By Lee Kwan Yew
After independence, I searched for some dramatic way to distinguish ourselves from other Third World countries. I settled for a clean and green Singapore. One arm of my strategy was to make Singapore into an oasis in Southeast Asia, for if we had First World standards then business- people and tourists would make us a base for their business and tours of the region. The physical infrastructure was easier to improve than the rough and ready ways of the people. Many of them had moved from shanty huts with a hole in the ground or a bucket in an outhouse to high- rise apartments with modern sanitation, but their behaviour remained the same. We had to work hard to be rid of littering, noise, nuisance, and rudeness, and get people to be considerate and courteous.
“We licensed the cooked food hawkers and moved them from the roads and pavements to properly constructed nearby hawker centres, with piped water, sewers, and garbage disposal. By the early 1980s we had resettled all hawkers”.
We started from a low base. In the 1960s, long queues would form at our “Meet the People” sessions, clinics where ministers and MPs helped solve the problems of their constituents. The unemployed, many accompanied by wives and children, would plead for jobs, taxi or hawker licenses, or permission to sell food in school cafeterias. These were the human faces behind the unemployment statistics. Thousands would sell cooked food on the pavements and streets in total disregard of traffic, health, or other considerations. The resulting litter and dirt, the stench of rotting food, and the clutter and obstructions turned many parts of the city into slums.
Many became “pirate taxi” drivers, unlicensed and without insurance cover, exploited by business people who rented them junk private cars. They charged slightly more than the buses and much less than licensed taxis. They stopped without signalling to pick up or drop off passengers at will and were a menace to other road users. Hundreds, eventually thousands, of pirate taxis clogged our streets and destroyed bus services.
For years we could not clean up the city by removing these illegal hawkers and pirate taxi drivers. Only after 1971, when we had created many jobs, were we able to enforce the law and reclaim the streets. We licensed the cooked food hawkers and moved them from the roads and pavements to properly constructed nearby hawker centers, with piped water, sewers, and garbage disposal. By the early 1980s we had resettled all hawkers. Some were such excellent cooks that they became great tourist attractions. A few became millionaires who drove to work in their Mercedes-Benz and employed waiters. It was the enterprise, drive, and talent of such people that made Singapore.
Excerpted from From Third World To First: The Singapore Story, 1965-2000 By Lee Kwan Yew. The book was discussed at the 20 th Lagos Book and Art Festival in November 2018 which was themed: Renewal.