Thu. Jul 18th, 2024
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TL;DR – We asked 92 Singaporeans what Sustainability is, 70% told us it’s a colour.

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Over the last week, we spoke to 92 Singaporeans on the topic of Sustainability.

We started all of our conversations with the question: What comes to mind when you hear/see the word Sustainability?

Over 70% of the 92 people mentioned Mother Earth, saving the planet, recycling, yea, the green movement in general. A lot of the answers were like these:

  • Metal straws
  • Environmental issues. Energy usage. Recycling. Reusing.
  • Mother nature – Earth
  • Save the planet!!
  • Save My World
  • Clean and Green
  • Going green to save the environment
  • Environmentally conscious
  • Survival on planet earth

Only a handful talked about continuity, “Something that can tahan and keep doing over a longer period of time”. Fewer than a handful talked about how it’s about consuming resources such that we do not deprive future generations.

All of these simply tell me that despite it practically being the latest buzzword in town, there are many people out there who do not really understand what Sustainability is all about. Most people simplify the matter or confuse the issue and think that Sustainability is all about the green movement.

My worry is the young generation will just hop onto the bandwagon and blindly fight for green when Sustainability is about so much more.

So what is Sustainability?

A lot of people equate this to the green movement. And one can find many definitions online.

In the strictest sense of the word, sustainability means that a process or state can be maintained at a certain level for as long as is wanted.

But in this new sexy green vegan world, sustainability is often defined and perceived as something that is related to environmental issues. And environmental issues only. To these people, the concept of sustainability describes a condition in which human use of natural resources, required for the continuation of life, is in balance with nature’s ability to replenish them.

But I prefer this:

Sustainability is about meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs.

The concept of sustainability is composed of three pillars: economic, environmental, and social – also known informally as the 3Ps, Planet, People and Profit.

The sweet spot where all three Ps meet is where Sustainability happens (via)

The environmental pillar often gets the most attention.

But for a super-tiny city-state like Singapore without natural resources, sustainability cannot be just about going green and reducing carbon footprint. Sustainability is about our basic survival, now and future, and about ensuring that Singapore and Singaporeans live on.

Sustainability is a broad discipline, spanning into most aspects of the human world from business to technology to environment and the social sciences. And if there’re doe-eyed young punks thinking that so long as we go green, we will live forever, they’re in for a rude shock.

Singapore has always been about Sustainability

Yes, the Singapore Government has always been about Sustainability even before it’s a thing.

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I think this has to do with our genesis. Back in 1965, we were unceremoniously thrown out of Malaya. We had nothing. No natural resources, no water, no food, no military strength. We even had no friends.

It’s like we were doomed to fail even before we could celebrate our birthday. So we scrambled for survival and being so aware of our vulnerability and lack of size and might, we had always been about thinking long-term. Perhaps it was in our late Founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s genes, this long-term thinking thing. But through him, it has also become part of Singapore’s DNA.

So we were about sustainability even before it became popular.

Don’t believe me?

How many times have we heard our ministers talk about not bankrupting the future generations? How many times have we heard about not touching our reserves and saving them for future and future generations’ rainy days?

Let’s look at our National Budget

Even the way our national budget works is about Sustainability, not crippling the next government.

Did you know that Singapore is required under the Constitution to keep a balanced Budget over each term of government? This is a safeguard that prevents any government from overspending during its current term, thereby committing the young and future generations to repay its debt. This is to ensure a fiscally sustainable future.

Yes, everyone knows that you shouldn’t spend more than you earn. But the truth is most governments in the world run deficits. Why? Because they would borrow. And what if they are unable to pay back and they lose the next election? Well then the next government will just have to take over the debts. Not sustainable, in our Singaporean eyes.

The Singapore government does not borrow to fund recurrent spending, nor does it tap on the past reserves for that. Yes, remember? Under Singapore’s Constitution, each government is required to maintain a balanced Budget over each term.

This discipline of maintaining a balanced Budget over each term of government enables public funds to be allocated sustainably.

Our public housing policy – the Planning

Veteran architect Liu Thai Ker, also dubbed as the “architect of modern Singapore” had given quite a few interviews and one recurring theme that kept popping up was how our Housing Development Board (HDB) pursues long-term planning.

In an interview with Hong Kong media, HK01, Liu a comparison between the housing policies of the two countries.

During his stint at the HDB, Liu also formulated a plan for Singapore for the next 100 years.

Today, Singapore has already achieved more than half of it. However for Hong Kong, there is no long-term plan, there is only a 10- to 20-year plan. Liu said plans like this are like “small turkeys”.

Singapore’s 50-year development plan consists of a national vision, demographic planning, and distribution of civic functions. This grand plan is updated every 10 years.

Under this grand plan is another plan by the URA that envisions Singapore in 10 to 15 years. This plan, again, is revised every five years and it specifies what types of land are needed, their function, development data, and an overall development plan.

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Earlier this year, the URA launched its master plan – a blueprint that charts out the Government’s plans for land use over the next 10 to 15 years. And this is just a sub-plan of an even longer plan on land use.

Hong Kong family says they prefer living in Singapore and vow to “never go back to Hong Kong”

Our public housing policy – the 99-year HDB lease

I know that the 99-year leases on HDB flats is a sore point to some Singaporeans. But hey, that’s also about Sustainability.

Back a few years when this topic first started to gain eyeballs and traction in 2018, Prime Minister Lee had explained at the National Day Rally,

“A lease of 99 years for HDB flats is practical, as it allows people to live in their flats until old age or even death, while making it possible as well for the Government to continually rejuvenate public housing for future generations. We need to be fair to future generations.”

And yes, this is one fundamental reason HDB leases are 99 years. A 99-year lease means a HDB can be handed down only to one or two more generations before the lease runs out and the property needs to be returned to the state. But if flats were to be sold as a freehold property, the Government would eventually run out of land to build new flats for future generations.

There would be other long-term repercussions as well.

HDB flat owners would pass down their flats to some of their descendants, many generations into the future. Those not lucky enough or whose parents, grandparents and great grandparents were not rich enough to score a HDB flat previously would have nothing to inherit.

With our land scarcity, we would not be able to build more and the prices would just skyrocket since demand would outstrip supply.

And if we have a nation of people who can only rent and with housing a further and further away dream from them and the subsequent generations… I guess we don’t have to look far. Just check out Hong Kong.

Our HDB is the Reason We Don’t Riot Like Hong Kong

Do we want our society be to be split into property owners and those who cannot afford a property?

I think not. That would be most unequal, and socially divisive.

Our Water Story

Our Water Story is another sterling example of how Singapore is about Sustainability even before it became a movement. Back in the days, our water agreements with Malaysia were still running along happily and we had decades left of the agreements ahead of us.

But think ahead we did, and we started to dream up different ways we could supply water to the nation.

Remember Newater? People laughed at us. But look at who has the last laugh now. We now can proudly say we have our four national taps.

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And hehe, Johor still gotta buy water from us whenever it runs dry over the Causeway.

Supporting Pioneer Generation and Merdeka Generation

Even when the Government crafts policies or programmes to support specific pockets of our population, they will consider if these policies and programmes will burden future generations unfairly. I have lost count of the times the Prime Minister and the Ministers have talked about how we need to take care of the future generations, just as our forefathers had taken good care of us.

Take the examples of the Pioneer Generation and Merdeka Generation packages, the Government had stressed then that they had worked out the sums and the amounts are already provided for, such that we do not burden future generations. Yeps, that’s sustainability for you again.

Sustainability at the Country level

And other than the Water Story, we are also developing our very own Food Story.

Sustainability: Singapore imports 90% of our food supply, can we survive if a crisis cuts it off?

And if you think about it, our economic polices, what MTI and EDB do to draw foreign investment are part of Sustainability too, the Profit (economic) part.

Singapore’s Economic Policy: Is It Sustainable?


And yes, even our population and education policies are, in fact, all about Sustainability. So is the national conscription.

These would be the People (social) part of Sustainability.

How to ensure Sustainability with an ageing population: Singapore is so young, but ageing so fast!

But it’s Sustainability at the country level, and I have been mostly talking about the People and Profit parts of the 3Ps. What of the Planet, you ask?

Yes, we are concerned about the Planet too.

But we all have to bear in mind that it’s all about balancing the 3Ps so that Singaporeans can continue to aspire to lead good lives in a good place. And at different points in time, the 3Ps may not take equal weight all the time, depending on the circumstances. But all are important.

We are aware that climate change is a big deal to us too, and the rising sea level is a major concern to us too. Prime Minister Lee also addressed this in last year’s National Day Rally.

Minister Masagos: Tackle climate change or the end of ‘life as usual’

There’s also a fantastic sharing by Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing at the recent Singapore Perspectives dialogue where he took on a question on fossil fuel and our carbon responsibility. Or if you prefer, you can also watch him from the 35-minute mark in this video.


(Feature image via)