Turning dreams into reality

Source: The Sunay Times   4th October 2009

On Sept 16, we had dinner at The Compleat Angler, a famous restaurant outside London, to celebrate my father’s 86th birthday. He was last in the restaurant 47 years ago, when he was in London to discuss the terms of Singapore’s merger with Malaya.

With him then were Dr Goh Keng Swee, Mr Hon Sui Sen, Mr Sim Kee Boon and Mr Howe Yoon Chong. In the midst of the acrimonious negotiations, the Singapore team had decided to de-stress at The Compleat Angler.

Forty-seven years later, the staff of Singapore’s High Commission in Britain sprung a surprise on my father, who was visiting London last month. At the end of the dinner, while he was in the washroom, a birthday cake was brought out, and we all sang Happy Birthday when he returned to the table. Then we all sang his favourite song, ‘Que sera sera, what will be will be…’

I thought to myself: ‘Wrong. What will be, need not be!’

Consider what happened after that dinner at The Compleat Angler 47 years ago: The negotiations then led Singapore to join Malaya in 1963. Two years later, in 1965, Singapore was unceremoniously ejected from Malaysia. The outlook for this new island-nation was bleak.

But a small group of men was determined to ensure our survival. They built a multiracial Singapore, with the best interracial harmony in the world, and a meritocratic system in which all are given an equal chance. They achieved peace, happiness and progress for Singapore.

My father had other specific dreams for Singapore. In the 1970s, my mother’s blind telephone operator could tell when he was approaching the Singapore River, such was its stench. Dr Albert Winsemius, who was Singapore’s economic adviser and my father’s friend, challenged my father to clean up the river so fish could live in it.

In 1987, upon the successful completion of the 10-year project to clean up the river, Dr Winsemius did indeed catch a fish.

My father then expanded upon his dreams for the area: ‘In 20 years, it is possible that there could be breakthroughs in technology, both anti-pollution and in filtration,’ he said. ‘Then, we can dam up or put a barrage at the mouth of the marina…and we will have a huge freshwater lake.’

The Marina Barrage is the fulfilment of that vision. Its construction creates the world’s first reservoir in the heart of a city. The reservoir’s catchment is the most densely populated area of Singapore.

The reservoir’s water will be treated using advanced membrane technology. This will ensure that the water is safe for drinking and will also allow land and water-based activities to be carried out within the catchment. The Barrage is also part of a flood control scheme to alleviate the problem of flooding in low-lying areas of the city.

The Marina Barrage was designed as part of the Public Utilities Board’s ABC Waters Programme. This aims to encourage Singaporeans to appreciate the value of clean water and to do their part to keep our water clean.

In the year since its opening by the Prime Minister last October, the Marina Barrage has attracted more than 550,000 visitors. It has become a vantage point for people to view the picturesque city while enjoying the sea breeze. My father visited the area often during its development.

While I saw raw earth and construction, he described to me his dreams of a beautiful Marina Bay.

There will be two indoor gardens with careful climate control so that exotic plants can be cultivated. When the whole project is completed, there will be a beautiful water ‘square’ like the Piazza in Venice, but with a boardwalk around its perimeter that will pass the Gardens by the Bay. (Go to www.marina-bay.sg/marinabayvideo.html for a view of how the Bay will look like when fully developed.)

We also toured One Fullerton on a Sunday this past August. There were interesting restaurants and cafes, crowded with customers dining alfresco and enjoying the evening breeze and view.

The Old Guard turned many dreams into reality. Mr Lim Kim San, for instance, achieved in HDB what once seemed unachievable – housing 80 per cent of Singaporeans in public housing. And Dr Goh began the streaming of students to enable them to learn at their own pace – a step which helped propel Singapore’s education system to the top ranks in the world.

Dr Goh was also instrumental in building from scratch a tough and smart military fighting machine – with the help of some 100 so-called Mexicans, as the disguised Israeli military officers were known.

Successive defence ministers have made refinements to what Dr Goh achieved, so Singapore now has a Third Generation Singapore Armed Forces.

In short, a group of determined men – together with Singaporeans who had lived through tough times and were willing to endure more hardship – succeeded in building a Singapore that no one ever thought possible, least of all the Old Guard themselves.

Margaret Mead was correct when she said: ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; it is the only thing that ever has.’

But we must not rest on our laurels. We must keep on striving to improve the quality of life of all Singaporeans. What the future will bring will not always be what we dreamt of. We must remain alert and resilient. Fortune favours only those who grab the opportunities life offers. If the future has rough patches, we should simply accept that as a fact of life, and continue to make the best of things.

My biggest worry is that our success to date has allowed a generation to grow up without knowing hardship. Whether they are willing to put in the hard work to turn their dreams into reality, and how they respond when misfortune and disasters strike, will determine Singapore’s future.

The writer is director of the National Neuroscience Institute.