Speech by Minister Desmond Lee at the Marine Science in Singapore Conference

Sep 16, 2021

Good afternoon everyone.

I am very glad to join everyone today under these present public health circumstances, to celebrate the very significant achievements of the Marine Science R&D Programme (MSRDP) as it concludes its six-year run.

As a small city state, Singapore has always had to pursue our growth and development with long-term sustainability in mind. The case is made even stronger today, with the existential threat of climate change.

Therefore, the Singapore Green Plan 2030, which we launched earlier this year, is extremely important. It seeks to drive sustainable development across a wide range of sectors.

The role of research in sustainable development

And research and innovation play a significant role in our sustainability efforts. In fact, we have made Urban Solutions and Sustainability, or USS, a key domain under our Research Innovation and Enterprise (RIE) 2025 plan unveiled last December.

This research on urban sustainability encompasses our marine environment as well. It is not just about all terrestrial. Marine science research is particularly important to Singapore given our context.

And what is that? First, we are home to rich marine biodiversity – for example, we have recorded more than 250 species of hard corals in our coastal and marine habitats, which is about a third of the total hard coral species in the world. Yet at the same time, we are also one of the world’s busiest trans-shipment hub. Our coastal areas are also heavily used for many other things – economic activities, development, and recreation as well. All these pose immense challenges for biodiversity conservation.

Second, as an island city-state with close maritime ties with our neighbouring countries, we share the stewardship of the marine environment with them and face common challenges, such as pollution, which require collaboration to tackle effectively.

So we have a strong responsibility to protect our coastal and marine habitats, and the research community plays an instrumental role in this. With your help, we can more accurately model and predict environmental changes across a range of scientific and geographical considerations which in turn, helps us to develop better ways of safeguarding our marine environment and biodiversity

Marine Science Research and Development Programme

For these reasons, we set up the six-year S$25 million MSRDP in 2016, to bolster our marine science research efforts, and to train Singaporeans to build up relevant knowledge, expertise and capacity.

In this relatively short period of time, the MSRDP has achieved important results. It fostered strong collaboration among research institutes and government agencies, integrating ideas as well as talent across the ecosystem, regardless of institutional affiliations, and that is important.

With the best minds working together across organisational lines, we gained valuable insights on how we can better safeguard our marine ecosystems.

And I would like to take this opportunity to thank all of our scientists, researchers and many other partners who have contributed to the success of the MSRDP. You took on a range of projects, from understanding how our marine life adapts to environmental change, to developing better ways to monitor ecosystem health. With your dedication, hard work, and ingenuity, we have made significant progress in understanding our marine environment and its rich biodiversity.

Thank you for doing your part to help preserve and protect these important ecosystems – not just for the benefit of Singaporeans today, but also for generations of Singaporeans far into the future.

Special thanks goes to Professor Peter Ng, the Director of the MSRDP. As the Head of the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum and a renowned expert in the study of crustaceans and fish, his leadership has been invaluable in guiding the direction and progress of the MSRDP. Not to mention the mentorship that he has generously given to the next generation of researchers and all his efforts in fostering a strong spirit of close collaboration throughout the research community. So, thank you, Professor Ng, for your contributions.

Indeed, the MSRDP has shown us that we can achieve so much more when we work closely together.

Above all, the MSRDP has improved, in very real and tangible ways, how we manage and protect our marine environment. Research institutes have worked closely with government agencies and companies, to incorporate relevant research findings into actual policies, processes and plans. Let me just share two examples. In fact, you can find many examples in the excellent publication that is every table.

Ecologically engineering Singapore’s seawalls to enhance biodiversity

The first example is a project on seawalls. These coastal defences help to guard against sea-level rise. But as man-made structures, they are not conducive habitats for our coastal marine life. And so, to address this issue, MSRDP funded a project to create future-ready ‘green’ seawalls by bringing together the environmentalists and engineers.
Conceptualised by Professor Peter Todd from NUS, these specially designed tiles can be retrofitted on existing seawalls, and can host a diverse array of native species with positive effects on neighbouring habitats to boost the resilience of the overall marine ecosystem.

This promising project has catalysed further R&D. For instance, it is currently being scaled up under MND’s flagship R&D programme, known as “Cities of Tomorrow”. NUS will work with HDB to install more than 3,000 of these “green” seawall tiles around Pulau Tekong to enhance its coastal marine biodiversity. Concurrently, NUS will also further their research, by optimising the tile design, placement and retrofitting processes. You can see the latest design modules just outside this conference venue.

I understand that Professor Todd will share more about this eco-engineering work later today.  

Understanding the viral composition of phytoplankton blooms in Singapore’s coastal waters

Let me move on to the second example which is a project led by Professor Federico Lauro from NTU, in collaboration with the company, Oxford Nanopore Technologies. Together, they developed a rapid and accurate method to characterise phytoplankton or algal blooms in Singapore. Algal blooms pose a health risk to beach visitors as well as to marine life, and can also seriously impact our fish farmers and fisheries.

The team also established the first long-term observatory of viral communities in Singapore’s coastal waters. By uncovering important links between plankton and their viruses, the team generated a reference for all future plankton-virus research in the tropics. These achievements are key milestones for the team as they work towards their ultimate goal: which is to harness viruses as a biological control agent against harmful algal blooms in our coastal waters.

The Marine Climate Change Science programme

These two projects I have just shared demonstrate how marine science research can contribute to safeguarding our marine biodiversity and achieve a win-win outcome – achieving engineering objectives but also ensuring that marine biodiversity continues thrive. That requires interdisciplinary collaboration.

Beyond that, it can even benefit our food resilience, by helping to protect local fish supplies. A big thank you to all of our friends and colleagues who have contributed to the MSRDP

Looking ahead, as we focus our minds on combating climate change, a new S$25 million programme – the Marine Climate Change Science programme, or MCCS  will take the work of the MSRDP forward, building on the excellent work over the last six years. We will work with researchers and government agencies on world-class scientific and translational research.

In particular, we will study the impact of climate change on our marine ecosystems, such as rising sea levels, increasing sea surface temperatures, and extreme storm events; and how we can overcome these challenges in a sustainable manner, such as by using nature-based solutions to protect our coasts against rising sea levels.

The first MCCS grant call will be launched in November this year, and we look forward to your applications. As we start this new chapter of the MCCS, I invite all of you from our research community to participate actively, just as how you had lent your invaluable support to the MSRDP.

By protecting our natural environment, and finding ways for our city to coexist with nature, programmes like the MCCS contribute to our efforts to transform Singapore truly into a City in Nature – which is a key pillar under our Green Plan.


To round up, let me thank Professor Peter Ng and his team again – Prof Staffan Kjelleberg, deputy director of the MSRDP, the MSRDP steering committee, and many others – for delivering a multi-disciplinary and integrated national level R&D programme that has forged close partnerships between the marine science research community, government agencies as well as industry.

Thank you to all the MSRDP participants for laying a strong foundation for Singapore’s marine science research, both domestically and internationally.

We seek your continued support. All of us can play a part. Together, we can move forward to tackle the most challenging problems posed by climate change, and there is no time to spare.

Thank you, wherever you are in the world, and I look forward to an inspiring conference ahead.