"Minister of Trees": Remembering Lee Kuan Yew

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s birth, Challenge reflects on how he shaped the values of a first-class Public Service.
Remembering Lee Kuan Yew, whose commitment to greening Singapore shaped the values of a first-class Public Service

For a man who had the world on his mind and Singapore’s future on his shoulders, it may be surprising that the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew took a personal interest in tree-planting.

Affectionately known as Singapore’s Chief Gardener, our founding Prime Minister kept a yearly tradition of planting trees from as early as 1963. It was a sign of his personal commitment to bring Singapore from third world to first.

“We used to call him the Minister of Trees. He paid attention to the type of trees to be planted all the way from the airport to Benjamin Sheares bridge.” said Mr Peter Ong, former Head of Civil Service, in a tribute after Mr Lee’s passing in 2015.

And yet, for his exacting attention to detail, he did not miss the forest for the trees.

A Question of Survival

A Question of Survival

As Singapore grappled with the grave problems of unemployment as well as lack of housing, health and education in the early days of our independence, Mr Lee pushed for the planting of trees and shrubs as part of his plan to differentiate our little island from our larger neighbours.

With abundant rainfall, plants that thrive in the tropical climate, and a group of people trained in the Botanic Gardens, having well-maintained trees was an opportune way to show investors that Singapore was well-organised and able to deliver on our promises.

“You can’t just plant a tree and walk away,” he said at a dialogue in 2009. “The tree will die, you need tree doctors, you need to understand what the soil has to be and how much sunlight it requires. So it was a very complex thing which all people who run big organisations will understand.”

Learning from the Best

Learning From the Best

Greening Singapore was no small feat. Until the greening campaign got into full swing, Mr Lee did not realise that “behind each roadside tree was an engineering problem to be solved.”

To get to the bottom of this, Mr Lee was always learning. A glance through his speeches, interviews and dialogues compiled in The Papers of Lee Kuan Yew reveals his extensive and continuous learning from countries all over the world.

“I used to wonder why Paris had these boulevards with trees, big trees and almost no open earth around the trees. So, I made inquiries and they said, ‘No, all those gratings around the tree allow the rainwater to seep in and to get to the roots’. So, I came back and told them, ‘Look, study that system’. So, we are learning from everybody. We watch it and say, ‘Oh, that’s a clever idea’, and we amend it to work in the tropics.”

Mr Lee, in an interview in 2007

When the Garden City Programme was launched in 1967, he encouraged then-Parks and Recreation Department officers to visit the botanic gardens in other tropical regions and select new species of trees that could grow in Singapore.

Their efforts bloomed in the 1980s as swathes of colour began to appear along many of our major roads and in HDB new towns.

Over the years, the Public Service has continued to push the bounds of ambition beyond a Garden City to become a City in a Garden and, today, a City in Nature.

“Mr Lee had always believed that if something is worth doing for Singapore, it is worth doing well. The story of Singapore has been one of sustained success, because we continually work for sustained improvement,” said Head of Civil Service Mr Leo Yip.

A Public Service with Integrity at its Root

A Public Service With Integrity at Its Root

When Mr Lee visited various parts of Singapore, he used to call up senior public officers to ask why specific trees were doing poorly or why certain areas were poorly maintained.

A tree, when sick at its root, would ultimately come to ruin if the disease is not promptly addressed, and each tree mattered to Mr Lee. The same principle applies to maintaining integrity in the Public Service.

“Corruption, which we regarded as a cancer, must be eradicated as soon as detected,” he said. This, too, would serve to show the world that Singapore was different.

“Throughout his time in office, Mr Lee was unswerving in his belief that without a Public Service of unquestioning integrity, competence and effectiveness, his government would not have gotten anywhere in assuring the security, survival and success of Singapore no matter how bright, committed and hardworking his ministers may be,” said Mr Lim Siong Guan, former Head of Civil Service.

Uplifting the Human Spirit

Uplifting the Human Spirit

Yet, it wasn’t just about Singapore’s survival in the world. Back home, Mr Lee always had Singaporeans in mind. He knew that the “blighted urban jungle of concrete destroys the human spirit”.

Even after stepping down as Prime Minister, he went through the park connectors and directed: “Grow trees which will bring birds and butterflies back into the park. Try and create a different ambience. The more greenery you have, the more people are soothed and the cooler it is.”

It was out of this same spirit of care that the Civil Service Club chalets were born. Mr Lee wanted public officers from all levels to have access to affordable recreational spaces where they could relax and spend time with their families, as overseas travel was neither common nor accessible to many officers back then.

Every person and tree mattered to him, even as he had his sights on the growth of the forest — that’s the kind of leader he was.

His legacy lives on, in the values that guide the Public Service, in the Garden City we now enjoy, and so much more.

His Legacy Lives On

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of Mr Lee’s birth (LKY100), a library node has been set up in Changi Cottage. It was Mr Lee’s favourite chalet, in which he stayed and worked after Singapore’s independence from Malaysia in 1965. It inspired many ideas and important decisions that contributed to Singapore’s success today.

At the launch of the node on 22 Nov 2023, two of Mr Lee’s favourite trees – the Madagascar Almond and Jelutong – were planted at the chalet in his memory.

And so his legacy lives on, in the values that guide the Public Service, in the Garden City we now enjoy, and so much more.

Changi Cottage

Your Say: What Public Service value(s) are most important to you? Share a story of how you have seen this value in action, or upheld this in the course of your work as a public officer.

Submit your entry here by 15 Jan 2024 and stand a chance to win a 2D1N stay at the Changi Cottage.

All other published entries will win vouchers worth $30 each. Entries may be edited.

    Dec 12, 2023
    Dawn Puah
    Joshua Yeo
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