Singapore, Asia’s poster child for sustainable cities

Singapore’s year-on-year ranking on the sustainability league tables of individual states and cities proves that the city-state is not only making plans for sustainable development, but also putting them into practice. The Singapore Green Plan 2030, adopted earlier this year, also includes strengthening resilience to climate change as a priority in the recovery from Covid-19 for a more sustainable future. It is undeniable that in the 21st century, Singapore is among a group of liveable and sustainable cities that have also maintained their economic prosperity, providing a useful example for other metropolises.

Introduction

The inaugural Future of Travel Awards, founded by the US magazine Newsweek, were presented on September 16. In the international airline category, the winner was Singapore Airlines, while the international airport award went to Singapore-Changi Airport. The awards were heavily weighted towards the achievements in sustainability, which will once again highlight Singapore’s exemplary performance ahead of the Climate Summit in Glasgow in November.

The aim of this blog article is to briefly outline Singapore’s achievements in sustainable development, its main components, and to take stock of the compatibility between economic development and sustainability.

Singapore and sustainability

As climate change progresses, more and more countries are recognising that to avoid climate catastrophe, there can be no delay in taking important practical steps rather than just setting lofty targets. Of course, the negative consequences of global warming will affect countries of different levels of development to varying degrees, and they will try to meet the challenge to a greater or lesser extent. Cities are among the main emitters of greenhouse gases, and it is therefore crucial that long-term development strategies place a strong emphasis on minimising emissions, while allowing for the emergence of smart cities through innovation and technological progress. Singapore’s progress in this direction is demonstrated by the fact that the city-state has been the steady leader in the 109-city Smart City Index, produced by the Institute of Management Development and the Singapore University of Technology and Design, for several years.[1]  Singapore’s performance in education, health, housing and quality of life is outstanding. For the sustainability of the city, an efficient, affordable and modern public transport system is crucial.[2]  The provision of adequate green spaces is also of great importance,[3] as is the advancement of innovation and digitalisation.[4]  It is not surprising, then, that in the 2018 Sustainable Cities Index, Singapore ranked fourth (after London, Stockholm and Edinburgh) as the most sustainable city in Asia.[5] 

Government efforts

In May 1967, the first Prime Minister of independent Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, unveiled his plan to transform the city into a beautiful garden city “with flowers and trees, without waste, in the cleanest and most orderly way possible”. Cleaning up the city was only the first step, followed by transforming people’s minds and creating the right legal framework. Politicians were also driven by serious economic considerations, as they sought to make their country attractive to tourists and foreign investors. Projects to clean up the streets, drainage and the Singapore River have been carried out in parallel with the expansion of green spaces.[6] Singapore is now widely recognised as a ‘garden city’, with nearly 50% green space, 72 hectares of roof gardens and green walls, while globally it is among the 20 most carbon-efficient countries, with 95% of its electricity generated by natural gas. Singapore’s strategy for sustainable development has been guided by 3 key principles: 1. an integrated approach and long-term strategic planning; 2. investment in R&D and innovative solutions; 3. building partnerships.

Reconciling sustainability and economic development

While the majority of developed countries are now committed to ensuring sustainable development, the compatibility of economic development and environmental policy in the Global South[7] is a major problem. In many African countries, the political and economic conditions are not at all conducive to the pursuit of responsible environmental policies, and even in the more developed regions of Latin America and Asia, where political, economic and social conditions are more favourable, there is a serious conflict of interest between the political aspirations of each country for long-term socio-economic development and the need to protect the environment for future generations. Reconciling conflicting interests in Southeast Asia is also increasingly challenging, while environmental degradation threatens to have serious consequences.  It is clear that the more developed Western countries, including Singapore, are in a much better position to tackle climate change effectively while at the same time maintaining economic growth. Singapore has the advantage over developing countries in that it has the financial and human resources to tackle the problem and the political will to do so. In theory, the best strategy is one that focuses on prevention rather than just minimising damage, but in practice it is not so easy.

The case of Singapore

As Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong put it, climate change is a matter of “life and death” for Singapore. Singapore’s Minister for Environment and Water, Masagos Zulkifli, said that the government is aware of this and is doing its utmost to build a liveable and sustainable city in line with the UN Sustainable Development Goals.  But like the founding fathers, the city-state leadership is not willing to sacrifice the environment for development, successfully combining the alternatives of sustainability and economic development. The main pillars of Singapore’s Green Plan 2030[8], outlined in February 2021, are: city in nature; sustainable living, energy reset; green economy and resilient future. However, the measures to support the economy (energy sector) show that the government is also trying to meet the expectations of foreign investors, as without economic success, the chances of achieving the sustainability goals would be lower. Considering the serious threat that sea-level rise poses to Singapore, it is worth noting that some argue that the government is not doing enough to achieve sustainability, i.e. it seems to be prioritising economic outcomes.

The eco-city of Tengah

An excellent example of the government’s ambitious vision for sustainability and how it intends to achieve it through urban development is the highly publicised Tengah project in early 2021.[9]  The government has decided to build 42,000 new homes across 5 districts in the western half of the island as part of the Tengah eco- and smart city project.[10]  The former industrial area of  700 hectares is now covered by extensive secondary forest, part of which is to be preserved for the future through an ecological corridor. Green and smart solutions have been given special emphasis in the design. It will be the first residential area to have central cooling, automated waste collection and a car-free city centre, which – as conservationists hope ‑ will set the path for reducing carbon emissions in the city-state. Singapore has higher per capita carbon emissions than neighbouring Malaysia or China, thanks in part to the widespread use of air conditioning. In order to remedy this, Tengah will have a centralised district cooling system powered by solar panels mounted on houses.

Summary

In order to address the global challenge of climate change, sustainable development has recently become an important part of most countries’ national strategies. However, in many countries, the vision of sustainable cities is still only on paper, without adequate action in practice. Among Asian countries, Singapore stands out as a city-state that has taken significant steps towards sustainability, and is considered a leader in sustainable development, as evidenced by various international rankings. Not only did the city-state’s leaders recognise in time that the negative impacts of climate change would have a profound impact on Singapore’s future, but the founding fathers formulated and implemented aspirations decades ago that have laid a solid foundation for the successful implementation of today’s policies. Of course, reconciling economic development and sustainability is a dilemma that is not easy to solve even for developed countries like Singapore, with decision-makers forced to make a number of trade-offs that have led to criticism from some quarters that the government is not doing enough to achieve sustainability. In my opinion, the Tengah eco-city project, unveiled a few months ago, is a worthy demonstration of the Singapore government’s commitment to the concept of a sustainable city and will continue to serve as a model for other nations to follow in the future.

Péter Klemensits


[1] Singapore will be followed by Zurich, Oslo, Taipei and Lausanne in the 2021 list, with Abu Dhabi next in 27th place.

[2] Despite the high population density and small territorial coverage, the government has focused over the past few years on implementing strategies that have successfully reduced car use, ensured smooth traffic flow and maintained an overall affordable transport network.

[3] According to the Centre for Livable Cities, by 2020, Singapore will have 47% green space.

[4] In Southeast Asia, Singapore is seen as a leader in the digital revolution, with projects such as contactless and electronic payment facilitation services, smart homes based on green energy sources, and autonomous transport.

[5] The top three in the Arcadis index are London, Stockholm and Edinburgh.

[6] In this context, a solution to the water shortage had to be found and the Marina reservoir was built in 2008.

[7] The term Global South is usually used to refer to less economically developed countries. In fact, it is a broad term that encompasses a number of states that have different economic, cultural and political influences in the international order.

[8] The plan covers all parts of society, from infrastructure development to research, innovation and training programmes. It includes commitments such as making at least 20% of schools carbon neutral by 2030, expanding the rail network from 230 to 360km, and increasing the area of natural parks by 50%.

[9] The first plans for a new eco-town were originally formulated in 2016.

[10] The word Tengah means centre in Malay.

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