Singapore & the Environment: Pursuing active sustainability

Enviromental Challenge Organisation, Writer, Singapore / Benjamin Mak Jia Ming

This essay won the first prize in the National Youth Environment Forum 2007 Essay Competition.

Economic development has led Singapore to become a thriving metropolis in a globalised world within the short space of slightly more than 40 years, generating employment, providing basic necessities and education, and gradually developing a world-class standard of living. But the key question to ask is: What is ultimately going to sustain Singapore and its people for the next century and beyond?

Pure economic development is not the answer, as can be seen from China, which while having risen spectacularly as an economic powerhouse in recent years, has simultaneously caused severe harm to its environment and people. Half of China’s rivers are polluted, cutting off clean water supply for millions, and severe air pollution from dirty coal burning in heavy industry has wreaked havoc upon the lungs of the Hong Kong people, causing 1,000 air pollution-related deaths annually.

Global warming in the Andes Mountains of South America has disastrously exacerbated the melting of the Andes glaciers, potentially threatening locals with mudslides from the runoff of the melted ice, reduced tourism revenue due to the disappearance of ski slopes, and the loss of the critically affordable hydroelectric power source.

As seen from the above examples, it is clear that the long-term sustainability of a country’s environment in today’s world threatened by major climate change is critical to ensuring its survival and prosperity, something Singapore’s politicians have always kept close to their hearts. It is hence essential that Singapore takes active steps to protect the local environment, both on principle and practical grounds; and indeed Singapore’s government has had a positive record with this.

Since the early days of independence, the top leaders have embarked on key initiatives to ensure environmental protection, ranging from community awareness events like the Tree Planting Day to strategic policy in greening the island’s roads and having green belts of trees to prevent the city centre from expanding uncontrollably beyond pre-defined boundaries. The government’s tough stance on environmental protection is keenly reflected in law enforcement, ranging from Corrective Work Orders for errant litter-bugs and the necessity to consult and seek permission from various government bodies before old trees can be chopped for purposes like facilitating the construction of new residential apartments.

On the principle front, Singapore needs to raise its responsibility as a committed global citizen. Having successfully industrialized and transformed itself into a thriving city, it is vital not to forget the critical roots of Singapore’s fortunes: trade and co-operation with foreign partners.

In the same way, in the face of truly global threats like climate change, Singapore needs to exercise its commitment as a responsible global citizen in ensuring that at least its own environment is clean and friendly. While critics may label this as a useless step in the face of excessive pollution from countries like the United States and China, this is a defeatist criticism.

Furthermore, in Souteast-Asia, where environmental problems like the haze continue to pose a challenge to regional ties, Singapore taking active measures to protect its environment would set a key precedent for other nations to follow suit, in turn promoting regional interests. These measures would also reflect Singapore’s steadfast commitment to the fight against global challenges, further improving Singapore’s international standing.

On the practical front, protecting the environment would be a key fulfillment of the government’s duty of care to the people. By being elected, the government has the responsibility to serve the people’s welfare – which, beyond economic satisfaction, includes the providence of a suitable living environment to relax and raise their children in. By fulfilling this duty of care, the government is in effect providing the people with a suitable living environment. The track record of this can be seen in the numerous expatriates who have moved to Singapore from smog-choked Hong Kong. This in turn meets the need for greater foreign investment and collaboration, meaning that while protecting the environment, we also serve the economic interests of the country.

A second key reason would be that protecting Singapore’s environment effectively ensures the safety and survival – and hopefully eventual thriving – of the precious and wide local biodiversity, in areas like Chek Jawa and the Sungei Buloh nature reserve. The latter is home to many birds who come to Singapore to escape the cold winter months of the northern hemisphere, while the former contains much precious marine life, including beautiful corals, the best to be found on our local shores. The protection of this biodiversity would facilitate further scientific research on many of these yet unknown creatures, increasing the bank of scientific knowledge which will benefit the world, potentially by providing links to creating advanced medical drugs.

The protection of biodiversity would also mean that Singapore’s unique natural heritage is passed down to the next generation of Singaporeans, ensuring that the preservation of Singapore’s past is a holistic and comprehensive effort, stretching beyond the mere yellowing page or brown photograph, which would clearly provide a beneficial education for future generations on what their island is about beyond the textbook and the office. These efforts would also facilitate increased tourism, as more people around the world become aware of Singapore’s natural wonders and want to visit them.

Most importantly, active environmental protection would prevent us from having to pay the heavy prices accompanying pollution and environmental disaster. This would hence allow our government to maximise its resource usage for the collective benefit of the population through improvements in healthcare coverage and education. This is clearly a more desirable outcome, as compared to the catastrophic humanitarian and economic costs were climate change or any ever major environmental disaster ever to rear its ugly head on Singapore’s shores – which we of course would hope never to happen.

Environmentally friendly practices like the reuse and recycling of products also increases the effective use of resources, saving costs and improving efficiency in working, making the government and people more competitive and even better able to face an increasingly challenging 21st century world than before.

Based on the above analysis, it is clear that adopting measures actively meant to protect the local environment will ultimately have clear long-term ramifications that are beneficial to the people. Even so, critics claim that such efforts will ultimately be ineffectual in tackling the environment problem at its root, because projected rapid population growth would swell the number of people consuming finite resources in Singapore, causing eventual catastrophe. However, while this argument does hold water to the extent that many people do indeed consume more resources relative to a smaller population, some major clarifications are needed to contextualize this notion.

Firstly, it is important to note that rapid population growth is mutually exclusive of exponential population growth that ultimately results in a resource crisis. In fact, the recently-set - 6 million population target by the government is meant to be achieved in the long term, and not be something which will be accomplished within a very specific period of time. Secondly, this argument fails to consider the essential element of human innovation, which ultimately has made a significant impact on Singapore especially – if not for this, how would Singapore, an island with almost no natural resources to speak of and millions of mouths to feed, have survived and thrived over the past 40 years?

Rapid population growth will indeed pose a key threat to local environmental sustainability, but we must remember that this growth will continue to be regulated and monitored on a periodic basis, preventing Singapore’s environment from entering into a tailspin. Human innovation will also play a role in ensuring that gaps, if any, are filled sufficiently, and that ultimately there will be no major population explosion resulting in a Malthusian catastrophe leading to social unrest and economic crisis.

A second key challenge is of course the Singaporean mindset, which tends to be rather ambivalent towards issues of environmental conservation and climate change, taking the view that these issues are in the domain of the government’s responsibility, and hence pay little attention and lack a serious sense of ownership for the environment.

This issue of mindset is not something limited only to Singapore, but it is critical that the government examine and evaluate alternative strategies to change the people’s mindset and get them to understand the significance of the environment in their lives – that it underpins the very air that breathes life into them. While it is not possible for Singaporeans to immediately reach the standards of Germans in automatically disposing their domestic waste in the appropriate recycling bins, there are steps that should be taken beyond increased public campaigning and activism, including for example structural changes in the laws to deter environmental damage.

Singapore’s government has spearheaded numerous efforts over the last 40 years to protect Singapore’s environment. Barring no significant environmental disaster befall our island, I am confident that the Singapore of 2020 will be an environmental paradise, insofar as active sustainable policies are pursued and the people are incentivised to participate and take ownership of their living space.

To quote India’s famous independence leader Gandhi, “There is a sufficiency in the world for man’s need but not for man’s greed.”

Singapore’s government has actively pursued policies to promote environmental awareness and increase support for the natural local landscape. Insofar as we provide for our needs, I believe Singapore will prosper and grow, providing us and our children a life worth living.