Speech by Minister Lawrence Wong at the Fourth South Asian Diaspora Convention

Nov 16, 2019

I am very happy to join you here today at the fourth South Asian Diaspora Convention.  Let me extend a warm welcome to our distinguished guests and delegates from overseas.  I understand that you have had a fruitful convention so far and I hope I can add something useful to your conversations today. 

The organisers have asked me to share some words on infrastructure and Smart Cities.  Before I do so, I should highlight, and I think we all recognise, that we are operating in a more challenging and volatile global environment today.  We are in the midst of geopolitical tensions, the pace of globalisation is already slowing, and there are concerns that it may even be reversing.  We are seeing signs of bifurcation in supply chains and technologies, all of which mean that growth in the global economy is likely to be slower for a longer period of time. 

Notwithstanding this more sombre outlook and the dark clouds over the horizon, the silver lining is that Asia is still a growing region and we remain one of the fastest if not the fastest growing regions in the world.  There is plenty of development potential and opportunities, and infrastructure is indeed a promising area of growth. 

Asia now invests about $900 billion every year in infrastructure.  To maintain the region’s growth momentum, Asia will need about $1.7 trillion of investments in infrastructure every year from now to 2030.  That is nearly double the amount of infrastructure investments we put in today.  The reason why we need this step-up in infrastructure is largely due to Asia’s rapid urbanisation and a lot of this is in fact happening in South Asia. 

If you look at South Asia’s five largest countries – Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka – today, about 34 percent of their population, about 600 million people, live in urban areas.  The United Nations estimates that this will rise to more than 800 million by 2030.  So 200 million movement into urban areas within about 10 years – that is quite a large scale of urbanisation.  While this is a positive development on the economic front, it will put significant strain on existing infrastructure, so regional governments cannot afford to stand still.  They have to invest now, in infrastructure, to accommodate this rising trend in urbanisation.  

It is not just about having more infrastructure.  It is also about infrastructure that is better designed, that is greener, and that is smarter.  So this idea of ‘Smart Cities’ is no longer just a slogan.  It is not even a good-to-have.  It is really an imperative, essential for both national and global sustainable development.  That is the attitude we take in Singapore.  We are quite unique because we are small, open and we are a city state.  Just 700 square kilometres of land with no natural resources.  We are acutely aware of the vulnerabilities we face in an uncertain world.  That is why we are always looking at it, and putting in place long-term plans to optimise our land use, to make sure that our urban infrastructure is first class and up to date.  That is how we can anchor more investments, create more jobs for Singaporeans, and provide a good living environment for our people. 

Today, I will share with you some broad initiatives of what we are doing on the infrastructure and smart cities front. 

We are doing everything we can to harness technology to build our future city.  You will hear a lot about technology in different sectors, be it in finance, IT, digital technologies. You do not hear a lot about technology in the urban environment. But increasingly, we are seeing more signs of urban tech, or you can call it smart cities, but it is a technology being deployed in all the different areas of the urban built environment. 

First, technology is already changing the way we plan our city.  The tools needed for urban and master planning traditionally are your base maps, your geological data, land-use surveys – all that used to be paper-based.  Now, all of these are digitalised.  They are made widely available to planners and architects, and it allows for more detailed planning, assessment and visualisation.  It is changing the way we plan and design our content and it is having an impact. 

To give an illustration, when we plan for a new housing estate in Singapore nowadays, we have a much better understanding of the demographics of the people living in the town.  We understand where the elderly populations are, we know where the vulnerable elderly are living, those with low income or zero income or who are living by themselves. We know then where are the gaps in terms of eldercare provisions, and we can start putting in place appropriate interventions to make sure that suitable eldercare facilities are sited in areas that are conveniently accessible by these residents.  That is a very simple example of how technology is already helping us to plan better. 

Second, technology is helping us to build better.  It is changing the way we build.  The traditional methods of construction tend to be very labour intensive, low in productivity.  But increasingly, we are seeing more advanced pre-fab and pre-cast, or what we call Design for Manufacturing and Assembly (DfMA).  In other words, lots of the construction is done, almost like a manufacturing line, off site.  It is then brought into site and assembled, almost like a lego building block.  It is a different method of construction.  It is much faster, it reduces manpower and makes the construction site safer, cleaner, less noisy and with fewer dis-amenities.  This is becoming pervasive – technology is changing the way we build. 

Technology is changing the way we maintain and manage our infrastructure. You can have sensors. You can start to put in place a whole range of equipment to look at how buildings can be better maintained.  In Singapore, for example, we have a lot of high-rise apartments.  From time to time, we need to inspect the buildings for cracks along the facades.  We call this facade inspection today. The way to do this is to drop a gondola and manually, the workers have to go down floor by floor to inspect.  It is expensive and labour intensive. 

We are starting to use drones, so that the drones can take images, and with some form of machine learning or AI algorithm, you can, through the images, start to do predictive maintenance.  We are putting sensors across all our lifts in public housing apartments.  The sensors can monitor the performance of the lifts.  They can detect anomalies and pick up potentially something that is not functioning as well.  Predictive maintenance can then be done, even before the lift breaks down.  We are putting sensors in lamp posts all over the streets and there is typically a command centre that allows you to monitor and make full use of all of this data.  So technology can be helpful in changing and improving the way we look at building maintenance and facilities management. 

Technology is changing the way we move around.  We are starting to see new forms of transportation, even autonomous vehicles.  We are starting to pilot and testbed autonomous vehicles in Singapore.  We are doing this pilot across the entire western part of Singapore, and as we design and build a new housing estate in the western part of Singapore, we are looking at potentially having last-mile solutions offered through an autonomous shuttle that will operate on the roads.  This sounds futuristic, but it is coming, and it can be a game changer in the way we think about transport solutions. 

These are technologies that are happening all around the world.  We are harnessing them, deploying them not just at the building level, but across entire districts.  In Singapore, we are starting to develop some new districts, new clusters for digital districts, for innovation districts.  When we build a new district, we can deploy all of these technologies, be it smart buildings, intelligent transport systems, smart sensors, and all connected together via the 5G network. 

We are already calling tenders for standalone 5G networks.  The first provision of 5G in Singapore might be ready by next year, which is very soon.  By 2022, we expect more than half of Singapore to be 5G ready.  Some of you are still on 3G, most of you are on 4G.  In two years’ time, 5G.  Video streaming, all sorts of apps can be done much faster than what it is today. 

That's the first thrust of our infrastructure work, to make the infrastructure smarter, much smarter than what it is today in order to bring greater convenience to the lives of Singaporeans, in order to provide a better living environment. 

The second thrust, besides going for smarter solutions, is to have greener solutions.  We started our greening journey a long time ago.  In fact, when Singapore first became independent, we talked about becoming a Garden City.  Now, we will continue to double down on this green strategy to make Singapore one of the greenest and most sustainable cities in the world. 

The reality is, despite rapid urbanisation and Singapore being a fairly built-up city, we are continuing to expand our green spaces.  Today, we have more than seven million trees.  We have more trees then we have human beings on our island.  We are continuing to plant more trees.  We are continuing to add to the 4,000 hectares of gardens and parks that we have.  We are going to add another 1,000 hectares over the next 10 to 15 years.  We have 327 kilometres of park connectors.  It will be 400 kilometres by 2030.  We are making Singapore greener than what is it today. 

Beyond planting and physical greenery, we are making Singapore greener in other ways too.  We are ramping up the deployment of solar power in Singapore.  In Singapore, we are disadvantaged when it comes to renewable energy unlike some countries where you are blessed with wind, with geothermal.  We have none of these natural assets.  Even when it comes to solar, we do not have big pieces of land where we can build a solar farm.  But solar is possibly the only renewable source of energy we can exploit, so we are doing whatever we can to harness solar power, and the best possible use is by putting solar panels on rooftops.  

In our public housing estates today, one in two buildings by next year will have solar panels on the rooftops and we will go beyond that over the coming years.  We go hunting for space even outside of buildings.  We have put solar panels on our reservoirs, on water bodies, and even offshore, within Singapore’s territorial waters.  We are deploying solar as far as we can in order to fully harness solar power and clean power. 

Going solar is really just part of a broader strategy to green our buildings.  We are also embarking on a green building strategy.  Today, 40 percent of our buildings – the entire building stock in Singapore – have achieved some sort of Green Mark status, meaning to say they are more energy efficient than they were compared to 2005 baseline standards.  Solar is definitely one way of achieving Green Mark status, but it could be greener through more efficient cooling systems. 

We are pushing for green buildings from 40 per cent today to 80 per cent by 2030, and we will go beyond that.  Our longer-term goal is to push for even more energy efficiency.  Eventually, we want every low-rise building in Singapore to be positive energy – in other words, it can contribute clean power – mid-rise buildings to be zero energy –  in fact, NUS has one net zero energy building in its campus – and high-rise buildings can be super low energy.   Going beyond the Green Mark targets that we have by 2030, we hope to do even more beyond 2030. 

We are also doing similarly for transportation.  In fact, the greening strategy extends across all our infrastructure.  Overall, we have targets that we have committed as a country under the Paris Agreement.  We are going to achieve peak carbon emissions by 2030.  We are going to reduce our emissions intensity by 36 per cent and we are on track to achieving these goals.  But we are going beyond this. This is not good enough.  We are now working on a 2050 target, where we will be even more ambitious, and we will reduce our overall level of emissions from where we are in 2030.  So going beyond the peak emissions to bringing emissions down in absolute level – that is our next aim, and we will commit to that come the next round of the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change). 

When you look at being a green city, we are committed to doing everything we can in Singapore.  But Singapore's contributions to global emissions is actually not very large.  Singapore’s contribution to global emissions today is a paltry 0.1 per cent. We can do everything we can, but I do not think we alone will stop global warming. Stopping global warming requires the big countries, the major powers of the world, to act together.  All countries have to do their part, so we will do our part, hopefully to motivate, to influence other countries to act, but we really require everyone to move together.  

We are quite realistic, because if you look at where the world is heading today, we are quite realistic in anticipating that this will be a difficult and long journey.  America has already pulled out of the climate change Paris Agreement.  Many countries are still building coal plants today.  The trends and the trajectory do not look positive for the world to be able to tackle climate change.  

While we do whatever we can to be green, we are also preparing for the worst, which means that if climate change were to happen, what are the consequences we will face.  The one consequence that will have an impact on Singapore is rising sea levels, because we are small, we are low-lying, and we are surrounded by water.  This chart shows you some of the potential consequences.  The red areas are the areas in Singapore that is not more than four metres above sea level.   You may say four metres above sea level sounds very high.  Even today, during a high tide, the sea levels can rise to about two metres above sea level.  If you look at the UN projections under various scenarios of global warming, sea levels may rise by one to two metres in the coming decades.  These are all a wide range of projections, but none of them have taken into account the possibility of global warming happening at a much faster rate – Antarctic ice sheets melting, potentially causing sea levels to rise higher and sooner. 

We think that we have to be prepared and we have to protect ourselves.  There is not much of a high point in Singapore, and we cannot run to mountains.  There is Bukit Timah hill in the centre but it is not very high.  So we have to protect our coastal areas. 

What can we do?  This is one example of a project that we are working with the Dutch now. It is called a polder.  A polder is simply a low-lying land.  It is land that you reclaim but it is below sea level.  You protect that land with sea dykes and sea walls to keep the waters out, and you have pumping stations as well, in order to pump water out.  It is really building a series of reclamation plus sea walls that can protect yourself. The Dutch are experts in this, so we are working on this project with a Dutch company, and we have to do potentially a lot more of this, especially around the areas which I have highlighted earlier in red, which are vulnerable areas.  There will have to be a series of polders, sea walls and pumping stations to protect ourselves.  We are seriously looking at plans.  In fact, we have the plans ready, and we will be investing in infrastructure in the whole area of coastal protection measures, to make sure that these are ready as early as 2050.  2050 is not a long time from now.  It is just 30 years from now and you need that kind of timeframe to start today, in order to be ready by then.  Because if anything were to happen, you cannot possibly produce these things overnight.  These things take time.  So we are starting today, now, to make sure that we are not only green and sustainable but we also have infrastructure that protects ourselves in the event of climate change.  There are lots to do. Within Singapore, we have plans laid out, not just for the short term, but over a series of years and even decades.  But certainly, we also look forward to collaboration within the region. 

There is a lot that is happening in the region as well.  India, for example, has launched its Smart City Challenge.  I visited India earlier this year.  I met with the Minister in charge of the Smart Cities programme.  They had 100 cities that have been kick-started for their Smart City transformation and I understand it is now looking at Smart City 2.0 in India – to roll out to all 4,000 cities in the country, where under this programme, India is expected to expand housing for all and to build better infrastructure.

Another platform for collaboration is within Southeast Asia and ASEAN.  We have rolled out an ASEAN Smart Cities Network (ASCN) for 26 smart cities from across the Southeast Asian countries. So far, we have seen quite good progress.  The 26 pilot cities under ASEAN are working towards the implementation of various city specific action plans, many of which are focused on environmental sustainability, waste management, safety and security, as well as urban mobility. 

In collaborating with all of these different regional initiatives, we think Singapore can play a useful role as a financing and infrastructure hub for the region.  Many countries talked about doing smart city and infrastructure projects, but very often, it is the implementation of these projects where there is a bottleneck.  You have plans but you cannot get it implemented.  Very often, the reason why the projects cannot get implemented  is that they are not properly structured, they are not bankable, and you cannot get financing for the projects.

In Singapore, we have a whole spectrum of expertise around project advisory, project consultancy, structuring of projects, and then financing of these projects, both through our commercial plans, as well as through the multi-lateral development banks that are based in Singapore.  We think we can play a useful role as a financing and infrastructure hub, working with partners to structure projects, have them financed, and then implemented in respective countries all over Asia. 

We are also putting in more resources for research and development (R&D) in urban solutions – greener and smarter urban solutions.  We welcome collaborations with international partners on these R&D projects as well. 

At the end of the day, no city is alike, and there is no one size fits all solution.  Cities differ in their stages of economic development. They have differing characteristics and that means different implications for infrastructure and technology solutions.  Regardless of what each city does, what is important is that across the region, and between the public and private sectors, we continue collaborating and exchanging notes as we embark on our Smart City journey together.  If we can work hand in hand, we have a better chance of innovating, to build better, greener and more sustainable cities that will endure for generations, that will tackle some of humanity's biggest challenges, and also serve as an inspiration for the world. 

Thank you very much.