From Third World to Sustainability Leader

“After independence, I searched for some dramatic way to distinguish ourselves from other Third World countries. I settled for a clean and green Singapore. One arm of my strategy was to make Singapore into an oasis in South-east Asia, for if we had First World standards then businessmen and tourists would make us a base for their business and tours of the region.”
- Founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, in his book From Third World to First: The Singapore Story: 1965-2000

It is this unwavering focus on the long-term sustainability of the living environment and a keen awareness of Singapore’s vulnerabilities, stemming from limited natural resources such as energy, land and fresh water, that paved the way for the city-state’s progress from a third world country to first. Since independence, sustainable development has always been integral to the Singapore story, with the nation’s sustainability journey starting long before environmental issues and climate change became a global concern.

Water security and cleaner energy
Over the years, new laws and policies have been enacted to give teeth to the enforcement of sustainable practices. Public awareness campaigns were held to educate people on environmental issues, and public infrastructure was built and continually upgraded with the vision of a green and clean future for Singapore in mind.

In 1963, Mr Lee Kuan Yew planted the first tree that would blossom into the Garden City programme that mapped a vision of a highly liveable city filled with greenery. Thereafter, Singapore launched its Keep Singapore Clean Campaign in 1968, clamped down on air pollution through the 1971 Clean Air Act and moved pollutive industries away from residential areas in the 1970s.

In 1977, the Government started a clean-up of Singapore’s waterways, including the Singapore River. In the years that followed, local water catchments were expanded to capture as much rainwater as possible, and new technologies like water reclamation and desalination were adopted to build a robust and diversified water supply.

To support the nation’s efforts, in the late 1990s, home-grown international company Sembcorp Industries was the first in Singapore to produce high-quality recycled water for industries on Jurong Island. Sembcorp’s NEWater plant is one of five water reclamation facilities supplying a total of up to 40 per cent of Singapore’s current water needs. As part of its suite of integrated energy and urban solutions, Sembcorp offers a full spectrum of water solutions. With the ability to integrate water supply, wastewater treatment and water reclamation into a “closed loop”, Sembcorp helps minimise liquid discharge and conserve precious water resources.

To actively reduce carbon emissions, Singapore is also on a journey to use cleaner energy resources while meeting growing electricity demand.

About 95 per cent of Singapore’s electricity is generated using natural gas, up from 26 per cent in 2001, when oil, which is more pollutive, was the main fuel. Besides being the first commercial importer and retailer of natural gas into Singapore — which facilitated this switch — Sembcorp is also a supporter of the Government’s recent push for renewables.

To achieve a pledge under the Paris Agreement to reduce emissions intensity from 2005 levels by 36 per cent by 2030, Singapore has set a target to install 350 megawatt-peak (MWp) of solar capacity by 2020, and 1 gigawatt-peak (GWp) beyond 2020.

Sembcorp, with 2,600 megawatts of wind and solar power assets globally, now has close to 170 MWp of rooftop solar projects in Singapore. Its portfolio spans more than 1,500 sites, including housing blocks and government sites as part of the government-led SolarNova programme.

The next lap
Home-grown agencies and businesses that played key roles in transforming Singapore into a clean and green nation now offer sustainable urban solutions internationally in fields ranging from water and environmental technologies to clean energy and greener infrastructure.

Among them is Sembcorp, which provides a suite of integrated energy and urban solutions that support the energy transition and sustainable development. The company has articulated its commitment to support the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and to play its part in enabling a low-carbon and circular economy through its innovative solutions.

The 2015 edition of the Sustainable Singapore Blueprint, which aims to guide the nation’s sustainability efforts until 2030, outlines ways that the country will reduce its carbon footprint, make better use of water, land and energy resources and build eco-smart infrastructure. It also talks about the vision for Singapore to be a leading green economy. Supported by a network of businesses like Sembcorp, the ambition for Singapore to be a hub for the cutting-edge business of sustainable development may well be within reach.
Singapore, along with London, Stockholm, Edinburgh and Vienna, was in the top five of the Arcadis Sustainable Cities Index of 2018. Thanks to the foresight and hard work of our founding leaders, our Little Red Dot is highly liveable and one of the greenest cities in the world today. Singaporeans enjoy clean waterways, lush greenery and blue skies all year round.

But can our founding leaders’ legacy be sustained in an increasingly complex world, where a growing global population and rapid urbanisation are exerting greater pressures on resources, and climate change is bringing unprecedented risks? Policymakers, businesses, civic groups and individuals will need to stand shoulder to shoulder as Singapore continues on this journey of sustainability.

This article was first published in The Straits Times on August 14, 2019.

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