PM Lee Hsien Loong at BH60 Reminiscence By The River

SM Lee Hsien Loong | 26 November 2017

PM Lee Hsien Loong's speech at Berita Harian’s (BH’s) 60th anniversary celebrations, which also commemerated the Singapore River clean-up in 1977.


CEO, SPH Ng Yat Chung, Editor, Berita Harian Mohd Saat Abdul Rahman, Ladies and gentlemen. Good afternoon. Let me begin with a few words in Malay.

Saudara saudari sekalian. Saya gembira dapat bersama anda semua petang ini. Kita berkumpul untuk meraikan ulang tahun ke 60 Berita Harian atau BH. BH ialah akhbar yang telah memainkan peranan penting dalam pembangunan Singapura. Dan sejarahnya turut terbuku dalam lipatan sejarah negara kita. Saya juga gembira kerana BH menggabungkan sambutan BH60 dengan ulang tahun ke 40 usaha membersihkan Sungai Singapura. Kedua-duanya ibarat nadi yang berdenyut menjadi penggerak pembangunan negara kita.

Sungai Singapura bukan sekadar sebatang sungai biasa. Ia adalah ikon sejarah Singapura yang mencerminkan pemodenan dan kemajuan kita. Sama seperti BH. BH bukan sekadar sebuah akhbar. BH sudah menjadi sebuah institusi utama masyarakat Melayu yang dihargai dan dihormati. 60 tahun adalah satu pencapaian yang hebat. Tahniah!

Saya yakin BH akan terus bersinar menjadi penggerak minda dan sumber informasi yang terus mengalir dengan peredaran masa seperti Sungai Singapura. Izinkan saya teruskan ucapan dalam Bahasa Inggeris.

Very happy to be here today to celebrate Berita Harian’s (BH’s) 60th anniversary. 60 years is a long time for a person, and also for a newspaper, and BH has gone through significant changes. When you first went into circulation, you used lead type and Linotype machines for type-setting. The young people don’t know what that is.

Today, the newspaper is not only laid out on a computer system, but also published electronically. Many read your publications online. Such a change was unimaginable 60 years ago.

Singapore too has witnessed enormous changes – from a British colony to an independent republic, from third world to first. As our society progressed, your readers have also changed.

In 1957, many Malays were poor, and lived in kampungs. Today, Malays have progressed with the nation, educationally, economically and socially. They live in racially integrated HDB estates. They are English-speaking and tech-savvy, especially the younger generation. But they continue to read BH to stay in touch with what is happening in the community.

BH has kept up with the changing aspirations and interests of readers. You refreshed your content and presentation to appeal to the younger generation. For example, your lifestyle section Gah!, indeed Gah! combines traditional themes with hip content. As smartphones and tablets have become ubiquitous, and reading habits change, BH has gone onto new platforms to attract readers. You have an online website, a mobile app, a social media presence, videos, and an e-paper which I recently found on your app and have started reading instead of the print edition.

At the same time, you have stayed true to a founding objective of BH: to be “a bridge to foster better understanding and relations between Malays and the members of the non-Malay community”.

You were the first Malay daily to use Rumi (Latin script) instead of Jawi (Arabic script), Latin script instead of Arabic script, so that non-Malays could read the paper and learn the language. You continue to make inclusivity a core value.Just last month, you invited non-Malay speakers to your forum on the “Malay Language and its Role and Value in Singapore and the Region”. You even managed to get some of them to sign up for your Malay conversational programme. Syabas!

Besides promoting and preserving the Malay language and culture, BH is also a champion of the community’s wellbeing and achievements. You organise activities to promote healthy lifestyles, including a mass Zumba for all races and ages, which has become a regular feature at One Tampines Hub. Your Anugerah Jauhari and Anugerah Jauhari Harapan awards have inspired many Malays over the last 19 years.

To the Malay community, BH is more than a vernacular newspaper. You are a well-respected and well-loved social institution. This strong standing has been built by generations of editors including Mr Yatiman Yusof, Mr Zainul Abidin Rasheed, Mr Guntor Sadali, and now Mr Mohd Saat, as well as veterans such as Mr Zulkifli Rahmat, Mr Saini Salleh, Mr Suhaimi Mohsen and Mr Rosebi Mohd Sah. I am happy that many of them are here today.

For 60 years, BH has participated in and contributed to the Singapore story. You witnessed the ups and downs of our nation building journey. You informed, educated and entertained readers. You encouraged Malay Singaporeans to modernise and be good citizens in a multi-racial society, to participate fully in Singapore society while maintaining their culture and heritage.

In your 28 February 1977 edition, BH carried a story about the opening of Upper Peirce Reservoir which had happened the day before. Mr Lee Kuan Yew spoke at the ceremony. BH reported what he had said: “In ten years let us have fishing in the Singapore River and the Kallang River. It can be done…The day we achieve that, whoever has been in charge…I will give each one of them a real solid gold medal, one troy ounce.”

This was the start of the project to clean up the Singapore River and Kallang Basin. The river clean-up is just one strand of the Singapore story, but it is a significant strand that epitomises the resourcefulness and determination of our founders. I am glad that BH has decided to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the river clean-up project together with BH’s own 60th anniversary

You all know Dick Lee’s song “Home”. It has a line that says “sails down that river which brings us life”. Indeed, the Singapore River was the main artery of our economic life. Tongkangs (lighters) carried rice, rubber, copra, spices, all the merchandise that Singapore exported and imported, to and from the ships anchored in the harbour. Coolies slaved to load and unload these cargoes, filling and emptying the godowns which lined the river.

Nearby in the commercial district – Raffles Place and Collyer Quay, Market Street –traders, lawyers and bankers gathered and did business. This was the entrepot trade on which Singapore’s livelihood depended.

But the officers who carried out the river clean-up, including Mr Tan Gee Paw who is present today, will tell you that while the river gave Singapore life and prosperity, there was no life in the river itself – because no fish could possibly have survived in its waters!

All the activities on and near the river severely polluted the water. The water was black, notoriously smelly and toxic. Nothing like the clean and beautiful Singapore River we have next to us today.

My mother’s law firm – Lee & Lee – had its office off Raffles Place, at Malacca Street. Lee & Lee had a blind telephone operator. He took a bus to work every day. He always knew when to get off the bus, because he could smell the Singapore River when the bus crossed it.

To clean up the river and the surrounding catchment area was a massive endeavour. It required a great deal of coordination, planning, and execution. Most of all, it demanded determination and political will, to overcome the hurdles and get the job done. It took ten years of hard work to dredge up the polluted riverbed, to remove the pig farms and pollutive industries, to sewer up every premise in the catchment, a hundred plus square kilometres, to relocate squatters to HDB flats, street hawkers to new hawker centres, and shipyards (building tongkangs) to Pasir Panjang.

Dr Albert Winsemius, our Chief Economic Advisor, had a bet with the river clean-up team. He did not believe that the river would ever again sustain life or have fish in it. He said it’s much cheaper to buy fish. He recommended that we turn the Singapore River into a sewage system, cover it up with concrete and make it a highway.

When Winsemius visited Singapore after the clean-up was completed, he was amazed (but perhaps not unhappy) that he had lost his bet. He took a cruise on the river and caught one symbolic fish. The clean-up was a remarkable achievement, and the river clean-up team received the Clean Rivers Commemorative Gold Medals from Mr Lee.

Today, when visitors come here, we show off to them the Singapore River. Many are inspired by our success, and hope to clean up their own rivers in their home countries. We wish them every success. But when we think how hard it was to clean up the Singapore River, which is just a few kilometres long, and they are thinking of rivers tens or thousands of kilometres long, we know what a daunting task they have.

As for us, the river clean-up project is never done. Singaporeans still must learn not to drop litter and trash on the ground, which washes into drains and the river, and has to be caught with booms along the way. If you walk down the Kallang River or the Singapore River as I have done, you will see the booms and the trash that is accumulated and has to be cleared every now and again.

We want to keep on beautifying the river and transform ourselves into a City of Gardens and Water with our ABC (Active, Beautiful and Clean) Waters programme. Similarly, BH’s job is never done. There are always new challenges, including some pressing ones. You have to keep up with your readers’ changing profile and interests. At the same time, you need to deal with the disruptions brought by the digital age – competition from the social media, and confusion from fake news.

Many newspapers all over the world are finding it difficult to retain their readership and maintain their revenues. Quite a few struggle to stay afloat. Others have succumbed to the temptation to sensationalise news, use clickbait headlines and even publish unverified stories to hold on to eyeballs against the cut-throat competition.

But BH has kept your journalistic integrity and prudence, and continues to report accurately, responsibly and from a national perspective. You must always do so. As Singapore’s only Malay daily, you play a vital role in influencing your readers, and strengthening our multiracial and multi-religious social fabric.

I am heartened by BH’s determination to persevere and succeed. For as the song goes, “this is home, truly, where that river always flows”. Whatever the challenges, BH will find a way forward and emerge stronger. And so will Singapore.

Happy 60th Anniversary to BH! Thank you very much!