leekuanyew

Clean Water: The big upgrade from wells to taps

When retired accounts clerk Ow Yong Weng Kok, now 72, was a teenager in the early 1960s, he lived in a kampung in Kim Keat.

The only source of fresh water was a well in a village a kilometre away - and Mr Ow Yong walked there and back every day. On the return trip he carried two full buckets of water on a pole balanced on his shoulders.

Mr Ow Yong's 39-year-old son, Chark Kan, said: "The roads were very muddy and there weren't any street lamps. He was literally walking in darkness." Mr Ow Yong had recounted his tough childhood last week to him, after the death of Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

He told how this changed when Mr Lee visited the kampung in the 1960s, and asked the villagers if there was anything he could do for them.

The younger Mr Ow Yong, a private tutor, said his dad replied: "Tap water would be great."

Within a month, there was a tap for every two homes in the kampung.

Mr Ow Yong said: "That was what I was amazed about - that Mr Lee took action straight away."

Years later, the first Housing Board flat which the older Mr Ow Yong moved into had multiple taps from which potable water flowed.

The change from drawing water from common wells to potable tap water in every home was made across Singapore as Mr Lee strove to improve standards of living.

Mr Lee also spearheaded the drive for Singapore to be self-sufficient in water.

This was born out of a sense of vulnerability, intensified by a drought in1963 and Singapore's separation from Malaysia in 1965.

Two 50-year water pacts signed in 1961 and 1962 that allowed Singapore to buy water from Malaysia were drafted into the Separation Agreement and later became part of the Malaysian Constitution, guaranteeing Singapore's water supply from Johor.

Going a step further, Mr Lee set up the Water Planning Unit in 1971 to coordinate Singapore's water policy.

Soon, Singapore also developed other ways to recycle water, such as desalination and treating waste water.

"The one thing that struck me about my father's story was how we always take what we have now for granted, such as running tap water," said Mr Ow Yong.

charyong@sph.com.sg