Singapore: What We Should Learn from the Garden City

Merlion Park with a view of Marina Bay Sands. The Merlion is viewed as the national personification of Singapore.

“To put it bluntly, there isn’t one economic theory that can singlehandedly explain Singapore’s success; its economy combines extreme features of capitalism and socialism. All theories are partial; reality is complex.” – Ha-Joon Chang, Institutional Economist


“Our pioneers built a clean and green Singapore. It is our duty and responsibility to build on their legacy, to make Singapore even greener and more livable, and to work with others to build better cities and a healthier planet, for ourselves and future generations.” –Lee Hsein Loong, Prime Minister of Singapore since 2004


I’m Excited! You Should Be, Too:

The world as we knew it, just several years ago, is no more. Marches for climate action are a regular occurrence, the United Kingdom and Ireland recently declared a state of emergency on Climate Change, and we now have just around a decade left to implement change before the world and all life on it will suffer immensely. But, thanks to advances in technology (such as solar paneling, home batteries, etc.) sustainable living is more feasible and profitable than it has ever been in human history! At the forefront of many of these advancements is the island-state of Singapore.


How Many Millionaires Does It Take to Put in an LED?:

The Helix Bridge at Marina Bay Sands

Even before beginning research for this piece, I knew of the vast wealth to be found in Singapore. It is home to the largest population of millionaires in the world, and ranks within the top fifteen countries for the highest levels of wealth-per-adult. Due in part to this wealth, Singapore maintains financial backing to achieve great feats of infrastructure given its size (with a population smaller than that of New York City). “Of course a handful of millionaires on an island can build a long-lasting paradise,” you’re probably saying. But, and not only because I want you to keep reading, I would argue that Singapore does have much to teach the world.


“Why Go Green? We Have Mouths to Feed!”:

Poverty does not have as much of a hold on Singapore as other, larger countries. Singapore’s poverty rate (around 10-15%) is potentially several points lower than the United States’ (above 13%). The government works to provide a livable society through housing and transportation programs; but again, much of this can be supported by the upper-class population. On the opposite end, a country such as India, with large amounts of land and an enormous population, holds a far larger impoverished population.

Yet, India is helping lead the charge for a sustainable society. “Why fund sustainability? People are dying!” you have likely heard. “Because it’s unsustainable practices causing harm!” I respond.

After achieving independence in 1965, Singapore was “a fledgling nation facing high unemployment with an unskilled labour force, predominantly living in urban slums that lacked sanitation and the support of adequate public infrastructure” (as described in the Sustainable Singapore Blueprint). Just two years after independence, the Garden City program was implemented in order to increase livability and greenery. One year more and the “Keep Singapore Clean” Campaign began (which was revived in 2012), leading to the 1971 Clean Air Act, and a separation of residential areas from pollutive industries through the 70’s. In 1980 (just 15 years), Singapore had successfully transformed from an impoverished urban state to a luxurious island destination. Today, thanks largely to the public housing program, over 90% of Singaporeans own their homes in a clean, diversified frontrunner of the global economy.

Jewel Changi Airport Gardens (Picture from The Peak)

A history such as Singapore’s is one that India (and others) hold strong in the fight for sustainability. While not every city will have an abundance of millionaires and be at the forefront of technological achievement, this is because not every city is a global port. However, every city can experience rapid, profitable, and long-lasting improvement through implementing sustainable infrastructure.

Building sustainable infrastructure and enacting sustainable policies is a highly effective way to help people who are suffering and impoverished. Once action is taken, as Anand Mahindra, (Chairman of the Mahindra Group, a Mumbai business conglomerate) puts it, “India’s sprawling subcontinent can never become a plus-size Singapore. But perhaps we can weave together an urban web that is the equivalent of a thousand Singapores.” Through focused policies and an enforced renewal, cities and entire countries can rid themselves of many of their problems. All this at a fraction of the cost of continued, ineffective payouts into the future. The initial goal of sustainable infrastructure is not to make a profit, but to assure peaceful livability. Then, rather than needing to chase after it, profit will come.


Green Can Be Grand:

From the Johor Strait to the Istana, Singapore is literally taking Green Living to a new height. One of the world’s largest vertical gardens is found on Singapore’s “Tree House” apartment building. Singaporeans profit from an attractively competitive economy based upon such sustainable practices, which helps to create thriving conditions even with limited resources, forming a high standard of living.

On its way towards a zero-waste nation, Singapore has made green building/construction mandatory since 2008. The most prevalent means of enforcing green building comes from the nation’s own Green Mark system. Now used throughout Asia (more so than LEED from the U.S. Green Building Council), Singapore is hoping for 80% of its buildings to achieve the Green Mark by 2030.

“Tree House,” Formerly The World’s Tallest Vertical Garden

The label requires a strict evaluation and process. To be awarded a Green Mark a building must pass examination in areas such as green architecture, green mechanics, and efficient energy performance. But, the requirements do not stop there. Those within the building must also be up to the “green-code,” ensuring green corporate practices throughout the supply chain, active support for the green community and sustainable NGOs, and more.

While many buildings aiming for the Green Mark are privately owned, the government is leading the way. All public sector buildings must fulfill sustainability standards. As part of Government Land Sales requirements, certain buildings in “strategic sites in key growth areas” must fulfill Green Mark standards (as stated in the Sustainable Singapore Blueprint). This is to ensure that areas which especially represent Singapore are also representing and acting on sustainable ideals.

Though energy savings are high thanks to incorporating greenery in buildings, it helps to have a sustainable source of energy as well! To help provide, Singapore is taking advantage of the falling costs of solar power. Through the SolarNova Programme, the Housing and Development Board (HDB) plans to install solar paneling on some 6,000 rooftops of public housing, police stations, schools, and more. The hope is not only for private industries to follow the lead of energy savings (after all, it is savings), but to eventually form a Smart Grid system that will house incredible opportunities for innovation. Currently, Singapore holds in the range of 50 solar power companies, and is the leader of renewable energy in the region.


The Green Ground-Level:

It’s a challenge to handle housing in any dense population; but, it’s especially challenging when on an island. If you’ve read this far, though, you know Singapore has it covered.

There is poverty to be found in Singapore, as with any country to date. However, the government and the HDB are very active in providing assistance (read about poverty at the ground level circa. 2014, and review up-to-date plans from the Ministry of Social and Family Development to help those in need). Urban planning and regulation have allowed for living spaces to be priced at 20-25% of income, and those who are unable to afford living on their own can receive help via the public rental program from the HDB. As the global population surges, Singapore is even looking into expanding the city underground to provide more space “on” the island.

Singapore’s Iconic “Supertrees.” There Are 18 “Trees” Up to 50m Tall, and Home to 162,900 Plants.

Regarding above-ground Singapore, though, quality of life continues to receive intense focus. The city continues to develop and implement breathtaking designs including many blues and greens to give the appearance of space, mix parks with waterways (as well as ponds being made up high), and utilize these waterways to mitigate floods. There are 3 million trees on the island, as well as a section of untouched rain forest in the middle. Such inclusion of nature in buildings and the general landscape is not only economically beneficial, but also helps citizens in maintaining peace of mind.

Citizens can also benefit from well-funded transportation services such as rail lines and, as Singapore is beginning to utilize, Electric Vehicle (EV) Car-Sharing. EV sharing allows for more efficient use of automobiles, and makes travel more affordable now that you no longer need to personally own a vehicle. It also allows for greatly reduced traffic, and the HBD runs over 100 car-sharing lots in their public housing lots. The goal is to introduce 1,000 shared EVs, allowing Singaporean companies to further innovate electric-mobility technology, and eventually use it as an export throughout the region.


Branching Out:

So far, we have discussed ways in which Singapore could indirectly influence the world (potential exports, promoting sustainable ideals, etc.). However, it is important to note the direct influence Singapore enacts internationally.

After Singapore’s Green Mark crept into over 30% of the nation’s floor area (2,600+ green building projects), sustainable expertise was not a question. Collaborating closely with the United Nations (UN), the Green Mark has received in range of 300 overseas applications.

Transformation of the Sino Singapore Tianjin City (Pictures taken from the Sustainable Singapore Blueprint)

The Singapore Cooperation Programme (est. 1992) has shared knowledge and experience in development with well over 100,000 foreign officials via courses tackling climate change, port management, governance, and more. There are plans, too, to begin a Sustainable Development Programme in order to assist developing countries work towards sustainable development. This initiative will also stem into programs on public sector leadership and governance, partnering with the United Nations

Development Programme (UNDP) Global Centre for Public Service Excellence. The UN will also partner with Singapore to provide technical assistance on topics from sustainable cities to water treatment.

The building has already begun with the notable creation of Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-City. The collaboration between Singapore and the Chinese Government (begun in 2007) is a joint-developed city in China with the goal of enacting sustainable development, social harmony, and environmental protection. Previously a vast expanse of polluted waters and salt pans, the city is now a livable, eco-friendly city (expected to house 350,000 in the mid 2020s). From industry parks to social centers, the city is home to research on green building standards, renewable energies, green transport, and much more. The Sino Singapore Tianjin City has been marked at China’s first National Green Development Demonstration Zone.


You’ve Seen the Green, What Does It Mean?:

Objectively: Who knows? Maybe your city will be the next to follow Singapore! Maybe your city and those in it will recognize that sustainability is not just a style, but helpful, and a huge money-saver. Maybe higher numbers of and safer jobs will appear to benefit workers. Maybe we will see a day where Manhattan, London, Rio, and Tokyo become urban gardens. But, in order for those things to occur, we have to recognize a few points:


1) To have change: One must experience change, and all the growing pains with it (which will be far less than the pains if we wait).


2) Focused change works the best. Singapore is small, but countries like the United States are not. Regionalistic focus will be key to proper sustainable action. Working at the ground-level in your community is of the utmost importance to best understand (and thus plan) change. Don’t be a giant Singapore: make 1,000.


3) Singapore does Green well. Really well. Probably better than most cities right now can. But, being or “beating” Singapore is not the goal. The goal is to build places of sustainable living, equity, peace, and profit (yeah, I said that in an environmental article).


Green does not mean throwing away an economy. Sustainability does not ensure social justice. The only way for us to successfully march onward is to find a balance. And, it seems to many around the world (including myself), we could learn how to do that from the Garden City.



Trevor Borsh is an international communications program developer, founder of the Green 50 Sustainable Business event series, international business and political science student, and assistant in the Chatham University Business & Entrepreneurship Department. A rising Third-Year undergraduate student in the department, he focuses on promoting scientific literacy and an international & intercultural mindset at the university.








Peer revisions completed by student workers and faculty of the Chatham University Business & Entrepreneurship Department and the Chatham University Office of Sustainability

Chatham University is proud to have the goal of Net 0 Carbon Output by 2025. The above piece shares the ideals of the university’s mission.

Sources not linked in Article:

“This City Aims to Be the World’s Greenest” – Amy Kolczak, National Geographic

“Singapore Leads Way as Asian Developers Wake Up to Climate Risk” – Jill Baker, Ethical Corporation

Non-cited photos via Pixabay.

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