You can always trust a group of journalists to get a conversation going. Perhaps that’s why it was apt that the media was the first group to kick off Singapore’s national dialogue on environment issues last week.
This exercise – the most extensive in the city-state’s history yet - announced earlier in January by Minister for the Environment and Water Resources (MEWR) Vivian Balakrishnan, aims to evaluate how the city-state takes care of the environment and to understand its citizens’ “common vision and values” for the future.
It will involve public consultations with a large cross section of society from corporates to NGOs, the youth to public agencies, led by the Singapore Environment Council and will feed into a review of the Singapore Sustainable Blueprint by year end.
It has been five years since this blueprint was unveiled in 2009 by an Inter-Ministerial Committee on Sustainable Development. It was launched just ahead of the now infamous United Nations climate meeting in Copenhagen when world leaders were meant to ink a global agreement to tackle climate change but didn’t.
The committee, involving five ministries - MEWR, the Ministry for National Development, Finance, Transport and Trade and Industry, was tasked with developing a national strategy for Singapore’s sustainable development in response to emerging domestic and global challenges.
In the blueprint, it outlined approaches to boosting the country’s resource efficiency, enhancing its urban environment, building capabilities and fostering community action, while setting certain targets on energy efficiency, recycling, water recycling rates, clean air standards and public transport accessibility.
There have been many developments in the five years since, and this is an opportune time for Singapore to do some navel-gazing on how effective its sustainable development strategies have been and to define the way forward.
One key question that emerged from the discussion I facilitated and attended by journalists and bloggers from the local media scene such as The Straits Times, The New Paper, Lianhe Zaobao, WildSingapore and Asian Geographic, was how Singapore would approach economic growth.
Since its independence, Singapore has relied heavily on energy-intensive industries such as shipping, oil refining and manufacturing as economic pillars but has taken pains in setting standards for these industries such that it does not compromise living standards and a quality of life for its citizens.
In recent years, it has identified cleaner industries such as clean technology, professional services and nanotechology, for example, as drivers of economic growth and invested in R&D in these fields in an effort to diversify its economy.
The fact remains that Singapore as a country has a high energy footprint per capita and there is difficulty reconciling the image of Singapore as a sustainable city with the reality that it is a highly materialistic and consumerist society, often portrayed as the ‘Monaco of the East’ and symbolised by its glitzy casinos and ostentatious displays of wealth.
But, as some of my fellow journalists pointed out, the fact remains that Singapore as a country has a high energy footprint per capita and there is difficulty reconciling the image of Singapore as a sustainable city with the reality that it is a highly materialistic and consumerist society, often portrayed as the ‘Monaco of the East’ and symbolised by its glitzy casinos and ostentatious displays of wealth.
As a society, Singapore is also lagging behind its developed Asian counterparts such as Korea, Japan and Taiwan in the amount of waste it generates, how much it recycles and the level of civic consciousness that permeates daily living. There is a gap between what the city aspires to achieve for its environment, and how much its citizens care for it on a daily basis.
You only have to look at the waste generated and left behind at public events to witness the lack of civic behaviour, or the protests you get when you tell someone they have to pay for a plastic bag, as examples.
One area the government can play a role is providing the right infrastructure that makes it easy for citizens to live sustainably, or behave more eco-friendly. It could something as simple as providing reverse vending machines at the right locations to encourage recycling behaviour, or introducing a nationwide scheme to charge for plastic bags to send the right message to society.
On a larger scale, businesses have the potential to make a larger impact on the sustainability of Singapore, given the footprint of its operations. But beyond the handful of enlightened companies that recognise sustainability as a core business strategy, how many other businesses give further thought to how their operations impact society and the environment? In this respect, there needs to be more business engagement to raise awareness, Consumers can play a part by exerting pressure on companies, and the government also has the power to influence businesses to conduct their operations in a more responsible manner by using a combination of soft incentives and hard legislation.
But perhaps what is most lacking in Singapore’s approach to sustainable development is an overall narrative to inspire the populace – a collective vision that conveys the desire to achieve a better tomorrow, a more sustainable future so that Singapore in 2030 and beyond is a better one from the one today.
Taking a leaf from many other countries which have done so, Singapore could embrace the concept of green growth.
Many countries such as China, Denmark, Indonesia, Mexico, Vietnam, Philippines, South Korea, Thailand and others have publicly declared national strategies to pursue the green economy, defined by the United Nations as one that results in improved human well-being and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities.
A new report released this week on the state of green growth by the International Institute for Environment and Development and the Green Economy Coalition also observed that there is the potential for governments to marry “a broad concept of green with equity and inclusion, creating growth at all levels of the economy and ensuring that everyone shares in the benefits”.
This is highly relevant for Singapore, where in recent years the government has made a big effort in outlining a vision for an inclusive society to address growing inequality, and made moves to introduce progressive economic and social policy for a more equitable society.
Interestingly, a MEWR representative at the dialogue said the government has recently convened a new “Green Growth Group” across ministries which has subsumed the IMCSD and will be driving the next iteration of the Sustainable Singapore Blueprint. Perhaps we will hear more about this in the months to come.
I am encouraged because for any sustainable development strategy to be effective, it requires a whole of government approach. It is all well and good that MEWR has tasked SEC to lead this ENVision dialogue to discuss Singapore’s sustainable future, but if they are the only agency that will act on the feedback, the effort is doomed from the start.
There is the potential for governments to marry a broad concept of green with equity and inclusion, creating growth at all levels of the economy and ensuring that everyone shares in the benefits.
Ministries such as Trade and Industry and Finance must move beyond paying lip service to supporting sustainable growth to showing some leadership in it, or ‘sustainable growth’ or ‘green growth’ will merely languish in the realm of environment agencies and treehugging circles.
Lastly, one journalist in the dialogue rightly pointed out that Singapore is at risk of “public consultation fatigue” given the recent move by the government to engage the public more extensively. In itself, this is a necessary and good move, but citizens could easily turn sceptical if they feel that the exercise is about going through the motions for the sake of it.
This dialogue has provided the opportunity for the wider community to voice our ideas, and for the government to demonstrate its commitment to setting Singapore on a greener, more liveable, sustainable future.
We should not waste it.