Singapore – A Case Study in Sustainability

This post is part of a continuing series of Case Studies in Sustainability, intended as examples to provoke ideas as to what “Sustainable” actually means. Previous posts in this series focused on corporations. This post examines an extraordinary nation. Singapore was a third world nation when it split from the Malaysian Federation in 1965. Today, tiny Singapore has one of the highest per capita GDPs in the world. And Singapore is an acknowledged world leader in sustainable water management!


Map of SingaporeSingapore is a small island (about 3.5 times the size of Washington D.C.) separated from the end of the Malaysian peninsula. At less than two degrees north of the equator, the climate is tropical – hot and humid. It was established by the British in 1819 as a trading port and, later, as a fortress dominating the major trade route between the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

Early in World War II, Japanese forces captured Singapore, accessing the island from Malaysia by crossing a narrow Strait. Bombing damage to water collection, pumping and piping facilities that supplied Singapore from Malaysia contributed to Singapore’s fall. In the 1960’s, after the end of British rule, Singapore became part of the Malaysian Federation, only to be expelled in 1965, due to squabbles with the government of Malaysia. Assurance of continuing supply of fresh water from Malaysia was a vital part of the separation agreement.

The point of this brief history lesson is that Singapore has long relied on imports of fresh water from Malaysia. This dependence and its potential political ramifications is a critical driver of Singapore’s economic and social development.

Water Resource Planning

Water resource planning, aimed at alleviating dependence on water from Malaysia, became central to Singapore’s development policies. Water resource development began with rainwater collection – about 5,000 miles of channels and pipes feeding 17 reservoirs. NEWater followed that. NEWater is collected, recycled and extensively purified sanitary wastewater, which feeds back into the reservoir system (no kidding). Two desalination plants followed, adding purified seawater to Singapore’s reservoirs. Singapore still buys water from Malaysia. And they are likely to continue to do so, as long there is a willing buyer and a willing seller.

Today, Singapore is the world focal point for water technology – especially urban water technology. Singapore Water Week, hosted biennially by the government of Singapore, lives up to its billing as “the global platform to share and co-create innovative water solutions”. I attended several years ago. It is clearly the major global technical and commercial trade show in the water resources industry.

The Remarkable Lee Kuan Yew

In the 5 decades following Singapore’s independence, this tiny city – state grew from the third world to the first. Per capita GDP increased from about US$ 500 to over US$ 56,000 while population has increased from around 1.9 million in 1965 to over 5.5 million today. Unemployment is low due to a vibrant and diversified economy, while Singapore’s finances enjoy an AAA credit rating. All of this in a tiny nation that has almost no agriculture and no natural resources, save the work ethic of its people.

Lee Kuan Yew (2002)

Lee Kuan Yew (2002 Photo)

Singapore is also noticeably clean and green, as well as prosperous. Much of this is due to the leadership of the remarkable Lee Kuan Yew. His pragmatic, systematic policies and actions sustained over time, and his talent for identifying and utilizing an ethnically diverse number of talented people provide a model that has been studied and emulated by leaders from many nations.

For Smaller Manufacturers

Generally speaking, water doesn’t appear to be a serious problem for most smaller manufacturers, times of flood or draught excepted. But that is a myopic view. Almost everybody’s value chain is, or soon will be globalized. The global population continues to grow and a growing percentage of that population is becoming increasingly prosperous. That means global demand for agricultural products continues to mushroom. And agriculture today accounts for about 70% of the world’s consumption of fresh water.

The World Economic Forum is being held in Davos as I write this post. The movers, shakers and glitterati in attendance have received the Forum’s Global Risk Report 2016. The report lists “Water Crises” as a top ten global threat. A threat it is. However, products, processes and services that reduce that treat offer opportunities worth grasping.

Chuck - Mt. HumphriesThoughtful comments and experience reports are always appreciated.

…  Chuck Harrington (

P.S: Contact me when your organization is serious about prospering in the globalized 21st century … CH

This blog and associated website ( are intended as a resource for smaller manufacturers in the pursuit of Sustainability. While editorial focus is on smaller manufacturers, all interested readers are welcome. New blog posts are published weekly.

Images: Singapore map – public domain, CIA World Fact Book,; photo of Lee Kuan Yew – public domain via Wikipedia

For more on Singapore’s water management, see: Cicilia Tortajada and Yugal Kishore Joshi, The Singapore Water Story: Sustainable Development in an Urban City-State Routledge, New York and London (2013)

The Wikipedia wikis for Singapore and for Lee Kuan Yew provide useful background information.

The World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2016 offers lots of information for those managing businesses. Download for free at: