By T.K. Premadasa
In commemoration of the centennial celebrations of the Indian Cinema, an exclusive coverage with a lovely photograph of Dilip Kumar, Amithab Bachchan and Sharuck Khan, the three legends of the Indian Silver Screen appeared in the special issue of the Film Fare Magazine published on 24th of April, 2013. Amitab Bachchan and Sharuck Khan have openly expressed that it was a historical milestone in their career to have jointly appeared with this greatest Legend Dilip Kumar whom they highly respect for his excellence.
Dilip, with his outstanding contribution to the Indian cinema during the last several decades, was actively engaged in films even during his last days. He, released his autobiography named “Substance and the Shadow’’ in 2014 which covered his personal life story with everlasting experience on the Indian Silver Screen. In a salutary tribute to his unsurpassed performance as the Living Legend of the Indian Cinema, he was rightly honoured with Padma Vibhushan National Award in 2015 by the Government of India, on his 93rd Birthday.
This legendary jewel of the Indian Screen ever created by Bollywood passed away on 7th July 2021 at the age of 98, making the whole world of cinema fans grieve by his loss. He blessed with innate talents and skills which was portrayed in whatever character he played during the last four decades from the 1940s till 80s, he created history at the pinnacle of its glory on the Silver Screen.
Dilip Kumar was born on 11th December 1922 to a Hindi speaking family of Afghan origin with 12 children, in Qissa Khwani Bazaar in Peshawar, Pakistan. It was originally known as the North West Frontier Province in British India. This future world renowned film star on the Indian Screen, popularly known as Dilip Kumar was named Muhammad Yusuf Khan by his father Ghulam Sarwar, a leading businessmen dealing in fruits in Peshawar.
Young Yusuf Khan made his filial contribution to his family in assisting his father to earn their living on his business of fruits after the family moved to Bombay (Mumbai) in the early 1930s. It is believed that Yusuf Khan later worked in a cafeteria in Pune to support his family. Many interesting stories have been written about his entry into Indian Cinema.
Exclusive credence is bestowed on late Devika Rani the famous Indian actress in the 1930s and the 40s for her prescient introduction of Dilip Kumar to the Indian Screen. She was a partner of of Bombay Talkies Ltd of India that produced nearly 102 films. This company was instrumental in introducing not only Dilip but also Ashok Kumar, Mehboob, Raj Kapoor and a few other leading film stars, including Madhubala the veteran Queen of the Silver Screen who continued a long time love affair with Dilip Kumar.
This energetic character Dilip happened to travel to Nainital on a business trip, while Devika Rani too had gone to Nainatal with her film Director Amiya Chakravarthy searching for attractive locations for her next movie since the region of Nainatal was a natural beauty in the hill country of Uttara Pradesh. It was a miracle that these two met each other on the same route and Devika Rani unwittingly stumbled upon Yusuf. Devika instantly tendered her apology to Yusuf as it was her fault. She gave him her visiting card and promised that she would call him back. After the business deal Yusuf returned to Pune to work in the cafeteria. He was very much interested in meeting Devika Rani as she was so popular and an influential actress in the country. In the absence of a positive response from her, Yusuf traveled to Bombay Talkies Ltd which had been closed that day being a Sunday. However he was fortunate to meet the Production Secretary of the company S.Guruswamy outside the studio who most generously made an appointment for Yusuf to meet Devika Rani the next day. Accordingly, he was interviewed by Devika Rani who was indisputably admired by his attractive personality and potential. Consequently, he was given certain documents in respect of a contract agreement for signature of what he thought was a contract to run a cafeteria at the Bombay Talkies Ltd. But it was the contract of him being selected to play a leading role in their next film Jawar Bhata produced by Bombay Talkies Ltd. His innate talents with strength and confidence conquered the admiration of Devika Rani.
Entrusting the responsibility of playing a major character in the film on condition that he should change his name, Devika Rani proposed three names as Jewangir, Vasudev or Dilip Kumar of which he preferred the name Dilip Kumar meaning “Protector of Delhi”. But it is the putative factor that this popular name loved by the fans around the globe had been decided by a great Indian poet Baghawati Charan Verma.
After his first film Jawar Bhata, directed by Amiya Chakravarthy was screened in 1944, Dilip Kumar’s second movie was Pratima (1945) directed by Pardi Jairaj. It was a hallmark at the beginning of his career to play the major role with Indian legendary singer and actress Noor-Jehan in his fourth film Jugnu (1947). Inspired by his overwhelming popularity acclaimed through indefatigable efforts, he was offered to play a role with Raj Kapoor in the film named Andaz which became a hit movie crowning Dilip Kumar’s the brightest star in Hindi Cinema. He proved his brilliance literally in playing the major role of different characters in as many as 60 films from 1943 to 1998 ending his career with the film Qila in 1998. Stellar performance during a period of 55 years conquered the hearts of movie fans both locally and abroad with fascinating favourites as Madhumathi, Aan, Babul, Tarana, Devdas, Daag, Footpath, Andaz, Azaad, Leader, Ram oAur Sham, Kohinoor, Mughal E Azam, Ganga Jamuna, Naya Daur, etc. He has influenced fans world over reaching to the apex of its glory as the shining Super Star of the Hindi Silver Screen. It is a known fact that aproximately 11 films in which Dilip Kumar made his contribution playing the main role unreleased or incomplete due to reasons unknown.
An invitation from the great British Film Director David Lean to play the main character as Sherif Ali in the renowned film “Lawrence of Arabia” was not accepted by Dilip Kumar according to sources from the Indian film industry. Subsequently, Egyptian Actor Omar Sharif was selected for the role of Sherif Ali.
the only film produced by Dilip Kumar became a box office hit with lovely songs still resonating in our ever lasting memories. He directed the film Kalinga, which was a manifestation of his vast knowledge of the film industry. It was rather unfortunate that this film was not released.
Award winning actresses Noorjehan, Madhubala, Vyjayanthimala, Meena Kumari, Nutan, Nargis, Saira Banu and many others of the Indian cinema played the opposite roles with Dilip Kumar. Asha Parekh and Sadana could not act with Dilip. Suraiya and Malasingh refused to act with him.
It was his indomitable popularity with lovely composition of innovative musical brilliancy of great Indian musicians that attracted a capacity audience at each and every cinema just by the mention of the name Dilip Kumar at that time. The famous film Kohinoor is a case in point.
It is believed that the most romantic love affair heard from the Hindi Silver Screen has been the close relationship clandestinely carried on between Dilip and Madhubala who was later married to Kishor Kumar, the famous playback Singer cum actor. Coincidentally, Madhubala was also introduced to Hindi cinema by Devika Rani.
Dilip and Madhubala played the two opposite main roles in the film Tarana. Their increasing attachment tempted Madhubala to offer a bunch of red roses, the symbolic feelings of love to Dilip sensing her attraction towards him during the production of Tarana. The affair continued to last for nearly 5 years. These two veteran film stars were selected for leading roles in Naya Daur by Director B.R. Chopra. Chopra wanted Dilip and Madhubala to fly to Bhopal for shooting scheduled for a long stay. Unfortunately Madhubala’s father rejected the request as the location was not safe and thus Chopra was compelled to replace Madhubala with Vyjayanthimala. The dispute ended up in a Court of Law. Eventually the most long standing romantic love affair of the Indian cinema brought an unbearable end to both parties. It is said that they never spoke to each other than engaging in the dialogues in Mogul E Asam where they played major roles in the film. Nevertheless, her sister recently mentioned to the media that Madhubala loved Dilip Sahab till the day she died at the age of 36.
Dilip Kumar was 44 years of age when he got married to 22-year-old Beauty Queen film star Saira Banu in 1966. Their married life brilliantly blooming with happiness and harmony for the last 55 years is one of the longest lasting marriages of success in Bollywood cinema.
Dilip has received many awards for his brlilliant performances throughout his career. He became the first film star to win Filmfare Award for Best Actor for his role of Shankar played in Daag in 1954. Being nominated 19 times for the Best Actor at the Filmfare Award, he was repeatedly crowned the Best Actor, eight times for his stellar performances in Daag, Azaad, Devdas, Naya Daur, Leader, Kohinoor, Ram aur Shyam and Shakthi a record equaled by the leading Star on Hindi Screen Sharhrukh Khan by 2011. Special feature is that he set an unprecedented record in winning the prestigious Filmfare Award three consecutive years in 1956, 1957 and 1958.
He was honoured with the Filmfare Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993, NTR National Award in 1997, Zee Cine Awards 2001, IIFA Award For Outstanding Contribution To Indian Cinema 2004, Lifetime Achievement Award of CNN-IBN India in 2009. In honour of his excellent contribution he was titled the Sherif of Mumbai in 1980 and honoured with Padma Vibhushan of Indian Nation in 1991 and Dadasaheb Phalke Award in 1994 the highest national award for cinematic excellence in India. In 1997 Dilip was presented with Nishan –e- Pakistan, the highest civilian Award in Pakistan.
Dilip Kumar entered into politics in early 2000 and was elected a member of the Lok Sabha at the general elections held in 2000.
Dilip will have a special place reserved for him in the history of world cinema. This is evident from the excellent comments made by the great Indian artistes on the legendary actor. The legendary actor of the next generation, Amithab Bachchan quoted Dilip as the greatest actor to ever emerge on the Indian screen and Satyajith Ray emphasised that ‘’Dilip Kumar was a brilliant actor and can be termed as the ‘Ultimate Actor in Method Acting.”
(The writer is the former Head of Corporate Affairs and Communications of Sri Lanka Export Development Board. He can be reached on
Colonial bourgeoisie and Sinhala cultural revival
The Birth of Prince Siddhartha Gautama
By Uditha Devapriya
The colonial bourgeoisie in Sri Lanka did not form a monolithic class. They were divided horizontally as well as vertically: horizontally on the basis of income and inheritance, and vertically on the basis of primordial attachments, such as caste ideology. Various factors, mainly economic, conspired as much to unify the bourgeoisie as they did to divide them, distinguishing them by their homogeneity as much as by their heterogeneity.
Sri Lanka’s transition to a plantation economy took place under British rule (1796-1948). While it’s not really accurate to say that prior to British rule the country, especially parts of the Kandyan kingdom, remained cut off from monetary exchange (a thesis that has been questioned by S. B. D. de Silva in his work on colonial underdevelopment), the British sped up the consolidation of a plantation colony, dominated by import-export trade. The creation of a new economy facilitated the formation of a new elite that found ways of building up wealth and prestige from road toll and arrack rents, plantation profits, investments in urban property, and entry into the civil service and the professions.
This bourgeoisie differed in degree and substance from the traditional elite that hailed from the apex of the social hierarchy in the Kandyan kingdom. A two-way process followed: while the bourgeoisie gained wealth and prestige over the traditional elite, the latter either found themselves reduced to a semi-dependent elite, or adapted to a changing world.
While differences between these two elites had become pronounced by the middle of the 19th century, by the time of the Buddhist revival they were fading away. The bourgeoisie, for their part, did not completely reject the customs and habits of the old elite, as witnessed by nouveau riche govigama families marrying into the Kandyan aristocracy.
Given the all too fine distinctions which cropped up among the bourgeoisie as it grew and evolved in the 19th century, the Buddhist revival evolved in spurts and stages rather than in one giant leap. The question as to which class gave an impetus to the revival, then, is linked to the question of which class interests prevailed in the unfolding of that revival.
Different scholars have approached these issues from different, if only vaguely similar, vantage points. Thus Gananath Obeyesekere ascribes the revival to the dissemination of “Protestant Buddhist” values among the Sinhala bourgeoisie, Kumari Jayawardena to the ideology of the Sinhala petty bourgeoisie, and Michael Roberts to the adoption of Western notions of nationalism and forms of propaganda. These are important perspectives, and they shed light on the role of class interests in the unfolding of nationalist revivals in colonial society. Yet different as they may be, they are all premised on assumptions of one milieu’s (petty bourgeoisie) dependence on a dominating elite (comprador bourgeoisie), and of that dominating elite’s dependence on a colonial economic framework.
For perfectly plausible reasons, these hypotheses deny ideological autonomy on the part of both dependent and dominating classes. Thus Kumari Jayawardena distinguishes between the plantation bourgeoisie and the semi-industrial bourgeoisie, in relation to their response to the revival, on the basis of the relations between their methods of acquiring wealth and colonial economic constraints, so that elite families subscribe to a conservative reading of Buddhism moulded by their ties to plantation capital, while Anagarika Dharmapala, whose family was involved in industries “not totally dependent on colonial patronage”, espouses a more “reformist” reading in keeping with a radical approach to politics.
Simply put, to the extent that the bourgeoisie was locked into an economy dominated by colonial interests, it viewed the revival as an expression of its own ideology. The use of the plural is instructive here, in that the bourgeoisie, as Roberts notes, did not share a unifying ideology, and were in fact “more differentiated” than traditional elites.
This interpretation of the revival helps us glean the intricate links between the economic base of colonial society and the ideological superstructure of revivalist movements, avoiding the pitfalls of rationalising such movements on purely cultural grounds, as nationalists are wont to do. It also presents colonial history as a series of successive periods in which one set of class ideologies prevailed over others: a plantation bourgeois at the tail-end of the 19th century, and a petty bourgeois at the turn of the 20th.
Yet, despite the validity of these perspectives, they omit three factors pertinent to the triad of colonialism, cultural modernity, and nationalist revival: ideological agency on the part of the contending milieus (intra-class, between sections of the elite, and inter-class, between different elites), the contribution of “unrepresented” classes, most prominently the working class and peasantry, to that triad, and the part played by different artists and art forms with respect to the revival and its unfolding in the 20th century.
The latter point merits much consideration. In his study of the evolution of Sinhala music in the early 20th century, Garret Field observes that composers and playwrights were as moved by monetary reasons as by cultural ones. In Jayawardena’s view, artistes like Charles Dias and John de Silva “nibbled” at colonial rule, critiquing the decay of cultural values while paradoxically presenting a colonial reinterpretation of local history.
A good example of this would be de Silva’s Sri Wickrema. While lamenting the loss of the Kandyan kingdom to the British, it presents the last king of Kandy as a rapacious tyrant, a drunkard laggard: ironically, in line with propaganda about the monarch disseminated by colonial officials, in particular the Orientalist agent, John D’Oyly.
What is pertinent here is that the stunted ideology of nationalist elites found its expression in the stunted ideology of the objets d’art they exhibited, and that this ideology prevented these art forms from undergoing a modernist revolution which could question colonial rule without subscribing to a colonial reconstruction of culture. I posit three reasons for why the nurthi plays of John de Silva, among other objets, failed to make that important leap: their mass appeal, the high levels of capital investment they required, and the conflicting attitude of their patrons, some of whom hailed from the bourgeoisie, to colonial rule.
At the turn of the 20th century, with the bifurcation of nationalism into radical politics and cultural revival, it was possible for patrons of these arts to decry a lost heritage (Sinhala and Arya) while adhering to colonial conceptions of history. As Roberts puts it,
“The cultural awakening and the recoil against the Western world, then, took many forms. It was influenced and permeated by romanticism, populism, indigenism, and anti-Western sentiments. Its conceptual forms were more traditionalist than tradition; and more revivalist than traditionalist. It did not possess the solipsist complacency and self-confidence of those who rely on the traditional… Neither was it wholly traditionalist and restorative. Its principal activists were selective in the traditions they picked up.”
Roberts has noted elsewhere that, while calling for the end of British rule, nationalist elites resorted to Western modes of protest; thus, while nationalist liberators who sprang up in the Kandyan regions after their annexation by the British decried the Kandyan Convention as a betrayal of the Sinhala kingdom, nationalist agitators in the 20th century rationalised the Convention as a legal document which British officials had honoured more in the breach than the observation. Benedict Anderson has analysed these paradoxes in his study of what he calls the “last wave of nationalism”, which unfolded in the European colonies of Africa and Asia at the end of the 19th century. His thesis explains the paradoxical response to their own history by Sinhala nationalists; even in the act of decrying a lost pre-colonial heritage, these same nationalists subscribed to values promoted by colonisers. Hence Sri Wickrema is a plea for the restoration of a lost heritage, a condemnation of colonial “modernity”, yet it is also an indictment of a key figure associated with that heritage.
Dependent as these objets were on “colonial capital”, for a more meaningful analysis, they should be compared with art forms that were not no dependent on such capital.
In the decorative arts, breaks with the past transpired more rapidly, and thoroughly, than they did in the realm of literature and theatre. As Sunil Goonesekara has observed, by the time of the revival in the early 20th century important debates had sprung up about which mode of painting best suited the country. On the one hand, there was the studio painter, who looked up to styles established in European art academies; on the other hand, there were the traditional Kandyan painters, a vanishing group even then; on yet another hand, there were lithographers reproducing Buddhist parables, whose figurehead, Sarlis, exuded a style that was, as Goonasekera puts it, “not wholly native nor wholly other.”
Perhaps the most obvious reason why painting was able to undergo a modernist revolution faster than could theatre and literature was that it did not fit the three criteria applicable to the latter two art forms: it lacked a mass audience, it did not require high levels of capital investment, and it did not need the patronage of elites tied to colonialism.
Underscoring this was the even simpler fact that painting was a visual art, and that unlike theatre and literature it could dispense with the written word. If John Berger’s dictum that we see before we speak is indeed true, and what we see establishes our place in the world more quickly than can the printed word, modernism in art swamped Sri Lanka more rapidly than either the theatre or the press because it was cut off from print capitalism; simply put, it was easier to defy canons of taste in painting, because the painter did not have to borrow European notions of modernity that nationalists and revivalists had been innovating on from the tail-end of the 19th century. He did not need a “text.” He had frescoes, lithographs, and murals to work from. The revival may have thrived on the polemic, but it breathed through the canvas. This is, perhaps, a point seldom appreciated, if at all. Yet it is true.
Anne Blackburn has cautioned against viewing the Buddhist revival solely as a response to colonialism by nationalists. In painting, we come across a new way of viewing the revival: neither a collective rejection of the West, nor a total acceptance of colonial canons of taste and propriety, but rather a break from both. This obviously opens up new lines of discussion and interpretation as regards colonialism in Sri Lanka, a topic that for far too long has been viewed through a class, caste, or elite lens by scholars and students.
The writer can be reached at email@example.com
Enblish Experiment: Bold or Barmy?
London comes alive after the easing of lockdown
By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana
Only time will tell whether the ‘English Experiment’, which started as 19 July dawned, would be a success or a failure. There were count-down clocks in many a place, mostly in night clubs, as they could open for business after a break that looked like eternity. Jubilant young, sans face masks, hugged and danced, physical distancing already being a distant memory. A carnival atmosphere erupted right across England as ‘Freedom Day’ dawned. It was only in England, not right across the UK, which is made up of four countries, England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, with devolved administrations, health being one of those devolved functions and the Secretary of Health of Her Majesty’s government looking after health issues only in England. It is these oddities that I love about Britain!
‘Freedom Day’, already postponed once from 21 June, could not have come at a worse time and already the Opposition is holding the knife to the government’s throat. Failure is likely to result in a disaster. The Secretary of Health, who was largely responsible for introducing the regulations 16 months ago, was caught breaking his own rules by smooching with a female aide in his office! Like one of our politicians, he tried to remain in office but was forced to resign. His successor tested positive two days before ‘Freedom Day’. The Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who were in close contact, attempted to avoid isolation by trying to take part in a trial but public opinion forced them to isolate from the day before freedom!
On average, over 40,000 cases are diagnosed daily, almost all being due to the more infectious Delta variant. However, hospital admissions remain low and the NHS is able to manage comfortably unlike in the previous waves, as there are only around 4000 patients with Covid, in hospitals throughout UK. But this comes at a cost; millions remaining on waiting lists for elective procedures that had to be cancelled to accommodate the emergency admissions. More importantly, death rates remain very low, averaging around 40 per day, which is almost certainly due to the commendable vaccination programme. Already almost 90% of the adult population has had one dose and 70% both doses of the vaccine.
The major problem at the moment is the large number of cases diagnosed daily with a significant number of contacts being instructed to isolate at home, being identified mostly through the ‘NHS app’. One of the reasons for the increased number of cases is, no doubt, due to allowing large crowds at sporting events, like the just concluded Euro 2000. Even the most optimistic of experts agree that with the relaxation of preventive measures like face masks and physical distancing, the number of cases is bound to increase further, at least in the short term. Although no longer mandatory, the government is requesting the public to adhere to physical distancing and wearing face masks in enclosed spaces. In short, the government has shifted the responsibility to the public in the hope that there would be satisfactory compliance.
On the other hand, if most people behave irresponsibly, there is the real risk of another wave, which may be difficult to control. Although working from home is no longer the norm, if significant numbers are made to isolate, normal work would not resume. Due to staff isolation, already there have been some supermarket closures and cancellation of public transport. During the weekend Preceding the ‘Freedom Day’, a few lines of the world-famous London Underground were not functioning. Therefore, success is not guaranteed and failure would make it look like the government decision being barmy!
However, the Rubicon had to be crossed sometime and we cannot be dictated by a virus forever. A new normal has to be established but whether this is the right time is the question asked by many. Perhaps, doing this at a time when things are not optimal is barmy. On the other hand, it can be construed as a bold step by a government determined to get the country back to normal again. It is pretty obvious that the whole world is watching, with bated breath, whether the ‘English Experiment’ will be a success.
It is entirely possible that with the continuing energetic campaign of vaccination, which is reducing morbidity and the mortality rates considerably, and the rapid spread of the virus which too would lead to the production of antibodies, a wall of immunity would develop soon, ‘taming’ the virus. The hope is that after a temporary phase of worsening, Covid-19 would be ‘tamed’ to be like seasonal flu. In the winter months, there are around 200 deaths daily due to the flu virus in spite of the vaccination of vulnerable people, but the country is not shut down. The hope is that a similar equilibrium would be established.
The UK has the infrastructure to conduct surveys and gather very accurate information. As the four countries of the UK are moving at different paces, comparisons can be made and lessons learnt. Also, the issue of vaccine hesitancy and resultant harm could be established. London, unfortunately, has the lowest level of vaccination, standing around 65% for the first dose and 45% for the second. Ethnicity also seems to play an important part. In those over 50 years, 95% of Whites have had the vaccine compared to only 75% of Blacks. The percentage for South Asians is around 87%. It is well known that most of the deaths occur in those not vaccinated. As no vaccine gives 100% protection, unfortunately, a few get Covid even after full vaccination but the disease tends to be milder and deaths rare. It is regrettable that there is a tiny number of deaths due to the vaccines as well.
It is expected that the entire adult population of the UK as well as vulnerable children will be fully vaccinated by the end of September. It is very likely that we will know which direction the epidemic is heading and whether the ‘English Experiment’ is a success by the end of October. I hope that it be a success for the sake of Sri Lanka, too.
After having overcome many difficulties, the vaccination campaign in Sri Lanka seems to be gathering momentum, at last, and it is very likely that the vast majority of the adult population would be fully vaccinated by September or October. If the ‘English Experiment’ is proved to be a success, then Sri Lanka will be in a position to open the country to tourism; many in the West are itching to get out to sunnier climes, to escape the drab winter. This would, no doubt, help Sri Lanka to get out of the economic quagmire.
Let us hope that the ‘English Experiment’ is bold, not barmy!
Master gardener’s role in transforming Singapore into ‘garden city’
By B. Nimal Veerasingham
Soil from time immemorial has been regarded the womb of mother earth – creating, shaping, and nurturing life. Recognising the pivotal role soil plays in sustaining life through greenery, water, food, ecology, weather and organisms, human livelihood continues on its familiar path. Life, which originated from the earth, is recycled as ‘ashes to ashes – earth to earth’, while most earthly elements are present in the human genome. The cycle of life continues.
The most visible extensions of soil are arboreal and tropical, deciduous and dense canopies. Greenery became the pulse of human existence, incubating larger settlements and civilisations. There is nothing possibly more satisfying than witnessing mother nature in one’s own backyard, or, for that matter, every available public space.
In 1965, when the father of Singapore, the late Lee Kuan Yew (LKY), a Cambridge educated Lawyer, started off with a clean slate in a Singapore separated from Malaysia, which paved the way for an economic revolution, his inheritance was a forlorn nation. There was no reliable water source to even dream of greening the landscape. After all, redeeming masses from exploitation, crime, disorderliness while ushering in economic growth and hope was a more immediate requirement than providing secondary sustainable green space for the sake of livability and healthier environment. ‘Let’s put the house in order and fire the economic engine, and we will create an environment, both aesthetic and an internalised social asset for the citizenry to appreciate livability’, was the order in which the Southern tip of the Malay peninsula placed its priorities.
The founding father LKY envisioned a wholesome meritocratic outline, long term social and economic planning as opposed to populist policy, at times shaped by the evolving experiences elsewhere, to shape what others might have defined as daydream.
Green historians strolling through the landscape of Singapore might come across the obvious milestone, envisioned in 1967 and started with the very first official ‘Tree planting day’ in November 1971. LKY foresaw this attempt, to transform the country into First World standards, as per his memoir ‘From Third World to First’. But is there something that is not visible other than the obvious?
The majority, almost 70 percent of Singapore’s population is made up of those with Chinese ancestry. Confucianism is the backbone of Chinese thinking and lifestyle in many respects. It speaks strongly of the rhythm of nature’s ability to sustain life, both its biological and socio-cultural renditions. Its holistic organic continuum makes nature interdependent and interrelated to all aspects of harmonious human life. Landscaped, planned gardens or efforts to incorporate soil and greenery, are part of this grand equation, to bring nature closer to home. It is no secret that LKY strongly adopted practical realities including in early thinking, in his efforts to make Singapore a ‘garden city’, or the later attempt to place the ‘city in a garden’.
The art of harmonising nature with human lives by way of landscaped gardens by the Chinese Emperors has been observed well over 3,000 years ago, earliest recorded during the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC). Many features were added to synchronise waterways, vegetation, rocks, galleries, etc., besides the earthen or wall backdrops to add an element of surprise to suddenly unfolding spectacular scenery far and near. Explorers like Marco Polo (1300 AC) and early Jesuit priests (1600 AC) wrote in detail about the Chinese gardens which later became the inspiration for landscaped gardens among European royalty.
The earlier garden concepts were mostly undertaken by rulers who not only created the same for relaxation and pleasure, but also to impress others. This is no different from the present-day home gardeners. The same is true in a sense, of Singapore’s ambitious economic agenda. They realised the need to impress investors, distinguishing themselves from other developing countries, while also softening the harshness of urbanisation for its population. An orderly, manicured and planned green abode without litter, graffiti, or crime, provides an ambiance of a desirable, well-organised destination for investors and visitors. ‘Clean & Green’ became the slogan where land was specifically set aside for tree planting, green buffers and park development; even overhead foot bridges, lamp posts and flyovers were camouflaged with creepers and climbers to transform the dreary concrete jungle into life.
LKY, at the beginning, turned towards schoolchildren to fight entrenched old habits, getting them involved in valuing greenery, thereby taking the message home to the grown-ups, to prevent walking over plants and grass, trampling flowerbeds and saplings and damaging with motor vehicles. Whether his interest in green ecology was inborn or born out of necessity is hard to gauge, but he poured over many models and of ecosystems around the world during his many overseas visits. He discovered that in Paris a drainage system was built below the pavements to sustain broad tree-lined boulevards, and the reason rolling meadows of New Zealand cannot be replicated in Singapore.
In fact, he brought two experts from New Zealand under the ‘Colombo Plan’ technical assistance programme to learn how rain water dripping from an equatorial forest as found in New Zealand, replace torrential rain that washes away the topsoil in Singapore, with its tree canopy. He frequently sent out expert teams all along the equator to find different vegetation that could thrive locally. He even trapped rainwater falling on the roadways, filtering the grime and oil to water the vegetation under the flyovers, in some cases even splitting the flyovers for sunlight to reach underneath. Hardheaded and pragmatic, he was not ideological or dogmatic, but willing to try many methods to get at what worked best. ‘A well-kept garden is a daily effort and would demonstrate to outsiders, the people’s ability to work hard, organize and to be systematic,’ he would say.
Fundamental to any dream of greening is water. There was no natural water source in Singapore. The entire water supply had to be imported from neighbouring Malaysia. Yet, imported water was cut down by more than 50 percent, and Singapore became a world leader in reclaimed water technology, setting up rainwater reservoirs and desalination.
Providing gracious natural amenities all across the city state was also a matter of equality, thought the planners, where a network of over 300 parks and four nature reserves were created spreading over the island almost the size of Colombo. Singapore was consistently ranked within top 10 of world’s greenest cities by leading global organisations, with further ambitious plans for cleaner energy models in transportation, public buildings and landfills by 2030.
The economic engine was in full swing in the late 1980s as the City State was ready to expand the green movement to provide greater space for leisure activities and to rejuvenate the population with parks and connecting green corridors, allocating more than half a billion Singapore dollars.
The annual tree planting week, which eventually expanded into the clean and green campaign, was aimed at providing a mental and physical stimuli for the population, in a tropical garden city setting. LKY mentioned the initiative as a crucial strategy for the wellbeing of Singapore, and never missed an annual tree planting event until his death at the age of 91. The campaign grew from 150,000 in 1974 to almost 1.4 million in 2014. The 162-year-old Singapore Botanical garden, being the crown green jewel, glares in its testimony as being the only tropical garden honored as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Being ranked high in UN Human Development index as well as having the second highest GDP per capita in the world with longest life expectancy and lowest infant mortality was no accident. As one of four Asian Tiger economies with limited land area (728 Sq KM), Singapore continuously evolves from labour intensive industries to high end technological incubators and brain intensive software industries with less labour. Their economic innovation exemplified in diversifying digital technological opportunities is key to staying ahead of others to ensure economic supremacy. As part of this evolution, Singapore has started exporting expertise of urban industrial parks and residential complexes through its subsidiaries of national agencies, notably to China and Indonesia.
For all its glory of using nature for the benefit of the population’s physical and mental well being and productivity, there are critics who associate the attempts with social engineering and the state’s heavy-handed interference in individual freedom. They weigh in with arguments of Confucian influence where the elders or the State knows best and decides for the rest. Some critics point out that the whole green revolution is a pretext to keep the population within the watchful perimeters of large housing estates (91 percent home ownership), where they are watched, controlled and given directions.
But to all critics, Singaporean planners’ response is that the City State simply follows what the democratically elected lawmakers have enacted as statutes; the rule of law prevails. Corruption of any sort is severely dealt with. Nepotism and ethnic favoritism are legally barred and diligently followed in all areas of civic administration, to the books.
As the interwoven tropical topography of the region was ideal for spices, empires vied for control for supremacy over the aromatic gold, which changed the economic prospects of the region forever. Though the forced takeovers provided trading infrastructures and routes, the economic base needed to be reinvented with times, towards the long-term betterment of its inhabitants.
Among its pioneer influence of relevance, four dominant trees could be highlighted for their stronghold in Singapore from the time it was founded as a British Trading Post by Stamford Raffles in the early 19th century. Nutmeg and rubber trees changed the industrial world in two different but intrinsic ways, with economic expansion and industrial dynamism. Raffles himself planted Nutmeg trees after claiming Singapore, the spice that revolutionized baking globally. Singapore Botanical Gardens became the leading exporter of Rubber seeds whereby Malaya supplied almost half of the entire world supply of rubber. Banyan and Rain (Samanea saman) trees, known for their vast reach and circumference, have no promising economic purpose, limited to providing shade.
What the model of Singapore foretells in terms of an economic miracle is that, as Lee Kuan Yew found out from his vast exposure and experience as the Chief Gardener of Singapore, the economic diversity and resilience of the likes of nutmeg and rubber trees have to be replicated and developed. But the characters of the Rain and Banyan tree in particular have to be avoided at all cost in order for the model to work, let alone succeed.
Like the parasitic Banyan tree eventually kills its host, corruption in any form would kill the very foundation of any economic model––borrowed, replicated or home-grown.
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