Speech by 2M Desmond Lee at the Singapore Sustainability Showcase

Jul 30, 2018

I am very happy to be here. Thank you for inviting me to the Singapore Sustainability Showcase. I was approached when I attended a dialogue in Tembusu, and I was very encouraged to hear there are young people in Singapore who take sustainability to a different level altogether – organise, connect with an international movement, and track the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with a certain level of determination. I am very excited, and I look forward to hearing more about the many ideas that you have come up with – not just by Singapore participants, but by participants in the region as well.

For some people, “Sustainability” is a buzzword or a trend.  But the fact is that there are many countries, cities and communities that are facing serious economic, social and environmental challenges. The penny has dropped, in different points in time, for different cities, and people are beginning to realise that it cannot be business as usual anymore. All around the world, societies are looking at ways to balance various competing priorities in order to create sustainable solutions for their communities. So much so, that three years ago, in 2015, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was first adopted at the UN Sustainable Development Summit. 

This global framework comprises 17 SDGs and provides an action plan to bring countries and stakeholders together to resolve global development challenges. It is a broad and very encompassing framework, with 17 goals that map into 169 different targets and these address poverty, hunger, health, education, gender equality, water, energy, the economy, infrastructure, inequality, cities, sustainable consumption, climate change, our biodiversity and oceans, as well as peace and global partnerships. They are very broad; in fact, it covers almost everything. And many of us, whether in our NGOs, community groups, government, we tend to focus on one, two, three, maybe a couple of other SDGs.

But to understand how these SDGs and targets relate and interact with each other, the question of sustainability can be framed plainly as such – how do we grow and develop, so that we meet the needs of our people today, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs tomorrow. 17 SDGs, 169 targets, in effect, trying to answer that one question – how do we grow and develop as a city, a community, a country, a global community, how do we grow and develop to meet the needs and aspirations of today’s people, while making sure that we steward the resources, and keep this planet intact to meet the needs of the next generations. Ultimately, that is what this is all about. 

What I like particularly about the SDGs, is that without the SDGs, we are all focusing on one cause or the other, one particular interest or the other, one focal problem or the other. But when you have to look at 17 of them, spanning social issues, environmental issues and economic development, you then begin to see that all three either conflict, interact, supplement or pull against each other. Seeing these three – and I said 17, but actually you can bucket them into social, economic or environmental, with the last two on partnerships, and peace and stability, being enablers for all three to flourish at the same time.

For a city-state like Singapore, and I know there are visitors here who have come from abroad, this idea of sustainable development is particularly and immensely important for us – not least because we are a very small and densely populated place, and that we are only here because of the energy and industry of our people, and the sacrifices that earlier generations made as stewards for the sake of children and grandchildren as yet unborn.  

How do we balance different priorities on the social, economic and environmental fronts, which may seemingly pull in different directions, so that this small city-state, that was never really meant to be, how do we keep it sustainable? For instance:

- How do we grow our economy without damaging the environment?

- How do we provide more support for our people in healthcare, education and the social services, while keeping the burden of tax on our people – especially the middle ground and the middle income, manageable?

- How do we fire individual aspirations of the young and the young at heart, while ensuring that our society ultimately remains cohesive, united and caring?

- How do we aspire towards a future city, a gleaming city, without losing our connection to the past?

- How do we age gracefully as a community, while rekindling the energy, drive and vitality that keeps our society young at heart and aspirational?

- How do we create wealth for society, to enable people to achieve their aspirations and goals, while at the same time uplifting the lives of the vulnerable, and avoiding the disparity that pulls us into different worlds?

- How do we encourage those of you who are entrepreneurial and business-minded, how do we encourage business and enterprise to thrive and be competitive, while giving our workers a fair and equitable deal every time they go home for dinner?

- How can we embrace greater diversity in our society, and navigate change without polarising our communities and tearing us apart?

And many more. You will notice that for each of the challenge statements that I have given as examples earlier, we can actually flip them around, and when you do so, you realise the perspective and the calculus changes, the focus changes. Some of you may well criticise them in your mind that they are too binary and simplistic – indeed, life is far more complex as you would know and subtle than that, because there are interlinkages, inter-relationships, and sometimes tensions and trade-offs to be had between some or all of what I’ve just said earlier. But they are really between social, economic and environmental challenges.

Given this complexity, how might we address these challenges in the future, to drive greater sustainability? I’m not trying to pack it all in. I will just throw in a couple of ideas into the mix, because I know you’ve been having discussions over the course of the day, and I hope that having listened to what I have to say, I would like to hear from you later, when you present, when I visit your booths, or on email and social media – which is a good way to communicate around the world.

First, I think we need to forge a perspective, maintain, and in fact emphasise and strengthen our linkages between those three big pieces –  social, economic and environment, and our 17 SDGs can use that. What is it in your mind and in your frame that links them together? Is it in your mind that they are inevitably always in perpetual conflict, or that some are aligned and others are in tension? I would like to offer that all three can be aligned at the schematic level. You can see social, economic and environmental concepts as inter-linked, not as silos, a zero sum game, or polar opposites.

In fact, for most societies, as it is in Singapore, economic growth must allow us to meet your aspirations, that of your families, and give us resources at the community level, at the state level, to grow and serve society, and to protect the environment. Let me give you some examples, from where I sit, the kind work I do, I see this need to align, and I see some of this alignment. For example, we need resources and revenues to provide for ever growing health and social needs as demographic changes. We need resources to invest upstream in early education – we’ve seen the signs, they tell us that we need to invest upstream because between zero and three, that is a critical age to learn language, emotional skills. We need resources to invest further upstream for all, and we need resources to invest in early intervention for children with developmental challenges – even more critical to do early intervention at an early stage. We need resources to intervene more intensively in families that face complex challenges – to work in partnership with these families, we need to pour in resources in as much as these families need to invest their energy, their commitment and their human spirit. We also need more resources and revenues to push our Nature Conservation Masterplan, and to continue the greening of our City in a Garden, including in research, conservation, community outreach, citizen science – the technology that enables citizen science participation, and vertical greening – making the city green not only horizontally but vertically. And so on. In a way, all three should be aligned, and my view is that economic development should be used to power the engines for social development growth and change, as well as ensure that we keep this planet good, safe, intact for our children.

Second, we need stronger partnerships, genuine partnerships that begin upstream at the conception stage and not downstream at the implementation. We need to enable and facilitate conversations like the kind that YSI has been actively involved in for the last 10 months in Singapore, to keep ideas and discussions flowing all the time. Partnership embodying a spirit of collaboration and cooperation, and can only exist in the spirit of trust, in an environment of trust and mutual understanding. Such collaboration and cooperation has brought many creative ideas for sustainable development into fruition. Also, when you bring different people from different sectors, training, perspectives, you sometimes have breakthroughs. For example, in urban farming, when you bring in engineers into the mix, suddenly things get shaken up. You bring people from outside your room, you break away the walls that create echo-chambers and keep people locked up in that feeling that everything is okay. When you bring people from the outside, things get shaken up a bit, and you may feel a bit uncomfortable at the beginning, but you find that actually these new perspectives, once you settle into a pattern, can create very valuable ideas and solutions that you never thought about. I hope today’s YSI symposium, in the months and years ahead, will continue to create that kind of vibrancy and keep the doors open to all who pass through.

Third and finally, ultimately when you talk about sustainability, it is how do we endear into each and every one of us that we are nothing more than mere custodians and stewards – that we take what we need today to meet the needs of ourselves, our families, our communities and our societies. We want to live well and meet our aspirations and goals. But never rob the future of opportunity, never debase our environment and our planet, never use up all the resources that our grandparents and great-grandparents have stored away for us – not for us to use and consume in one go, but for us to shepherd, steward and grow for future generations. How do we engender in the mind-set of Singaporeans, ASEAN neighbours and our global citizens, that we are global stewards and custodians. That our role is a fiduciary one, for people as yet unborn. I think that only if you do that, is there hope that this planet, this region, and our city has many more legs to go, for future generations. Being a good steward, whether for nature – when you talk to friends from NParks or the nature community, it is always that idea of stewardship, whether its community, an economic or social term, we are all stewards.  

As Singapore is the ASEAN Chair this year, I am very excited that YSI is doing something that resonates with what we are trying to push in ASEAN. ASEAN is a grouping of countries, the reason why we group together is because geographically we are close to each other. But little else links us together, other than the sheer willpower of our people and our communities to want to do things together – for a population of more than half a billion people, with a strong youth dividend. There is a lot going for this part of the world, if only we engender the spirit of custodianship, and build a circle of trust amongst all our people, including the next generation. Last year I went to a model ASEAN parliament, I am excited to see ASEAN young people meeting people from various countries, sometimes for the first time, and that they want to carry on the relationship in person and by social media. I hope this will continue well into the future, because one of our initiatives for ASEAN this year is how to get young people connected together in our region, to power this region ahead, sustainably on the social, economic and environmental fronts. I thank Surya and the team, you are all students and you are all young, and I am glad to see that when you speak, I close my eyes, and you sound so mature. Keep at it, be young at heart always, never grow old in spirit, and that is the way to ensure that we never fall into a pattern of disregard and laissez-faire, and that is how sustainability can get achieved, all 17 of them. Thank you very much.