Monday 15 September 2014

Sacrificing now for a better tomorrow

By Lee Wei Ling, Published The Sunday Times, 14 Sep 2014

I had stopped reading the newspapers for some weeks as there seemed to be nothing but bad news. But the photograph of the gothic-looking Jurong Rock Caverns on the front page of The Straits Times on Sept 3 caught my attention. The underground space would free up 60ha of space above ground - the equivalent of about 80 football fields.

The cavern took six years of planning and over eight years of construction at a cost of $950 million. It can store up to 1.47 million cubic metres of liquid hydrocarbons, which can fill more than 500 Olympic-sized pools.

Such a huge project requires foresight, vision and staying power to bring to fruition, and this is not the first time Singapore has completed such projects.

The best example of such massive infrastructure projects from our past is the Jurong Industrial Estate. In the 1960s, the received wisdom was that multinational corporations (MNCs) were exploiters of cheap land, labour and raw mate-rials. Third World leaders generally believed this theory of neo-colonial exploitation. Singapore leaders Dr Goh Keng Swee and Mr Lee Kuan Yew were not impressed.

Singapore had no natural resources for MNCs to exploit. All it had were hardworking people, basic infrastructure and a Government determined to deliver. If MNCs could give workers jobs and impart know-how to Singaporeans, why shouldn't we welcome them?

Dr Goh and Mr Lee thus decided to start the Jurong Industrial Estate. The estate - Singapore's largest infrastructure development - covered over 3,600ha with roads, sewers, drainage, power, gas and water all laid out. Other massive infrastructure projects include Jurong Island. The artificial island was conceived in the 1980s to support Singapore's growth as a petrochemical hub.

It was created by shooting tonnes of sand in a rainbow arc into the sea to fill up the water channels separating the seven southern islands. It was a bold and innovative way to increase our land size and attract investments to create good jobs.

The costly clean-up of the Singapore and Kallang rivers is yet another example. If Mr Lee had not pushed this project through despite the hefty price - thousands of businesses along the rivers were moved - waterways, like Jakarta's Ciliwung River or Manila's Pasig River, would be flowing sluggishly through downtown Singapore.

Mr Lee later imagined a Venice-like site in the reclaimed Marina Bay area. So Gardens by the Bay was born at a cost of $1.05 billion. Now, the combination of Marina Bay Sands, the Marina Barrage and the Gardens presents a magnificent sight.

The Housing and Development Board was established in 1960. It was headed by a man with sharp business sense, Mr Lim Kim San.

A British colonial report on housing had noted that the Singapore of the 1940s and 1950s had "one of the world's worst slums - a disgrace to a civilised community".

That was soon history. By any measure, Singapore's achievement in public housing was remarkable.

Singapore is a small country. We have done well so far, reaching First World status in record time. This is not the usual trajectory of small countries with no resources.

We got here because successive governments were led by people with gumption and foresight. Equally, if not more importantly, the people were prepared to gel together as one and accept short-term hardships in exchange for long-term hope.

I sense that the ground has shifted in recent years. We have become more demanding of immediate satisfaction and less willing to persevere when there are difficulties. Our country will be in trouble if our expectations can only be met at a price we are unwilling to pay.

We must emulate our pioneer generation: Work hard, be willing to sacrifice for a better future and accept necessary trade-offs. The Government must be able to persuade our citizens why we must adopt a particular difficult course.

Only an exceptional people led by exceptional leadership could have built Jurong Industrial Estate, Jurong Island, the Jurong Rock Caverns and, in time to come, the Jurong Lake Gardens. If Singapore is to continue to survive and thrive, both its Government and people must remain exceptional.

The writer is director of the National Neuroscience Institute.

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