Clean-up of Singapore River and Kallang Basin

Singapore Infopedia

by Centre for Liveable Cities, Singapore


The clean-up of Singapore River and Kallang Basin took place largely between 1977 and 1987. Besides the physical cleaning of the heavily polluted rivers, the massive exercise also involved the removal of various sources of pollution, the provision of proper sewage infrastructure and new facilities for resettled residents and businesses, and the implementation of anti-pollution measures to minimise future pollution.

Singapore River had become the centre of trade and commercial activities by the end of the 19th century. However, as businesses flourished and the number of people living and working along the river grew, the waterway became increasingly polluted. Businesses such as gambier processors, sago factories, seaweed factories, as well as cottage industries and street hawkers dumped their waste into the river, while lighters transferring cargo to and from ships anchored out at sea dirtied the waterway with oil and debris. Without proper sewage facilities, squatters also discharged their bodily waste into the river, contributing to the stench. The rivers near Kallang Basin were similarly polluted, with shipyards, duck farms and pig farms adding to the problem.1

Early clean-up efforts
In March 1969, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew asked the Public Works Department (PWD) and the Public Utilities Board (PUB) to draw up a plan to clean up Singapore’s waterways and curb further pollution. He wanted the rivers and canals to have “more or less clean, translucent water, where fish, water lilies, and other water plants [could] grow, and [for] both sides of the waterway [to] be planted with trees, like willow”.2

Within two weeks of Lee’s memo, the relevant government agencies began discussions on this undertaking. They identified the sources of pollution and proposed solutions. In a report submitted to Lee in October 1969, domestic and industrial waste discharge, and rubbish disposal in the waterways were identified as the main causes of the rivers’ polluted state. By then, work was already underway to remove or relocate the sources of pollution, including the numerous squatters, street hawkers and small industries such as boat builders and charcoal dealers that lined the river banks.3

The Singapore River clean-up was a key component of the urban redevelopment plan for the city centre.4 However, progress was slow as the various government agencies involved were mainly concerned with implementation costs.5

The 10-year target
The clean-up finally picked up speed when, at the official opening of Upper Peirce Reservoir on 27 February 1977, Lee said: “I think that [the Ministry of the Environment] should make it a target in 10 years [to] let us have fishing in the Singapore River and the Kallang River. It can be done. Because in 10 years, the whole area would have been redeveloped, all sewage water will go into the sewage and the runoff must be clean.”6

Lee also promised to give each officer involved in the clean-up a solid gold medal if they were successful. He also said: “But if it isn’t done we will go back … if I am still around and in charge in 1986, I will find out where it went wrong and whoever, whichever group of people made it go wrong and failed to, one, either engineer the system[, or] two, re-establish new habits of disposing of sullage water and rubbish.”7

To Lee, cleaning up the rivers was not only about improving environmental health and supporting socio-economic development. It was also about water security, as Singapore was highly dependent on water imported from Malaysia. Having clean waterways that could function as water catchments would help to boost the local water supply.8

The clean-up operation
A master plan for cleaning up Singapore River and Kallang Basin was drawn up by October 1977. The Singapore River and Kallang Basin catchments made up about 30 percent of Singapore’s land area. With the wide range of pollutive activities spread over such a vast area, cleaning up both catchments was a monumental task.9

The river clean-up was led by Lee Ek Tieng, then Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of the Environment (ENV). It involved various departments and agencies under the ENV, Ministry of Law (MinLaw), Ministry of National Development (MND), Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI), and the then Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts (MICA). These included the ENV’s Environmental Health Department, Sewage and Drainage Department, and Hawkers Department; PUB; Housing and Development Board (HDB); Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA); Jurong Town Corporation (JTC); Public Works Department (PWD); Primary Production Department (PPD); Port of Singapore Authority (PSA); and Parks and Recreation Department (PRD).10

Besides the technical aspects, the clean-up plan also focused on changing people’s way of life in order to remove the sources of pollution. Squatters from two catchment areas, comprising 42,000 in the Kallang Basin and almost 4,000 in the Singapore River catchment, were resettled. The relocation exercise affected about 26,000 families, 610 pig farms, 500 duck farms, more than 2,800 backyard trades and cottage industries, close to 5,000 street hawkers, and many vegetable wholesalers.11

All affected Singaporean individuals and businesses were offered monetary compensation and alternative accommodation. Most of the resettled families moved into HDB public housing. Non-Singaporean squatters were allowed to rent flats, while the backyard trades and cottage industries were mostly moved to HDB and JTC industrial estates. Street hawkers were moved to purpose-built hawker centres such as at Boat Quay, Empress Place and Chinatown, near where the hawkers used to operate. Vegetable wholesalers were relocated to Pasir Panjang Wholesale Market.12 Pig and duck farms were relocated to Punggol along with farms from other parts of Singapore.13

Initial resistance
Government efforts to move the lighterage industry to Pasir Panjang had begun in the early 1970s but faced resistance from lighter operators. The companies argued that rough sea conditions off the proposed Pasir Panjang berths, especially during the monsoon season, would be dangerous for the lightermen and their boats.14 In response, PSA built a breakwater at Pasir Panjang to shelter the lighters.15 Still, the lighter operators were unwilling to move.16 However, after then Prime Minister Lee kickstarted the clean-up in 1977, there was greater political will and urgency to eliminate this source of pollution. Some 800 lighters were eventually relocated to Pasir Panjang by September 1983.17

The shipyards located in the Kallang Basin were another source of pollution but the Economic Development Board was against relocating these as the industry remained profitable.18 Instead, the government encouraged shipyards to merge to form bigger companies so they could invest in anti-pollution measures. However, there was industry resistance as these additional measures meant increased operational costs that would not yield much returns.19 The consolidation and relocation of shipyards remained slow until the industry experienced a drastic decline between 1983 and 1985, which finally prompted many shipbuilders to close down or merge. Eventually, some bigger shipyards remained in Kallang and installed anti-pollution equipment such as floating barriers to prevent oil and debris from flowing into the river, while others relocated their operations to Tuas or Jurong.20

Cleaning and beautification
The physical clean-up of the rivers included removing more than 80 discarded boats clogging the Singapore, Geylang, Rochor, Serangoon and Kallang Rivers. Tonnes of rubbish in the rivers and along the banks were also removed. The riverbeds were dredged to remove debris and sediment that had accumulated and made the river too toxic for aquatic life.21

While the removal of squatter settlements eliminated a major source of sewage discharge into the rivers, the government also accelerated its efforts to build and enhance sewerage systems across the island. They also planned to provide refuse collection services island-wide to curb rubbish disposal in rivers and canals.22 Further steps were taken to prevent rubbish from being washed into the rivers. For instance, drains in litter-prone areas were covered with slabs, and vertical gratings were installed at some outlet drains. Float booms were also installed across rivers and canals to trap floating litter and debris.23

Beyond cleaning the rivers and their catchments, the government also sought to beautify the waterside environment. In 1986, the PWD tiled the walkway along the Singapore River, while the PRD landscaped the river banks.24

Completion of the clean-up
The entire clean-up operation cost an estimated S$300 million, excluding resettlement compensation.25 The clean-up was officially declared complete on 2 September 1987. As part of the Clean Rivers Commemoration Celebration, a five-day carnival was held at Marina Bay.26 As promised, Lee presented gold medals to 10 people for their roles in turning his vision into reality. Plaques were also presented to 12 organisations to recognise their contributions to the clean-up.27

Centre for Liveable Cities

1. Tan Yong Soon, Lee Tung Jean and Karen Tan, “Cleaning the Land and Rivers,” in 50 Years of Environment: Singapore's Journey Towards Environmental Sustainability, ed., Tan Yong Soon (Singapore: World Scientific, 2016), 27–33. (Call no. RSING 333.72095957 FIF)
2. Stephen Dobbs, The Singapore River: A Social History, 1819–2002 (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 2003), 103–04. (Call no. RSING 959.57 DOB-[HIS])
3. Dobbs, Singapore River, 104–05; Cecilia Tortajada, Yugal Joshi and Asit K. Biswas, The Singapore Water Story: Sustainable Development in an Urban City-State (New York: Routledge, 2013), 63. (Call no. RSING 363.61095957 TOR)
4. Centre for Liveable Cities, Singapore, Port and the City: Balancing Growth and Liveability (Singapore: Centre for Liveable Cities, 2016), 18.
5. Yugal Kishore Joshi, Cecilia Tortajada and Asit K. Biswas, “Cleaning of the Singapore River and Kallang Basin in Singapore: Human and Environmental DimensionsAmbio 41, no. 7 (November 2012): 777–81.
6. Jessica Cheam, Forging a Greener Tomorrow: Singapore's Environmental Journey from Slum to Eco-City (Singapore: Straits Times Press, 2012), 29–30. (Call no. RSING 363.70095957 CHE)
7. Cheam, Forging a Greener Tomorrow, 30.
8. Cheam, Forging a Greener Tomorrow, 10–12.
9. Joshi, Tortajada and Biswas, “Cleaning of the Singapore River and Kallang Basin,” 777–81.
10. Felicia Choo, F. (2014, July 5). “5 Interesting Facts about the Singapore River Clean-Up,” Straits Times, 5 July 2014. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website); Tan, Lee and Tan, “Cleaning the Land and Rivers,” 30; Tortajada, Joshi and Biswas, Singapore Water Story, 58–61, 62–64, 66–70, 137.
11. Tan, Lee and Tan, “Cleaning the Land and Rivers,” 29–31; Joshi, Tortajada and Biswas, “Cleaning of the Singapore River and Kallang Basin,” 777–81.
12. Tan, Lee and Tan, “Cleaning the Land and Rivers,” 29–30; Joshi, Tortajada and Biswas, “Cleaning of the Singapore River and Kallang Basin,” 777–81.
13. Tan, Lee and Tan, “Cleaning the Land and Rivers,” 29–30; “Change after Change after Change,” Straits Times, 21 April 1985, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
14. “Bumboat Owners are against New Site,” New Nation, 16 September 1971, 2 (From NewspaperSG); H. K. Wong, Interview with Centre for Liveable Cities, 26 November 2014. (Unpublished Transcript). (Accession number [CLC/026/2015/01]) 15. “PSA Shifting All Lighters to Pasir Panjang By 1983,” Business Times, 2 November 1981, 13. (From NewspaperSG)
16. “PSA Shifting All Lighters.”
17. Joshi, Tortajada and Biswas, “Cleaning of the Singapore River and Kallang Basin,” 777–81.
18. Centre for Liveable Cities, Singapore and National Environment Agency, Singapore, Sustainable Environment: Balancing Growth with the Environment (Singapore: Cengage Learning Asia, 2013), 22. (Call no. RSING 333.72095957 SUS)
19. Joan Hon, Tidal Fortunes: A Story of Change: The Singapore River and Kallang Basin (Singapore: Landmark Books, 1990), 82 (Call no. RSING 959.57 HON-[HIS]); Richard Seah, “Kallang Shipyards Get Respite from JTC,” Business Times, 29 June 1985, 14. (From NewspaperSG)
20. Hon, Tidal Fortunes, 82; Lee Yock Suan, “The Opening of the Shipyard Safety Convention Organised by the Singapore Association of Shipbuilders and Repairers,” speech, Regional English Language Centre, 20 November 1987, transcript, Ministry of Communications and Information (1985–1990). (National Archives of Singapore document no. lys19871120bs)
21. “PSA to Remove 84 Abandoned Boats,” Straits Times, 19 July 1976, 10; “Rivers Cleared of Old Boats,” Straits Times, 4 May 1977, 10 (From NewspaperSG); Joshi, Tortajada and Biswas, “Cleaning of the Singapore River and Kallang Basin,” 777–81.
22. Ministry of Culture, “Cleaning Up of Singapore River, Kallang Basin and All Water Catchments,” press release, 18 August 1981. (National Archives of Singapore document no. 1055-1981-08-18)
23. Tan, Lee and Tan, “Cleaning the Land and Rivers,” 32.
24. Tan, Lee and Tan, “Cleaning the Land and Rivers,” 32.
25. Tan, Lee and Tan, “Cleaning the Land and Rivers,” 32; Joshi, Tortajada and Biswas, “Cleaning of the Singapore River and Kallang Basin,” 777–81.
26. Tan Yong Soon, Lee Tung Jean and Karen Tan, Clean, Green and Blue: Singapore’s Journey Towards Environmental and Water Sustainability (Singapore: ISEAS Publishing, 2009), 330 (Call no. RSING 363.70095957 TAN); “Five-Day Fair to Kick Off Clean Rivers Party,” Straits Times, 31 August 1987, 19 (From NewspaperSG); Lee Kuan Yew, “The Opening Ceremony of Clean Rivers Commemoration ’87,” speech, Marina Mandarin Hotel, 2 September 1987, transcript, Ministry of Communications and Information (1985–1990). (National Archives of Singapore document no. lky19870902)
27. Martin Soong, “PM Makes Waves in Clean Waters,” Business Times, 3 September 1987, 18;  Salma Khalik, “10 Get Their Gold Medals as PM Keeps His Promise,” Straits Times, 3 September 1987, 12. (From NewspaperSG)

Further resources
Centre for Liveable Cities, Singapore, “Hawker Centres: Levelling the Playing Field with Food,” Urban Solutions no. 4 (February 2014)

Centre for Liveable Cities, Singapore, Urban Redevelopment: From Urban Squalor to Global City (Singapore: Centre for Liveable Cities, 2016)

Centre for Liveable Cities and Singapore and Public Utilities Board, Singapore, Water: From scarce Resource to National Asset (Singapore: Cengage Learning Asia, 2012). (Call no. RSING 333.91095957 WAT)

The information in this article is valid as at May 2019 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

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