By Benjamin Cheah
On Saturday, a group of National University Singapore students held the first Singapore Futures Sustainability Symposium. Addressing the environmental land use debate brought up by the Population White Paper, the Symposium was organised around two main topics: the Living Environment and Our Urban Space. Project Director Mr Ezra Ho said that the purpose of the symposium was to “address assumptions” and “treat issues at the systemic level”.
Nominated Member of Parliament Ms Faizah Jamal delivered the keynote address. Referring to the proposed Cross-Island MRT Line, Ms Faizah asked, “How could someone in public policy contemplate cutting a trail through a nature reserve, and allow that proposal to see the light of day in the White Paper?”
A volunteer would later articulate the effects of ‘cutting a trail’. Construction activities would stress local fauna, fragment the jungle and expose it to erosion forces, pollute nearby streams and soil, and cause soil collapse when tunnel boring machines release underground air pressure. It might also pave the way for a slippery slope, encouraging the authorities to build even more structures and further stress the environment.
During her speech, Ms Faizah brought up some of the issues environment activists and concerned citizens face. These include developing creative and effective ways to communicate their message, mainstreaming environmental issues, and identifying capable people who can prevent the message from being misunderstood. “We have to start with the imagination,” she said.
Our Living Environment
Dr Lena Chan, Director of the National Biodiversity Centre, delivered a presentation on biodiversity in Singapore. Pointing out that Singapore has much greater biodiversity than Europe or America, she spoke about using elegant “biological solutions” to resolve environmental problems. An example she raised was of ‘ponding’ in Labrador Park. Instead of extensive landscaping, her team turned the problem area into a dragonfly habitat by digging a slightly deeper hole and planting flora that attracts dragonflies. She stressed that they brought in exotic plants, not invasive alien species, to accomplish this. Now the pond is host to 33 kinds of dragonflies, including a few rare species.
“If the human race dies, the environment will flourish,” Dr Chan said. “But if the environment dies, we all die. We need biodiversity to thrive. Make cities biophilic because our survival depends on it. Everyone should constantly think about how to make living space more biodiversity friendly.”
Mr Shawn Lum, President of the Nature Society, spoke about the impact of the growing number of visitors to Singapore’s nature reserves. The heart of Singapore’s nature reserves are primary rainforests, which are susceptible to damage from human activity and may take centuries to recover. While trails leading through primary rainforests have been closed, Mr Lum pulled photos from the Internet showing people blatantly crossing into these restricted areas, along the way cutting down vegetation and disturbing natural environments. Instead of merely resorting to barriers and fines, Mr Lim argued that the government should focus on green investments, monitoring trade, promoting responsible ecotourism and initiating nature-friendly policies.
Animal Concerns Research and Education Society Chief Executive Mr Louis Ng zoomed in on human-macaque conflicts. Presently, the authorities respond to calls of nuisance macaques by sending out trappers to cull the monkeys, leading to almost 360 macaque cullings this year alone. “The problem is, only the baby is trapped, not the nuisance macaque,” he said. “When the mother loses the baby, she goes into heat. Then when the troop reproduces, it creates a vicious cycle.” The source of the issue, Mr Ng argues, is that humans have been building homes ever closer to macaque habitats and leaving food sources unsecured—or feeding the monkeys. Furthermore, monkey trappers, who are paid per monkey, are incentivised to continue trapping, and the media erroneously portrays macaques as aggressive animals when macaques tend to attack only when provoked. Instead of culling or sterilisation, Mr Ng says the best approach is coexistence: securing food sources, monkey-proofing homes, educating people on macaque behaviour, and enforcing regulations.
Dr Paul Tambyah approached population growth from an infectious disease standpoint. Singapore, being the centre of international trade and immigration routes, is uniquely vulnerable to emerging infectious diseases and strains of drug-resistant superbugs. “Drug-resistant rubella and tuberculosis are coming from people in the region, such as medical tourists,” he said. He argued that the problems are compounded with the government’s approach to immigration and healthcare. For the former, Dr Tambyah points out that over one-third of Singapore’s current population are immigrants with a wide variety of backgrounds, who may not have had the same immunisation regime as Singaporeans. For the latter, the government used to endorse a policy of medical undersupply to ensure intense resource use. This leads to an over-stressed healthcare infrastructure, which in turn may not detect emerging diseases early.
Dr Tambyah also said there was an explicit link between healthcare and the environment. “Engineers saved more lives than doctors,” he said with a smile. He noted that the spread of infectious disease in the early 1900s were sharply curtailed by housing laws that prevented overcrowding. Conversely, pollution has been linked to higher incidences of cancer. He concluded that it is important for people to voice their concerns, and encouraged the audience to participate in the Singapore Conversation and speak out at Hong Lim Park.
During the panel discussion that followed, attendees asked whether policymakers need to approach environmental issues from a rational and economic perspective instead of an emotive and idealistic one, and whether policymakers need to understand the human-centric benefits of environmental conservation.
Mr Lum said, “Talking economics is viable, but there is something to be said about nature being preserved because it has intrinsic value. If you talk pragmatism, eventually you get to compromise and go down a slippery slope.” Mr Lum also said that it is “not a dichotomy” between rationalism and emotions. What is necessary are cost-benefit analyses to reach the right balance of economic imperatives and other needs.
Mr Ng was more optimistic. Talking about his dialogue sessions with Cabinet ministers, he said, “I think we’re getting more and more politicians to set policy because it’s the right thing to do.”
Our Urban Space
Mr Christopher Gee, Research Fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies, presented some of the Institute’s demographic projections to the year 2050. Noting that female labour force participation rate dropped with age, and was much lower than Sweden, Mr Gee said that women tended to bear the brunt of caregiving responsibility for their children. The Institute projected a greying population, leading to an ever-increasing age dependency ratio. “The new family may be two elderly parents and one working child,” he said. “The ADR rise is so drastic, even the most liberal immigration policy cannot fix it.” Instead, he said, Singapore needs to develop social capital and infrastructure to account for this new population reality. “Does the Singapore model need to be revised to incorporate sustainability in policymaking? Will we have to segregate generationally or treat the elderly as an inherent part of society?”
Mr Devadas Krishnadas, Founder and Director of Future-moves, eschewed a formal presentation for an off-the-cuff talk. He shared stories of his meetings with policymakers and the challenges they faced. “In the past, there was lots of latent capacity,” he said. “But now, there are no fantastic options. This is as good as it gets. There will always be a trade-off.” Underscoring the point, when asked whether Singaporeans can expand underground, he asked, “What are the alternatives?”
He said one of the biggest problems Singapore faces is economic growth. Singapore needs one to two percent workforce growth to keep the economy going, but that poses a difficult problem. “To pay for solutions to our problems, we need more people in the workforce. But if you increase the number of people, it leads to more problems. It’s like a snake eating its own tail.” Merely increasing productivity would not help either. “No country was able to sustain two to three percent productivity growth over a period of time, and Singapore won’t be the first,” he said. “As we grow a sector, we cannot find Singaporeans to retrofit into the sector. They don’t have the skills, or maybe they don’t want to work. So we need more migrant workers.”
Mr Tay Kheng Soon had been an architect since 1964. He talked about transforming Singapore into a smart city, an organism with a ‘nervous system’ that can process high density and diversity of input. Contrary to conventional narratives of land scarcity, Mr Tay said, “There is no shortage of land.” He pointed out that if every Singaporean were allocated fifty square metres, Singapore will need 265 square kilometres to house everybody in single-storey buildings—which is about one-third of Singapore’s current size. “The problem is that land planners are using building types as a database for thinking about land allocation. It is a methodological bias, 2D land use planning. What we need is 3D planning. We have to stack different functions on planning, like prices, functions, legal regulations.”
Mr Tay projected a vision of Singapore as a smart city. He began with intensifying population growth along the southern coast, reaching a population of roughly two million. Education, commercial, residential and other spaces would be integrated through smart land planning. He also proposed reducing classroom sizes, making up by tripling the number of schools and teachers, in line with the Swedish education model. Existing HDB estates would be linked with park connectors and roads, leaving highways for fast vehicles and cargo transportation. Such a plan would leave room for everyone, while leaving the nature preserves untouched.
Raising the example of Mondragon, a business co-operative based in Spain, he said, “We need a different outlook if we are to unshackle ourselves from the corporate job kind of model.”
Dr Chong Keng Hua from the Singapore University of Technology and Design delivered the last speech of the day. Examining civic participation in community spaces, Dr Chong noted that the current rapid pace of development tended to lead to increased stress, loss of heritage sites, and less time to discuss life experiences and assimilate changes. He also wondered if it were possible to have more incremental development instead of constant redevelopment, in the process losing heritage sites.
“People want to create their own space,” he said, asking where Singapore can find the sweet spot of being a creative, ageing city. He noted that elderly people tended to create their own recreational corners and community gardens, not always with official approval. He asked if it was time to be less restrictive with rules and regulations, letting people create their own spaces and living a slower pace of life.
Sustaining the Future
True to its name, the Symposium was organised with sustainability in mind. The organisers relied on email to disseminate information. Refreshments were served on ceramic plates and cups from Koufu instead of traditional Styrofoam. The only printed materials were posters about Singapore’s biodiversity and the ecological impact of the Cross-Island MRT line, as well as boards where participants could post sticky notes with their thoughts on various issues.
This inaugural event attempted to examine the environmental impact, risks and trade-offs of a denser and increasingly urban Singapore. Going forward, the Symposium envisages itself as an annual conference, where people from all walks of life can gather to discuss Singapore’s sustainability. In so doing, it hopes to promote a better understanding of Singapore’s environmental challenges, enhancing the national conversation.