Once described by CNN as a place “so clean that bubble gum is a controlled substance,” Singapore is globally known for its manicured public parks, perfectly paved roads, and spotless, litter-free streets.
But cleanliness is not just an aesthetic ideal here. In this small state with just 56 years of national independence, cleanliness has been synonymous with unprecedented economic growth, major social progress and, lately, a coordinated containment of the COVID-19 pandemic.
While Singaporeans tend to dismiss the suggestion that their country is especially clean humbly, its ministers have done everything they can to maintain a pristine public image. “Singapore’s clean character is something the government consciously sought to encourage,” described Donald Low, a Singaporean public and academic policy scholar. “Initially, that cleanliness had at least two connotations: the first was a clean society and government that didn’t tolerate corruption; the second was environmental or physical cleanliness.
Singapore- separated from Malaysia in 1965- led by then-prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, had high goals of becoming a “first-world oasis in a third-world region,” as he quoted. “As a recently independent city-state that was eager to attract foreign investments, Lee believed that these things would differentiate Singapore from Malaysia,” Low explained.
In rational terms, achieving cleanliness meant creating programmes to combat dengue, developing quality sewage systems, island-wide tree planting, a decade-long cleanup of the polluted Singapore River and the transition of once-ubiquitous street food vendors into hawker centres.
Low explains that the famous gum law is really quite atypical in terms of Singapore policymaking. “Instead of outright bans,” he explained, “the Singapore government generally resorts to financial incentives for ventures that generate costs for society,” for example, its recent introduction of a carbon tax, intended to curb emissions and promote clean energy alternatives.
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