. https://doi.org/10.1177/1070496516677365.

Harvey, Oliver Milman Fiona. “US Is Hotbed of Climate Change Denial, Major Global Survey Finds.” The Guardian, May 8, 2019, sec. Environment. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/may/07/us-hotbed-climate-change-denial-international-poll.

Khanna, Parag. The Future Is Asian. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2019.

Lee, Kuan Yew. From Third World to First: The Singapore Story:1965-2000. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish, 2000.

Lee, Kuan Yew, and Kwang Han Fook. Lee Kuan Yew: Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going. Singapore: Straits Times Press, 2011.

MacKenzie, Michael K. “A General-Purpose, Randomly Selected Chamber.” In Institutions For Future Generations, edited by Iñigo González-Ricoy and Axel Gosseries, 282–98. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198746959.003.0017.

Neo, Harvey. “Challenging the Developmental State: Nature Conservation in Singapore.” Asia Pacific Viewpoint 48, no. 2 (August 2007): 186–99. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8373.2007.00340.x.

Schumpeter, Joseph Alois. Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy. London/New York: Routledge, 2014.

Shearman, David, and Joseph W. Smith. The Climate Change Challenge and the Failure of Democracy. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2007.

National Parks Board. “Special Tribute to Mr Lee.” Government Agency Website. Accessed November 22, 2019. https://www.nparks.gov.sg/about-us/special-tribute-to-mr-lee.

Tan, Audrey, and David Fogarty. “Big Turnout at Hong Lim Park for First Singapore Climate Rally.” The Straits Times, September 21, 2019. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/environment/hundreds-turn-up-in-red-at-hong-lim-park-for-first-singapore-climate-rally.

Thunberg, Greta. “‘Our House Is on Fire’: Greta Thunberg, 16, Urges Leaders to Act on Climate.” The Guardian, January 25, 2019, sec. Environment. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jan/25/our-house-is-on-fire-greta-thunberg16-urges-leaders-to-act-on-climate.

Photo credit: SG Climate Rally


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At Yale-NUS College, we are thinking about ideals of equality and democracy, and how they relate to practice, in Singapore and in the wider world.

This website showcases our reflections.

Articles were originally submitted as course papers for Professor Sandra Field’s classes Contemporary Egalitarianism and Democratic Theory.

The Equality&Democracy project has been made possible through the support of a Teaching Innovation Grant from the Yale-NUS Centre for Teaching and Learning: ‘Applying Political Philosophy to Real World Cases’.

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