Date Published: 21 Jun 2012
(In response to the following question from the moderator: "From a distance
Singapore looks like the perfect achievement. So I want to ask you to demolish
that notion. What does even perfect Singapore still confront that other cities
Let me put things in perspective. The distance from this
conference hall to Copacabana Beach is 30 km. That is the entire size of Singapore
east to west. The population
of Singapore is the population of Norway - 5 million - squeezed into land between
RioCentro (Convention Centre) and Copacabana beach. But 47% of the land is
still covered by trees, either virgin jungle or trees that we have planted.
other element is that the 5 million people are a polyglot mix of Chinese, Malays
and Indians and people from all over the world, including Brazillians,
Norwegians and Americans.
The other point that is unique is that we are a city-state.
What this basically means is that we only have a single level of government.
So as an MP, as a
Minister, I have to know every rubbish chute, I know how to find the rat burrows,
to manage local cleaning projects. We are a very unique place. We are not perfect
nor are we necessarily a model for other countries because of our very unique
But having said that, I thought I should share with you certain
primary imperatives. Firstly, pollution is not an option. I have no backyard
where I can dump toxic
waste, because my backyard is your front yard. So everything that we do, -
all the garbage, all the plastic bags - we have to take a life cycle approach
it, from buying, using, to disposing. We incinerate almost all our waste. The
only active landfill that we have is an island just off Singapore called Pulau
Semakau, and we have turned that into a tourist resort to demonstrate tropical
marine biodiversity. We must be the only active landfill that is a tourist
The second point is that we are extremely resource-constrained. Half
of our water has to be imported. 10% of our water is from desalination, one-third
of our water
is recycled. This concept of being extremely resource-constrained is a fundamental
organisational principle for us all.
The third point is that we were lucky that
our first Prime Minister (Mr Lee Kuan Yew) – we have only been independent
for 47 years - was a greenie before it was fashionable to be green. His concept
was that we would build a garden
city. In recent years, we have flipped that around – to say we want a "city
in a garden". Hence, my earlier allusion to the point that 47% of our
land is covered by trees. But the paradox of building a city in a garden is
actually have to be very high-rise, highly urbanised, highly compact and very,
very dense. Because if you do not you then have suburban sprawl, and you just
have an entire concrete jungle. Therefore, we started out to preserve as much
greenery as we can and actually over 90% of us now live in high-rise apartments.
So whenever you see high-rise, dense accommodation in Singapore, remember that
that is the corollary of preserving greenery, of "maintaining the garden".
other point is that if you pack so many people so closely together and you
have not solved the political/social issues, of race, language and religion,
you then have a recipe for major problems. We do not have ghettos in Singapore,
and there is one policy that we have which I do not think is implementable
else in the world. If you go to any precinct, any neighbourhood, indeed any
housing block in Singapore, each block is a representative cross-section of
language, and the religious mix in Singapore. In most cities, there is always
the tendency for like to aggregate with like. That is how ghettos start. In
the case of Singapore we impose ethnic quotas for our public housing, and therefore
we ensure that everyone in Singapore, from the moment you wake up to the moment
you sleep, you are aware that your neighbour may have a different skin colour,
may worship a different God, cook differently - and we share and celebrate
differences. The point I am trying to make is that the political, social and
emotional aspects of a city do have a major impact.
The final point I want to
make is that the UN Habitat has stated that 50% of the world population now
lives in cities. 2009 was a tipping point in human
history. And what I found most intriguing is the statement – I believe
it is also from UN Habitat - that a dense urban city is the most cost effective
supply water, sewage, drainage, energy, education, health, jobs and community
activities for humans. The unit cost of providing these services is lower in
cities than in rural areas.
We used to live in a world where we thought of being
green as living in a countryside, in a rural area. But this insight from UN
Habitat is remarkably apt for Singapore.
That being green and being sustainable in the future is about living in dense,
well planned, well-implemented cities – where political, economic and
social goods can be distributed fairly and cost-effectively. Therein lies the
opportunity for Singapore, because now we have found, for instance, that we
have converted the strategic shortage of water into a strategic opportunity
companies. We now go all over the world selling our technologies and implementing
systems for water recycling and desalination. So we have converted strategic
constraints into opportunity, and that is what we are all about.
(In response to questions from the audience)
Regarding the question on the
relations between cities and countries and states - I speak as an interested
observer since I am from a small city-state.
I think the future is obvious.
The UN has estimated that by 2050, 80% of the world population will be urbanised.
Whilst all cities are unique
and have special
challenges, the key really is how to interconnect ourselves and to
arbitrage the opportunities and dense connections and relationships offered
us. I think the balance of power will lie in the cities and there are great
Having said that, I think there are a few critical
ingredients. Firstly, you need honest competent governments. The political
system has to work,
and have support from people. Secondly, you need a long-term perspective.
Almost every worthwhile project cannot be completed in one electoral
term. So you
need a political system and politicians that are able to look beyond
one cycle - 10,
20, 50 years down the road. Without that perspective, vision cannot
be translated into reality. The third point is about money. I know at this
point of the
world economy, people are always worried about capital. But actually,
if the plans
are well made, it is always possible to raise funds from the private
sector to invest in projects that makes commercial sense. And in fact
of projects that need to be funded entirely out of government taxation.
Those are the projects that often are held hostage to political considerations
and very often may not always make environmental or economic sense.
final point is about inequalities. We do not aspire to achieve equality by
making everyone equally poor. I do not think anyone aspires
that, we know that cities are areas that are generators of wealth.
Therefore, by definition, any successful city will create a certain
amount of inequality.
Now, the real problem of inequality is not so much inequality of
incomes but the inequality of opportunities and unfair outcomes. The really
is that in terms of your life experience, in terms of access to fairness
and justice, equality in the eyes of the law, access to clean air
access to education and jobs and social mobility - that is where
the real issues lie. The problem with the current state of politics is
that it is
to focus on the politics of envy rather than the politics of opportunity
In the case of Singapore, we do not subsidise consumption.
Everyone pays the full price. The less well off receive targetted assistance.
fossil fuels or water. But we do focus on subsidising the ownership
of assets. So everyone will have the chance to buy a flat, because
is an asset.
And making a society, in which 90% of people own their homes and
invested into the future, does change our paradigms and our expectations
and hopes for
There are quite a lot of things going on in cities, but
at the core it is about getting politics right, making long-term plans and
It is about understanding the paradigm that cities in fact are
most sustainable form of civilisation this century. If we can solve
the political and social challenges, we can truly look forward
to a much
and wealthy city in the fullest sense of the word.
Thank you all
very much for your interest in Singapore.