While Covid-19 continues to rage across the world, the Singapore government is pushing ahead with an ambitious sustainability strategy to build back an even stringer economy and society in the post-pandemic era.
Announced in February, "Green Plan 2030" sets a mission for the city-state to achieve its long-term net-zero emissions goal "as soon as viable". It will also build a resilient future for the nearly 6 million population of Singapore -- an island nation vulnerable to rising sea levels and extreme weather caused by climate change.
"We need to first start with sustainability at the core of everything we do, including our recovery from Covid-19," said Grace Fu, Minister for Sustainability and the Environment of Singapore.
"While the pandemic has affected many lives and livelihoods, it has provided us with a great opportunity to emerge stronger and more sustainable. As we build back, we must embrace a new normal and seize opportunities for green recovery."
Ms Fu made the comments during the recent Global Compact Network Singapore (GCNS) Youth Forum, which brought together speakers from the sustainability field across the region. The event, held virtually in May, was joined by young people from around Southeast Asia, who talked about their roles in ensuring sustainable solutions and the skill sets they need to survive in the post-Covid-19 economy.
With a scarcity of natural resources and a small domestic market, Singapore's economy has depended heavily on international trade and the global market. As a consequence, the country was hit hard by the impact of the pandemic, which disrupted the whole global supply chain, forced many businesses to close and restricted the movements of people and goods.
"We need to first start with sustainability at the core of everything we do, including our recovery from Covid-19," says Grace Fu, minister for Sustainability and the Environment in Singapore. SUPPLIED
"It takes the oxygen out of the economy," Ms Fu said.
Last year, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced a nationwide lockdown, known as a circuit breaker, to contain the spread of the coronavirus. The effort was successful in the general population, but thousands of infections among migrant workers in overcrowded dormitories were a wake-up call to authorities. Even a year later, the movements of those workers are severely restricted.
The government has absorbed the lessons of 2020 and is now working to improve migrant workers' living conditions and reduce overcrowding. It has set up some temporary modular dorms and moved some labourers into vacant public housing and old military barracks while it continues with plans to build new and better-quality accommodation.
In any case, the economic cost of the pandemic was steep. According to the Ministry of Trade and Industry, the months-long restrictions resulted in a 5.8% contraction, the worst since independence, in gross domestic product (GDP) in 2020. A gradual recovery is now under way, with GDP forecast to expand by 4% to 6% this year, returning to its pre-Covid level sometime in the second half of the year at the earliest.
"The management of the pandemic is fraught with challenges," said Ms Fu. "People are losing jobs. Vaccination and mass testing are useful tools, but they cost a lot of money and are putting many governments in debt.
"The dilemma that governments face in fighting Covid-19 is similar to the difficult choices you have to make in taking climate action. Some of our options come with a high cost to the economy and the people. But just like Covid-19, we must find the right solutions."
"What we need are people who can navigate both the digital and also the on-the-ground realities and challenges," says Aldo Joson, programme manager for sustainability operations with the April Group. SUPPLIED
NEW GROWTH ENGINE
Singapore's Green Plan aims to harness sustainability as "a new engine of growth" while strengthening the country's commitments under the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement on climate change.
Under the plan, the Singaporean government will lead and drive all economic actors to make the transition toward more sustainable economic models, including establishing the country as a hub for green finance, carbon trading and sustainability consultancy.
It also creates a welcoming business ecosystem to attract international companies to conduct research and development of new sustainability solutions.
"I think a lot of us realise how fragile our supply chains, our need for goods and every other product was in this globalised world," said Mayur Singh, co-founder of The Green Collective SG, a pioneering retail concept showcasing sustainable alternatives to consumers and businesses seeking "to live, eat and dwell responsibly".
"One of the biggest changes, which has happened on a macro policy level, is happening because of the realisation of how fragile we can be," he said.
Speaking during the GCNS Youth Forum, Mr Singh also observed the changes in consumers' behaviour during the pandemic. Many have now begun to look back at how they consume and have been convinced to change their behaviour.
For example, many people have decided to shift from single-use products to multiple-use products after they observed the increase in plastic waste and packaging use while staying home during the pandemic.
This awareness is emerging simultaneously with the global shift in technology, which focused on the hardware side in the 1990s, to build software-related solutions for business and consumers.
In Singapore, too, many entrepreneurs are developing and adapting new software to promote a shift toward sustainable practices, including precision urban farming, local food sourcing, and energy efficiency at home and in the workspace.
"What this is giving us is not just good ways of collecting data, but it is also making it a bit more convenient for people to change behaviour and adopt sustainability," said Mr Singh.
"There have been many encouraging trends, which has definitely accelerated the pace at which the adoption of the technologies as well as the changing behaviour has happened."
SHAPING THE NEW MARKET
The Green Plan is not new to Singapore. The government first introduced it in 1992 and has been revising it continually to allow the country to keep pace with emerging environmental and developmental challenges.
Having a basic sustainability blueprint in place for many years has helped the country create and refine its "green city" model. Networks of green space and public transport have been thoughtfully integrated into urban planning and citizens' lifestyles.
However, the recent pandemic shows that just ensuring a healthy environment in the Green Plan is not enough.
As the pandemic disrupted its economy and forced many people into unemployment, the plan needs to focus more on shaping a new market -- one in which sustainable development practices are fully integrated into the post-pandemic recovery. The goal is to build back with new opportunities, inclusiveness and resilience.
"We know that, as a result of this disruption, some people will be better off. Some people will be worse off. There will be economic dislocations. There will be jobs that are gone forever," said Jeanette Kwek, head of the Centre for Strategic Futures, the government's think tank.
"There will be new jobs that are created. But we must consider the nuance of this disruption. There is proof of the tremendous potential for productivity and increase in economic progress. It does have benefits. It also begs the question of who then, and which parts of society might benefit more, and how might we smooth over the pains of disruption as a society."
"One of the biggest changes ... is happening because of the realisation of how fragile we can be," says Mayur Singh, co-founder of The Green Collective SG. SUPPLIED
A comprehensive green recovery requires a collective effort and ideas from all of society and a shared sense of purpose.
To achieve that, the Singaporean government brought together five ministries -- Education, National Development, Sustainability and the Environment, Trade and Industry, and Transport -- to spearhead the Green Plan.
It is also trying to engage numerous other groups in society to take part in the mission. Last November, it introduced the SG Eco Fund to award S$50 million to projects that drive sustainable solutions from organisational to individual levels.
In May, 37 projects were selected and received S$3.7 million in grants.
They cover various fields, awardees and project scales, ranging from contact lens recycling business, waste conversion into packaging materials, carbon-capture technology to a mangrove and wetland ecosystem improvement at tourist attractions.
The emerging solutions do not just mean more economic opportunities. They also showcase the critical role of the government in guiding the country out of the uncertainty caused by the pandemic. This in itself can be seen as a radical change -- departing from the classical economic belief that the government must stay out of the market and let the market work by itself.
Some will benefit from the disruption caused by the new economy, but there will be a need to "smooth over the pains of disruption as a society", says Jeanette Kwek, head of the Centre for Strategic Futures in Singapore. SUPPLIED
ALL SKILLS WELCOMED
The role of government in leading the green recovery can be observed in some other Asian countries, where policymakers have taken the uncertainty during the pandemic as a lesson learned.
For example, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has made climate change and the "green growth" strategy a centrepiece of his government since he took office last September. He pledged that Japan would achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, though critics say the roadmap for doing so is not yet clear.
Meanwhile, the South Korean government introduced a "Green New Deal" last year, focusing on a transition to renewable energy, building green infrastructure and sustainably reviving the industrial sector.
The plan is intended to complement the "Digital New Deal" programme to accelerate the transition toward a digital economy. The Korean government will invest US$144 billion in both plans and subsidise individuals and businesses in the transition. More than 1.9 million jobs will be created by 2025.
In Singapore, young people have been enlisted to bring their energy to the green recovery plan as they are the sources of new ideas and solutions. Many of the projects that received grants under the SG Eco Fund are run by young people who aspire to change.
Aldo Joson, programme manager for sustainability operations with the April Group, said he found the sustainability field requires youth and talent from all industries, including those from the tech and public policy fields.
"We need to achieve net-zero carbon emissions in the entire world, and that involves a lot of skills and skill sets," he said during the GCNS Youth Forum. "Even as the world is moving increasingly digital, sustainability remains on the ground. What we need are people who can navigate both the digital and also the on-the-ground realities and challenges."
Mr Joson, who has a background in philosophy and political studies, shifted his work to the sustainability field many years ago as he found that it is one that is open to everyone with ideas.
"Sustainability needs a lot of skill sets," he said. "We need people from various experiences and backgrounds, and we need to find people who are willing to work and commit to finding solutions."