Keynote Address at NUSPA Kent Ridge Ministerial Forum

Aug 28, 2021

Good evening. Thank you for having me at the forum this evening.

It is good to see so many young faces here tonight. I graduated from NUS exactly twenty years ago, so not exactly young anymore.

At that time, one of the big issues that Singapore and the world had to confront was racial and religious tension, amidst the threat of terrorism. Because 20 years ago, we saw horrific images of the September 11th attacks in the US. And in December that same year, the JI plot to blow up Yishun MRT station was uncovered. That shocked many Singaporeans, and many were concerned about what that would mean for the decades of nation building, multiculturalism, multiracialism, multireligosity and society, and whether it would put us to the test. These threatened to strain relations between people of various races and religions – both here in Singapore and needless to say, all around the world.

But there were also other issues that occupied our minds back then as we were undergraduates.

For instance, at the time undergraduates were concerned about our job prospects. In 1997, the Asian Financial Crisis broke out in our part of the world. While we didn’t have Facebook and other social media platforms then, we could see in our region, buildings half complete, abandoned, bankruptcies, people unable to cope with the mental anguish of losing it all. But to make it worse, in 2000, the Dotcom bubble burst, triggering a global downturn. So it was one after another (of crises).

And on the environmental front, I recall my classmates and I went down to Chek Jawa, on Pulau Ubin, we bought some boots, we went to visit the intertidal seagrass meadows, as did many other people. We were concerned by plans to reclaim the seagrass meadow and wanted to let our voices be heard. And, as students, we were glad that MND later announced that these plans would be shelved, following public feedback.  

So I remember that time quite vividly. Not so much the specific content that I learned – my apologies to my Professors who are still teaching in the Faculty of Law today! – but more a certain feeling. An uncertainty about how things would pan out in life, but also a palpable excitement about the uncertainty of the times and all the possibilities that were ahead of us. It was daunting, but mostly, it was invigorating and challenging.

I imagine that many of you feel the same way today, though of course your context is different and we all face different challenges.

In the immediate term, we continue to confront COVID. It has brought us many strains on many fronts all at once – in terms of public health, our economy, our jobs, our society, our mental well-being, our connectedness with the world – both family relationships, business contacts, as well as travel to see the world, both in Singapore and around the world. And I know it can be discouraging sometimes, not knowing when exactly we will emerge from this crisis. You may be worried about lost opportunities – whether you can go on an exchange overseas that you have been planning for all this while, or whether you can take a gap year abroad or fulfil that internship position that you secured some time ago. Or you may be concerned about your career prospects, as you near graduation and you look at what is happening both in Singapore and the world around us.

But we’ve come a long way already, and together, step by step, we can work toward a future where we can learn to live with this virus, and then prepare for the next one.

Yet even as we contend with COVID in the short term and prepare for future pandemics acts in the long term, there are many other longer-term challenges coming up. From our external geopolitical environment – how Singapore should navigate the growing contestation between global powers on many fronts. To our domestic concerns – How to tackle the inequalities that may persist in our society; How we can better take care of our ageing population; And many other issues.

These are all worthy causes that you may feel strongly about. Sometimes, you may wonder, as a young person, is there anything I can do about these issues? And the key message I’d like to convey this evening  is: yes, there is plenty that you can do about these issues. To be a changemaker not just of tomorrow, as the theme of tonight’s Forum suggests, but from today, if not already.

The Challenge of Climate Change

Tonight, I’d like to focus on one challenge in particular, and that is the climate crisis. Because it is one of the biggest challenges that we face – in Parliament, we’ve called it “a global emergency and a threat to mankind”, and yet there is so much that all of us can and must do about it today.

And if we do it right, how we respond to climate change will profoundly transform almost every aspect of our lives, and that of our children, and their children. So it is also an opportunity for us to radically reimagine and remake our future city and home  – the Singapore that will belong to you and future generations.

By now, you would be familiar with the existential threat of climate change, in particular, in the context of a small city-state like Singapore. A recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) sounded a dire warning. Even if nations sharply cut carbon emissions, it is still likely that by 2040, the world would be 1.5 degrees Celsius warmer than it was pre-1900. We can still keep it to 1.5 degrees if the world makes a big push now – otherwise, global warming could exceed 2, 3 or even 4 degrees Celcius.

The dangers of a hotter world are well-known and the signs continue to progress yet more dangerously. They are not just theoretical. We can see them today. Last month, there was a terrible heatwave in Western Canada and the US, and serious floods in China. Here in Singapore, we’ve seen heavy rains and flash floods lately. And as a low-lying island, many parts of our country would literally be underwater when sea levels rise.

So the situation is grave, and getting worse by the day.

While Singapore is not a significant contributor to global emissions in absolute terms, we must do our part to help fight climate change. That’s why we launched the Singapore Green Plan 2030 earlier this year. This Green Plan is a whole-of-nation movement to advance sustainable development in Singapore. We are pursuing ambitious efforts that will reshape many aspects of our lives – how we live, work, play, and commute, and do many other things that we normally take for granted.

Quiz on Our Sustainable Development Efforts

Let me share a little bit more about our approach.

Rather than go through all the things we’re doing under the Green Plan, I thought it might be a bit more interesting to start with some fun facts, and so a little quiz, in order that we don’t feel very passive.

First, a key part of our sustainability effort is protecting our natural environment and biodiversity. But how much biodiversity is there in a small city-state like ours? The United Kingdom is more than 300 times the size of Singapore, and it has more than 600 bird species and about 70 terrestrial mammal species. Roughly how many species of birds and terrestrial mammals are there in Singapore?
  i.    50 bird species and 10 terrestrial mammal species
  ii.    100 bird species and 30 terrestrial mammal species
  iii.    200 bird species and 50 terrestrial mammal species
  iv.    400 bird species and 70 terrestrial mammal species
The answer is D. We’re 0.3% the size of the UK, and we have 65% as manybird species, and about the same number of terrestrial mammal species! In terms of numbers we do have some biodiversity, and we do have to protect them.

The next question. By 2030, the total length of the cycling network in Singapore will be long enough to bike from Singapore to which of the following cities? :
  i.    Malacca?
  ii.    Kuala Lumpur?
  iii.    Penang?
  iv.    Phuket?
The answer surprises me even – more than 1,300km! Three times of the current 460km, so by 2030 more than 1,300km,  =enough to go around Singapore twice, I can bring you to Phuket theoretically, if you put in the effort to cycle that far. And really, it is just part and parcel of a number of efforts to promote green commuting, in addition to electrification of the fleet, pedestrian walkways, as well as PCNs.

The last question. How much more solar power will we deploy by 2030, compared to today?
  i.    Double
  ii.    Triple
  iii.    Quadruple
  iv.    Quintuple (five times)
The answer is quintuple!  That is two Gigawatt-peak, and over a year, enough to power about 350,000 households!

I hope that has shared some insight into biodiversity and sustainability that even I myself sometimes get wrong, and it is good for us to keep up with all the changes that are happening. My point is that when it comes to sustainable development, we’re pushing hard on many fronts – conservation of species, sustainable or green commute, solar power and many more fronts, and there’s a lot of things that you can help us with.

Let me give you a whirlwind tour of some of these efforts.

The Green Plan

City in Nature

Let’s start with our work to keep Singapore green.

Today, we’ve safeguarded about 7,800 ha of land for our nature reserves, nature parks, and other dedicated green spaces. That’s more than 10% of our land area, and it doesn’t include all the other pockets of greenery around our island, like trees planted along our roads, or our military training areas.

And we’re doing a lot more to weave nature into our city –  Adding another 1,000 ha of green spaces over the next 10 to 15 years; Planting one million more trees between 2020 and 2030, after we make up for what we lose, say through road widening or development; Protecting more biodiverse areas and setting aside more nature parks; Turning our canals into naturalistic streams and rivers; Mimicking the structure of natural forests when we plant trees along roads and in various districts.

These are all part of our efforts to transform Singapore into a City in Nature. So that we protect our natural heritage and biodiversity, while allowing Singaporeans to enjoy nature right at their doorsteps.

Already, we’re seeing positive results of our conservation efforts. A few days ago, it was reported in The Straits Times that several local mammal species have had their conservation status downgraded compared to 2008 – meaning that they are considered less endangered than before. So in this context, ‘downgraded’ is a good thing! These include the Sunda Slow Loris and the Lesser Mousedeer. They have benefited from the greater amount of nature buffers that we’ve set aside in recent years, as well as our habitat enhancement and species recovery efforts.

Just this morning, we also opened the Centre for Wildlife Forensics, which will enhance our ability to investigate illegal wildlife trade, and do our part to support international conservation efforts and protect globally endangered species.

So we’re making significant strides in our efforts to protect nature, both locally and as part of the global community.

Other Green Plan efforts

Beyond our City in Nature efforts, we’re forging ahead in many other domains.

Like transport. I talked about our cycling network, but we also continue to improve our public transport – By building more MRT lines – the next stage of the Thomson-East Coast Line opens tomorrow (28 Aug); And by testing new innovations like driverless buses, and electric buses – we’ve just started rolling out a batch of 20 fast-charging electric buses. In fact, we aim to phase out all internal combustion engine vehicles by 2040 – that’s just 20 years from now. The cars on the road that you are used to seeing and take for granted all these decades will no longer exist from 2040 on our island. Which means that your children will grow up in a Singapore where all vehicles run on much cleaner energy sources. That’s a fundamental overhaul of our transport system, which will need major infrastructure upgrades, like new charging stations everywhere.

But electric vehicles still use electricity, so we’re also greening our power grid. I talked about solar power earlier. Because we lack land for large solar farms, we’re installing them in all sorts of creative places – Like on top of HDB blocks – we’ll cover about 50% of them in the next two or three years, and 70% by 2030; Or in our reservoirs – we have one of the world’s largest inland floating solar farms at Tengah Reservoir, spanning about 45 football fields. And in the future, we’ll also try to import green electricity from our neighbours in the region, which have better access to renewable energy such as hydropower.

Speaking of energy, our buildings, too, can be more energy efficient too. They contribute 20% of our emissions. We’re raising minimum energy performance requirements across the board, as well as our Green Mark accreditation standards – raising standards even higher. And we’re pushing for 80% of new buildings that we build from 2030 onwards to become best-in-class Super Low Energy Buildings. And that will be a major challenge for us here in Singapore. While driving research and development into new construction materials and technologies that can reduce our carbon footprint.

We want to bring sustainability right into our daily lives. In fact, we’re making our HDB towns – where 80% of Singaporeans live, more sustainable through the Green Towns movement. By using technologies like smart lighting, we aim to reduce energy consumption in existing towns by 15% more from 2020 to 2030. We want to reduce our waste dramatically too, and recycle a lot more. Many people have told us that in Singapore if we compare to other countries, we still have quite some way to go. We already convert a lot of our waste into energy – ’we've developed a new Integrated Waste Management Facility to treat different streams of waste in an integrated and more efficient way. Now we’re also developing ways to convert incinerated bottom ash – all the waste that we incinerate, into materials for construction. We call this NEWSand, and we hope  that will be as successful as NEWater.

We’re bringing sustainability into our schools as well, making sure that our young people grow up with the right understanding and the right values about sustainability, by enhancing the curriculum and school programmes on sustainability. And even making our campuses greener – we aim for at least 20% of our schools to be carbon neutral by 2030.

Beyond school, we want to create green jobs. By providing new goods and services revolving around sustainability, such as the measurement and verification of carbon emissions, or energy efficient technology, or green financing. Some companies in Singapore are even setting up an exchange to trade verifiable carbon credits.

At the same time, we must be realistic.

Even if we do our part and more, global emissions may still not fall fast enough. So we must protect Singapore from the worst effects of climate change. We’ll defend our coastline against rising sea levels – with sea walls, tidal gates, pumping stations, and nature-based solutions like more mangroves and seagrasses. We’ll improve our flood resilience, by enhancing drainage systems and raising the levels on which we build our new developments. All these long-term moves could cost us $100 billion or more over the next 50 to 100 years. And we’ll improve our food resilience too, by producing 30% of our nutritional needs locally and sustainably by 2030. Climate change may cause crop failures, which could disrupt our food imports.

We must also remember that all these endeavours will involve some trade-offs, even painful ones. And as young people, your leadership is important. For example, we’ve introduced a carbon tax, to help reduce emissions across our economy. But companies could pass on some of these costs to consumers – for example, through higher prices.

So our sustainability commitments will require our resolve. And above all, what we hope for is a deep shift in our culture. Such that we adopt sustainability as a core value and a part of what it means to be Singaporean living in a city-state. Just as multiculturalism is one of our defining traits, so too should sustainability be so ingrained in us and our future generations that it informs our actions and decisions, and the kind of society that we strive to be.

What We Can Do

That’s just a very quick sweep of the many things we’re doing on our sustainability journey. We’re leaving no stone unturned, because climate action will be the defining fight of our times, and for generations to come. In taking on this fight, we also open up many new opportunities, and chart a bright, bold vision for our future for all Singaporeans.

But the Government cannot do this on our own, it is a whole-of-nation. We need everyone to play a part, with your diverse skills and perspectives.

As you graduate and enter the workforce, you can help us to power many of the Green Plan initiatives I just talked about. Some of you, as future engineers, could work to electrify our vehicles and upgrade our charging infrastructure, or enhance our green energy capabilities. As an ecologist or conservationist, you could help us to green Singapore and protect our biodiversity for future generations. As architects, developers or builders, you could design and build Super Low Energy or even Net Zero Energy buildings or even Positive Energy buildings. As teachers and educators, you can teach and groom future generations about sustainability. And many more. So wherever you go, you can help make sustainability a part of our lives.

And there are also plenty of opportunities for you to get involved, starting from today.

Many young people have come together on their own to galvanise action on sustainability, and to speak up and be a voice, but also to take action. For instance, the Singapore Youth Voices for Biodiversity organises discussion forums, and acts as a representative at various consultations. So apart from their studies and advocacy, and their outreach and engagement, they also participate in Government briefings, scrutinise our plans, ask difficult questions, offer alternatives, and work with us to make our plans better. They hope to empower their fellow youths to have a bigger stake and voice in decisions concerning our biodiversity, and to encourage more people to take action and live in harmony with nature and our environment.

You can also work closely with us. For example, you can share your ideas for the Singapore Green Plan by scanning the QR code on the left.

Or you can join us in planting more trees under the OneMillionTrees movement, using the QR code on the right. I hope that becomes a right of passage for every Singaporean. We’ve already planted more than 230,000 trees on top what we need to replace or lost, so we’re well on our way!

If you’re interested in nature and ecology, check out our Youth@SGNature initiative using the next QR code on the left. It offers many opportunities for young Singaporeans like you to take part in biodiversity conservation.

You can sign up as a Youth Steward for Nature, and work with NParks mentors on various biodiversity conservation as well as horticulture projects. More than 80 young Singaporeans have signed up and worked on 17 different projects so far, ranging from helping to design natural landscapes, to doing social media outreach on human-wildlife interaction.

Or you can join the Community in Nature Biodiversity Watch as a citizen scientist, to help us monitor different wildlife species like butterflies and garden birds in our parks, gardens, and nature reserves. By tracking how wildlife species do over time, we can develop better strategies to take care of them in a very dense and urban City in a Garden.

For those of you who are interested in the Built Environment instead, you can join us on a discovery journey with the iBuildSG Club, to learn more about how we’re making our buildings greener and smarter, with new technologies, or particular interests to architects and engineers. Use the QR code on the right.

It’s not all about the science and technology. There’s a deeply human aspect to sustainability. To really move the needle, we need to understand human behaviour and motivations well, so that we can galvanise many more people to fully adopt sustainable thinking and practices. That’s where the humanities, the arts, and the social sciences are especially important.

For example, we’ve recently launched the Sustainability in Singapore programme, to help train more Green Ambassadors who can reach out, persuade, cajole other building users around them to reduce their energy consumption. Because that makes up a large part of building energy usage. It’s a fully online suite of resources that will guide you in designing an effective campaign of your own to generate sustained behavioural change. You can look it up with the QR code on the left.

Or you can sign up for the Youth for Environmental Sustainability programme, which we’ve also recently launched. Check it out with the QR code on the right. There’s lots of resources and opportunities out there. For example, the Youth Corps Leaders Programme will support young people like you to develop the knowledge, skills, and experience needed to advance environmental sustainability issues. Participants will initiate and lead relevant projects in the community over a period of 9-12 months.


To round up – we need everyone to come onboard the sustainability drive. This is the fight of our generation, and many more to come. For our future survival, and that of our city-state home, our children, their children and of this planet. Whether you’re a scientist or engineer, or a scholar of the humanities or arts or social sciences, there is a place and a role for you and your skills.

And at the end of the day, we all need to take action, in our own ways. Going beyond ideas and discussion – as valuable and important as these are. To also roll up our sleeves and get to work, experiment with different solutions, figure out the ground issues and how we can overcome them. That’s how we make progress, one step at a time. That’s what the Singapore Together movement is all about.

And who better to take this action than young people like yourselves – with your ambition, your energy, your inspiration and your conviction. Not just when it comes to sustainability, but also in tackling all the other challenges coming Singapore’s way.

Because that’s the wonderful gift of youth – that sense of endless possibility, that confidence to open new doors, willingness to take risks and explore the unknown, because so much of your life lies ahead of you. And that brings with it a certain responsibility too, to march forward bravely and to blaze new trails, and bring the rest of society with you.

I am excited to see what you will achieve, and I look forward to our dialogue later. Thank you.