CLC Lecture Series

Environmental Trailblazing in Singapore
URA Function Hall, Singapore
29 May 2012

The need to balance environmental considerations with economic and social progress is
not new. Given the environmental strain resulting from the world’s rapidly increasing population, environmental issues have been placed at the forefront of policy discussions. Singapore was already grappling with this challenge in the 1960s, when industrialisation led to
increased pollution. Recognising the imperative need for action, Singapore became one of
the first countries in the world to set up a Ministry of Environment in 1972.
On 29 May 2012, the Centre for Liveable Cities (CLC) and the Singapore Environment Institute hosted an engaging discussion about Singapore’s path to sustainable development as
part of the CLC Lecture Series. The panel featured several environment pioneers, including
Daniel Wang, former Director General for Public Health at the National Environment Agency
(NEA); Loh Ah Tuan, former Deputy CEO at NEA; Joseph Hui, Deputy CEO (Technology
& Corporate Development) at NEA; and moderator Liak Teng Lit, Group CEO at Alexandra
Drawing on their rich working experiences, the panel members shared insights into how
Singapore balanced rapid economic growth with environmental protection.

A path to sustainability
Sustainable development is the idea of integrating economic development, social progress
and environmental protection. Although widely used today, Mr Loh noted that this concept
became fashionable only 10–15 years ago, so Singapore was ahead of the times: “Somebody in the government had the wisdom to look at social progress and economic development without sacrificing environment. ... In the 60s, the 70s, we were already doing sustainable development without the phrase ‘sustainable development’.”
The forward-looking environmental management strategies used by Singapore over the
past decades were progressive for their time. Today, these strategies reflect the components of the CLC Liveability Framework in many ways, with dynamic urban governance and
integrated master planning being used to achieve a sustainable environment, a high quality
of life and a competitive economy.
Committing to smart environmental governance
Today, most people recognise that environmental issues are important; yet advancing environmental causes and changing social behaviours remain a challenge. In Singapore, ushering in environmental progress involves making tough decisions and overcoming resistance.
Fortunately, the push for sustainable development in Singapore has been backed by strong
political will to drive the necessary changes.
Mr Loh cited the clean-up of the Singapore River
as an example. Initially, some agencies were slow
to provide input for the Ministry of Environment’s
regular progress reports. However, once word of this
foot-dragging reached top government officials, the
situation improved rapidly. Singapore’s leaders were
serious about seeing the Singapore River cleaned
up, and their strong backing ensured that the civil
service followed through to the best of its ability.
Legislation is another important facet of good governance. Laws help to give clear structure to the
environmental policies put forth by the government,
outlining acceptable behaviour and penalties. However, to have the desired positive impact on the environment, laws must be backed by effective enforcement. Mr Hui said, “If you have legislation but you
don’t have enforcement, it is pointless because soon
people will know that this is a paper tiger… Enforcement is actually a very important part of the strategy
to control pollution.”
Adopting an integrated approach
The success to date of Singapore’s sustainable development efforts has not come about by
accident. Instead, many of the positive outcomes can be traced back to long-term integrated
planning driven by a vision for a clean, sustainable Singapore.

As in other countries, environmental issues in Singapore tend to fall under the purview of
numerous government agencies. Therefore, inter-agency coordination was and remains essential to the implementation of sustainable development efforts in Singapore.
Mr Loh recalled the early days of Singapore’s push for environmental protection, noting that
he and his colleagues worked closely with the Planning Department – the precursor of today’s Urban Redevelopment Authority – to ensure that environmental issues were integrated into all master-planning activities. Introduced in Singapore’s early days, this integrated
approach to master planning remains a keystone of the country’s success.

For example, Mr Hui noted the importance of NEA working closely with relevant stakeholders to ensure that Singapore’s scarce land resources are managed in a sustainable way:
“When the Economic Development Board brings in investments, we actually get a chance to
talk to the investors to understand what they are bringing in. If they are bringing in industries
which are very pollutive … then we would say no.”
Investing in a greener future
A crucial factor in Singapore’s successful environmental
management has been its investment in infrastructure and
technology – this took place even in the 1970s, when Singapore was still quite a poor country.
Mr Wang recalled Singapore’s plan in the mid-1970s to
build an incinerator plant for waste disposal. There were
plenty of naysayers who felt it was too expensive, yet they
went ahead nonetheless, borrowing $100 million from the
World Bank to build it. Commissioned in 1979, the incinerator was crucial in alleviating the strain on Singapore’s
limited landfill capacity and at the same time generated a
significant amount of electricity.
“We built plants like that, we built wastewater treatment
plants, we laid sewers and we spent a lot of money in
those days. That was a real commitment by the government, recognising that you must build
infrastructure if you want to take care of pollution”, said Mr Wang.

Maintaining a healthy city
Public health is an important factor affecting quality of life: the better a country’s public
health, the more society can focus on progress in other areas. In most countries, public
health is managed by the Ministry of Health. Singapore, however, has taken a different approach, assigning this responsibility to the Ministry of Environment. This is based on the
recognition that public health goes hand in hand with a clean environment: when pollution,
pests and waste are effectively minimised and managed, the risk of disease and other public
health problems arising and spreading tends to decline.
Public health is particularly important in cities such as Singapore, where high population
density increases the danger of rapid transmission of diseases. An important tool used to
promote public health is public education, which Singapore has used effectively to raise
awareness of the importance of public health and responsible environmental practices.
Mr Wang gave the example of how Singapore phased out the slaughtering of live poultry in
wet markets in the past. This required significant public education to discourage consumers
from buying live poultry. When the global bird flu pandemic hit, this decision turned out to be
fortuitous for Singapore.
Thinking ahead and taking ownership
Summing up, Mr Liak noted that the key to Singapore’s
success in sustainable development has been its willingness to take proactive steps before the need arises. While
at times there are public queries regarding the need for
these policies, they are necessary in order to avert potential environmental crises.
Due to forward-looking policies and proactive investment,
Singapore today enjoys high environmental standards. Going forward, an important goal is to encourage Singaporeans to take greater personal ownership of the environment
by fostering a stronger sense of social responsibility. Everyone has a part to play in protecting the environment; fortunately there are signs that Singapore is making positive
progress in this direction.


About the Speakers
Joseph Hui is currently Deputy Chief Executive Officer (Technology & Corporate Development) of the National Environment Agency, where he guides corporate development and the
development of technological and technical expertise. Mr Hui started his career as an engineer with the Anti-Pollution Unit in the Prime Minister’s Office in 1977. He subsequently took
on key appointments in what was then called the Ministry of Environment, including Chief
Engineer in 1991, Head (Strategic Planning & Research Department) in 2000, Director (Pollution Control Department) in 2004, and Director-General of the Environmental Protection
Division in 2007. As Director-General of the Environmental Protection Division, Mr Hui oversaw the integrated solid waste management system and implemented programmes related
to waste minimisation and recycling, energy efficiency, and clean energy. He also looked
into the management of hazardous materials and toxic industrial wastes, environmental pollution control, and radiation protection, as well as research and development.
Liak Teng Lit is the Group Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Alexandra Health, which manages the new Khoo Teck Puat Hospital. Prior to this, he served as CEO of Alexandra Hospital, Changi General Hospital and Toa Payoh Hospital. A pharmacist by training, he was
involved in the restructuring of major hospitals including the National University Hospital,
Kandang Kerbau Hospital and Singapore General Hospital. Mr Liak serves on the boards of
Alexandra Health, NTUC First Campus, NTUC Healthcare, Pathlight School and NorthLight
School, as well as on the Advisory Panel of the Singapore Human Resources Institute, Advisory Council of the Singapore Computer Society, and Advisory Panel of the School of Information Systems at Singapore Management University (SMU). He is the Chairman of the
Water Networks and Public Hygiene Council in the Ministry of the Environment and Water
Resources. He is an active Councillor in the South West Community Development Council
and Chairman of the Healthy Lifestyle Functional Committee. He is also a committee member for Community Chest and the Institute of Service Excellence Governing Council at SMU.
Loh Ah Tuan joined what was then called the Ministry of the Environment 30 years ago and
retired in 2007. He served as the Director-General for Environmental Protection and Deputy
Chief Executive Officer of the National Environment Agency. He was instrumental in ensuring that Singaporeans enjoy clean air, water and land, as well as high standards of public
health. He was also involved in many notable environmental projects. For his role in cleaning up the Singapore River, Mr Loh was among 10 Singaporeans awarded a Gold Medal by
the then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. Mr Loh played a key role in the formulation of the
Singapore Green Plan 2012, a blueprint for environmental sustainability. Beyond Singapore,
he was the lead negotiator for environment in the US-Singapore Free Trade Agreement and
Chairman of several ASEAN Working Groups on Environment. Mr Loh was awarded the
Public Service Medal (Gold) in 2007.
Daniel Wang retired from his position as Singapore’s Commissioner of Public Health/Director-General of Public Health on 31 May 2005, having played that role for 25 years from
1979 to 2004. In this position, Mr Wang was responsible for ensuring a high standard of
public health and a clean environment in Singapore. Mr Wang received the Public Service
Administration Medal (Gold) in 2002. He also received a Gold Medal in 1987 for his role in
cleaning up the Singapore River from the then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. Mr Wang graduated with honours in civil engineering from the University of Malaya in 1967 and obtained
a post-graduate degree (with distinction) in sanitary engineering from Delft Technological
University in the Netherlands in 1971. He attended the Advanced Management Program at
Harvard Business School in 1994. After his retirement from the civil service, Mr Wang joined
Prima Ltd (Singapore) as the company’s Group Adviser in 2005.

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