Opening Remarks by Minister Desmond Lee at the NTU Biodiversity Week: Our Campus in Nature Dialogue

Mar 14, 2022

A very good evening to all of you, and thank you for having me at today’s Our Campus in Nature dialogue session I would also like to thank the team at NTU for organising this year’s dialogue.

Last night, I was thinking about what I could possibly say, to a group of people who already know quite a lot about biodiversity and conservation. And I thought I would use these few minutes, to try to address some of the common questions that I’m sure would have been posed to you. You may also be grappling with some of these issues yourselves.

First question, that I’m sure many of you have been asked, by your friends as well as by visitors to our island: “Singapore is such a dense, built-up city. Is there any nature on this island?” In fact, we are possibly one of the only two major cities in the world that have a pristine primary rainforest right in the heart of the city – the other being Rio de Janeiro.

According to MIT’s Treepedia study, Singapore is also one of the greenest cities in the world.

Beyond that, we have diverse key habitats within less than an hour’s drive from each other – our core nature areas, such as the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve and the Central Catchment Nature Reserve, which comprise primary and secondary rainforest, are in our city’s centre. We have the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve with mangrove and mudflats to the north, and the Labrador Nature Reserve with rocky shores, to the south.

We are also home to a rich variety of wildlife, with more than 400 bird species and 70 species of land mammals. In fact, 10 of our animal and plant species are endemic, which means they can only be found in Singapore. While we have some of the busiest waterways in the world – these are also home to an amazing range of marine life. This includes more than 250 recorded species of hard corals, and about 200 species of sponges. New terrestrial and marine species continue to be discovered every few years.

In fact, Singapore is recognised internationally for our ability to support rich biodiversity despite being a small country. For example, in 2017, we received the UNESCO Sultan Qaboos Prize for Environmental Preservation, for promoting biodiversity conservation in a highly urbanised and land-scarce city-state.

And, our contributions to biodiversity conservation goes beyond Singapore. We helped develop the Singapore Index on Cities’ Biodiversity under the United Nations’ Convention on Biological Diversity. It is currently used by cities worldwide to measure their progress, and guide their plans in biodiversity conservation.

The second question you may have heard from your friends: What is Singapore’s approach to conservation?  

In larger countries, they have dense, built-up cities which are surrounded by nature all around – mountains, valleys, rivers, forests, jungles and more. These countries’ approach to conservation is to manage urban sprawl, so that their cities don’t expand too much into their natural spaces. They safeguard vast tracts of natural spaces outside their city limits as nature reserves, and protect them from development.

Whereas in Singapore, our core natural habitats are entirely within the city-state. For example, Bukit Timah Nature Reserve and the Central Catchment Nature Reserve are green gems right in the heart of our city, and surrounded by schools, houses, and roads. The Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve is also right next to an old industrial estate at Sungei Kadut. And our natural spaces are separated from each other by the urban environment.

Our approach to conservation in Singapore is therefore quite unique, and quite different from larger countries , one where we aim to become a City in Nature, by weaving nature more deliberately and intensely into our urban fabric, so that nature thrives within our city.

To achieve this, we take comprehensive efforts to conserve nature, through our Nature Conservation Masterplan. We protect our most precious habitats, add nature parks around them as buffer zones, and help our native species to recover. We also strengthen the ecological connectivity across our core nature areas, so that our flora can disperse and our fauna can traverse more easily across the island. We use science and data to do all these things, in close partnership with the community, so that together we can retain our key biodiversity for future generations.

The third question we often hear, and I’m sure this vexes many people: Why even bother with conservation? Some people may worry that Singapore will keep developing and urbanising, such that all our forests and green spaces eventually disappear.

But we’re determined to protect our natural heritage, now and in the future. And to do that, we have to be very clear about our context and the constraints that we face, because only then can we adopt the most appropriate strategy.

There’s no running away from the fact that we’re a really small, densely-populated, highly urbanised country. We are only 728 sq km in size, smaller than cities such as Tokyo, London, and New York.  Add to that the fact that we are a city-state, and the only one in the world that is fully sovereign.

What this means is that we need to have everything that a country needs, including our defence capabilities, within our city limits, unlike other countries which can place the things that they need but don’t like to live next to, such as heavy industrial land, airports and seaports, far outside their urban centres.

For such a small place to have this standard of living, we need to squeeze quite a lot out of our very limited land to accommodate schools, sports amenities, healthcare facilities, arts venues reservoirs, water catchment areas, and desalination facilities.

We also need space to build a strong and diverse economy -- so as to create good jobs, and to generate revenue to support our many needs. This includes factories for manufacturing and shipbuilding, laboratories for biotechnology and pharmaceuticals, and power plants for our energy; We are also an international air and sea hub – with two airports at Changi and Seletar, as well as several port terminals at Tanjong Pagar, Pasir Panjang, Sembawang, and other places. On top of this, we are a major global financial centre, a growing centre for green finance, and a popular tourist destination.

Hence, the pressures on our very limited land are intense. This has been and will always be the case. From tackling climate change, to ensuring our self-sufficiency in critical resources like food and construction materials is supported. And, to take a more recent development like COVID-19 – we may need to set aside more land for contingency uses like quarantine facilities, or to introduce more co-working spaces in our residential estates for remote working. So we will need to be more flexible and resilient in using land for the future.

At the same time, we will need to ensure that our land use strategies satisfy the needs of today.

In recent times, we have seen more groups voicing concerns over our land-use approach. For instance, people ask: why do we need more housing, even when our national birth rate is so low?

We have more than 1 million HDB flats and 400,000 private homes. Our housing needs are also quite different from those of the past.

Last year, for each HDB flat that we put out under the Build-to-Order scheme, we got around 5 to 6 applications from Singaporean households. This is partly driven by marriage and family formation, especially from the larger cohorts born in the late 1980s to 1990s, who are sometimes called the “echo boomers” because they are the children of the baby boomer generation.

On top of that, there are more smaller households, as more young couples, singles, and older people and parents, choose to have their own homes instead of living in multi-generational households – many people aspire to have more space and privacy of their own, and this has only intensified with COVID-19 and the trend towards working from home. In 2021, on average, each HDB household had about 3 people, compared to more than 4 back in 1990. With each flat housing fewer people, we will need more flats overall – and that is the social trend that has been developing in Singapore.

So, we will need to continue building more homes for our people. To steward our finite land and resources, we need to carefully balance how we develop our land and conserve our green spaces.

How do we achieve this balance?

First, we use a science-based approach to identify the core biodiversity areas and buffers that we want to conserve in the long term. These include areas that could have been developed for other uses like housing, such as the Dairy Farm Nature Park and Rifle Range Nature Park. We chose to safeguard these as green spaces instead, due to their ecological value. Next, we strengthen the ecological connectivity between our core biodiversity areas by establishing nature corridors comprising nature ways, park connectors and parks, e.g. the Bukit Batok Nature Corridor, Clementi Nature Corridor and Lornie Nature Corridor.

Where possible, we optimise the density of developments and co-locate suitable uses, so that we maximise land and save land in our new developments. We are also redeveloping brownfield sites such as golf courses and old schools, And exploring the use of underground spaces for infrastructure, though the costs are high. Collectively, these strategies will allow us to steward our scarce land resources – for today’s use, and for future generations.

I am glad to hear that so many young Singaporeans in the NTU community have also stepped up, to take the lead in these conservation efforts – from organising nature walks and sharing educational resources to the NTU community, to supporting NParks’ tree-planting efforts under the OneMillionTrees movement, and participating in citizen science programmes. Thank you for your support.

To the NTU community here today, I hope that all of you, too, will have a chance to contribute to nature conservation in your own capacity – it is never too early to start. If you are interested to get involved, do participate in the Biodiversity Week’s events. I hear that the team has prepared an exciting suite of activities. Even beyond this week, do join us for our citizen science programmes, biodiversity conservation surveys, and other wildlife-related initiatives under NParks’ Community in Nature programme. Just visit our NParks website, follow us on Facebook or Telegram, or scan the QR codes to find out more.

I wish you all a wonderful Biodiversity Week, and look forward to hearing your views at today’s session. I also look forward to NTU becoming part of our City in Nature as a Campus in Nature. Thank you.