Sustainable Development: Challenges and Opportunities

Singapore should continue to invest in sustainable development to ensure dynamic growth and a liveable environment for the future, argues the Permanent Secretary for the Environment and Water Resources.

Date Posted

1 Jan 2010


Issue 7, 14 Jan 2010

Given our inherent land and resource constraints, few might have expected Singapore to successfully support the population and economy we have today, much less sustain a city that is modern in infrastructure and function, yet clean and green in character. That we have been able to do so is the outcome of deliberate and forward-looking policies and the adoption of sustainable development principles from the very start of our development.


Although economic development was a key national priority during Singapore's early post-independence years, it was never a case of pursuing growth at all costs and cleaning up afterwards. We realised at the same time that development should not come at the expense of the environment, which is also integral to our quality of life. Despite competing demands for funding, Singapore made early investments in environmental infrastructure—even borrowing US$25 million from the World Bank to build its first incineration plant in 1973. We adopted a long-term horizon for planning and integrated environmental considerations upfront into our development and building control processes.

The debate between economic development and environment protection is outdated: cities need to pursue both.

Singapore has also been prepared to make hard policy decisions to uphold environmental standards, sometimes even risking foreign direct investment. When the former Head of the Civil Service, Mr Lee Ek Tieng, was head of the Anti-Pollution Unit (APU), there was a case where a large multinational corporation (MNC) wanted to build a petrochemical facility in Singapore, but was not prepared to pay for a ground furnace to reduce pollution. The MNC appealed to the Economic Development Board against APU's policy, but the Prime Minister concurred with APU that preventive measures were better than cleaning up retroactively. The appeal was rejected and the company had to install the ground furnace.

Singapore's environmental achievements would also not have been possible without a search for innovative solutions to stay ahead of fresh challenges. Our first water reclamation pilot plant, built in 1974, established that high-quality drinking water could be produced from treating used water. As membrane technologies were in the early stages of development, the pilot plant was subsequently decommissioned. Nevertheless, the Environment Ministry and the Public Utilities Board continued to keep tabs on the technology, and this paved the way for the launch of the successful NEWater demonstration plant in 2000.

Our commitment to environmental protection extends to the shared global environment. Since 1989, Singapore has been a party to the 1987 Montreal Protocol, which aims to protect the ozone layer by eliminating the production and use of ozone-depleting substances (ODS). We acceded to the Protocol despite significant trade implications on our economy (which was dependent on chemical industries—relatively large users of ODS), even though our geographical location meant we would not have been directly impacted by the ozone problem.2

Reaping the Benefits

We have reaped the benefits of our early actions and consistent efforts. Today, Singapore is ranked Asia's most competitive economy3 and the most liveable city in Asia,4 an example of a city that is both economically vibrant and environmentally liveable. We continue to harvest more gains from foresighted long-term environmental investments in the past. Singapore's S$300 million, 10-year programme in 1977 to clean up the polluted Singapore River has led to a vibrant, revitalised waterfront, which laid the foundations for the development of the Marina Barrage and an urban reservoir.

As the world turns towards a low-carbon growth path, new business opportunities, jobs and technology spin-offs will open up.

We have also been able to share our environmental expertise with others. For instance, China is now collaborating with Singapore to build an Eco-city in Tianjin, China, which aims to be a model of sustainable development for other cities in China. The goal is to transform an otherwise sterile site into a thriving and vibrant city, where ecological rehabilitation is sensitively balanced with urban development. Singapore's proven successes in water management and recycling will allow us to contribute to devising water solutions for the Eco-city.5


Singapore has been practising sustainable development before the Brundtland Commission6 coined the now oft-quoted phrase. Since the release of the Brundtland Report in 1987, however, sustainable development has become a central issue in global discourse, due to several emerging challenges.

First, the world's population is growing rapidly and most of this growth will take place in cities.7 Cities are particularly vulnerable to environmental challenges due to their high population density. Singapore's own population also grew from 4 to 4.84 million in less than a decade, and is set to grow further in the future. Such growth will place heavier demands on limited resources, and increase the potential for pollution if development is not managed well.

Second, increased demand and competition for scarce resources such as energy, water and food will put upward pressure on resource prices. Singapore is highly dependent on imported resources and has to be able to do more with less if we want to continue to grow in the future.

Third, climate change and its potential impact8 is a phenomenon that Singapore cannot afford to take lightly, since it will not be spared from its direct or indirect effects. As a responsible member of the international community, Singapore must contribute to collective efforts to fight climate change.

While these present significant challenges to sustainable development in Singapore and around the world, there are also opportunities. As the world turns towards a low-carbon growth path, new business opportunities, jobs and technology spin-offs will open up. HSBC estimates that low-carbon products and services9 already generated more revenue than the global aerospace and defence sectors in 2008, and that revenue from the low-carbon sector could exceed US$2 trillion by 2020. A 2009 report by the PEW Charitable Trusts indicated that the growth of green jobs outstripped overall jobs by over 5% in the US.10 The Harvard Business Review's September 2009 issue11 also makes the case for businesses to focus on sustainability, noting that by treating sustainability as a driver of innovation, companies can reap both bottom- and top-line returns.


How can countries and cities address the challenges to sustainable development while making the most of its opportunities? One key strategy is to conserve resources and use them efficiently, since resources will get scarcer and more expensive. Resource efficiency also boosts economic competitiveness since it reduces costs for businesses in the long run. Singapore has had to become a pioneer in making the most of limited resources, because of our physical constraints. In many ways, we are ahead of the learning curve.


Today, one out of six people—more than a billion—do not have adequate access to safe water. The UN projects that, by 2050, as many as three out of four people around the globe could be affected by water scarcity. Water security has always been a key concern for Singapore. While we receive 2,400 mm of rainfall a year, our small land area limits the amount of rainwater we can collect and store. As such, Singapore is classified as waterscarce by the UN.

This disadvantage has compelled us to maximise the sustainability of our limited water resources. Today, we have an adequate and diversified supply to meet the long-term needs of Singapore through our four National Taps—water from local catchments, imported water, NEWater and desalinated water—and we are continually seeking out ways to augment our water resources. For example, the Marina Barrage creates a reservoir with a catchment of one-sixth the total land area of Singapore. We are also damming up two other rivers in the north-eastern part of Singapore and two-thirds of Singapore's land area will be water catchment by 2011. NEWater closes the water loop and "multiplies" our water supply by producing clean water from treated used water that would otherwise have been discharged into the sea.

NEWater is an example of how leveraging technology has helped Singapore to overcome our resource bottleneck. Our investments in water R&D and technology over the years have nurtured a vibrant water sector in Singapore. We have identified the clean water sector as a growth area and have committed S$330 million to build further capabilities in this sector. This is expected to create S$1.7 billion of value-add and to support 11,000 jobs by 2015. Through our investments, we also hope to catalyse new solutions to address new challenges. For instance, we are seeking to reduce the energy consumption of desalination to support both water sustainability and energy efficiency efforts.


Looking ahead, Singapore needs to manage energy with the same attention we have paid to water. Global concern over climate change will increasingly see the emergence of a carbon-constrained world. The exploitation of traditional energy sources such as oil and gas could be curtailed by various geo-political and economic considerations. Many countries are today exploring the development of alternative energy sources such as hydro, geothermal, wind and solar. Although Singapore is also exploring clean or renewable energy, we face many constraints in exploiting alternative energy sources. Most forms of alternative energy are generated in situ. Unfortunately, Singapore's wind speed is too low for viability, and we lack access to either hydro or geothermal sources.

Singapore needs to manage energy with the same attention we have paid to water.

Solar energy is the most promising renewable resource for Singapore. However, the cost of solar-generated electricity is still about twice that of grid electricity generated from fossil fuels. Our approach is therefore to invest in solar research and test-bedding, to prepare for wider deployment when the cost of solar electricity falls. For example, the Housing and Development Board is embarking on a S$30 million project to test solar technology on the roofs of our public housing developments island-wide. The National Research Foundation has also allocated S$170 million to build up R&D and manpower capabilities in clean energy. In addition to providing solutions for Singapore's energy needs, the clean energy sector is projected to add S$1.7 billion to GDP and create 7,000 jobs by 2015.

Deploying renewable energy resources is not the only tool to mitigate energy constraints. For an alternative energy disadvantaged country like Singapore, using energy more efficiently is as, if not more, important. By optimising energy use and conserving energy where we can, we reduce costs and increase overall competitiveness. Energy efficiency is also a key means to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. An International Energy Agency study showed that 11 member countries, which engaged in energy efficiency initiatives, achieved US$1.1 trillion (based on 2006 prices) of energy cost savings in 2006 alone.12

Cities that are good homes for their residents are also attractive to mobile global talent and investments.

Singapore has ramped up efforts to improve national energy efficiency. Our target is to improve our energy intensity by 35% from 2005 levels, by 2030. As energy use is pervasive, we have adopted a holistic approach to improve energy efficiency across all key sectors of energy use—buildings, households, transport, industry and power generation. Thus far, we have focused on raising awareness of the benefits of energy efficiency, incentivising the adoption of energy efficient practices and building expertise in energy management. Going forward, we will need to do more by setting higher standards and leveraging fiscal tools to encourage energy conservation. For instance, the experiences of countries like Japan and Denmark are instructive: they attained high levels of energy efficiency and conservation through a holistic suite of policies including legislation, which sets minimum standards and requires the monitoring and reporting of energy data, energy taxes and the provision of incentives to kick-start industry development and R&&D.


Singapore's broad strategies to ensure sustainable development for future decades have been set out in the Sustainable Singapore Blueprint,13 which was released in April 2009. To continue to sustain both a dynamic economy and a liveable environment, improving resource efficiency and building capability are key. In addition, we must continue to invest in enhancing our environment and build an environmentally responsible community.

Cities that are good homes for their residents are also attractive to mobile global talent and investments. International quality of life and employment conditions surveys highlight that environmental factors such as air quality and water potability are key considerations for talent. As such, the debate between economic development and environment protection is outdated: cities need to pursue both. Recognising this, leading cities around the world, such as New York and London, have embarked on plans to improve their environment and develop more sustainably.

Singapore must likewise continue to improve our environment, by investing in improvements in our air and water quality, as well as cleanliness and hygiene standards—the fundamental building blocks of a good quality of life— especially as our population and economy continue to grow. While emissions standards must be set, taking into consideration the availability and cost of measures to reduce pollution, the shortterm cost of abatement measures must be compared to the long-term repercussions of environmental degradation and our economic competitiveness.

The Blueprint sets the roadmap for our sustainability efforts ahead and is a work-in-progress. It represents the government's efforts to catalyse change in the public, private and people sectors. We are currently studying enhanced measures to reach our targets more quickly and, if possible, to do more. However, investing in hardware, such as technology and infrastructure, and putting in place supporting policies can only carry us to a certain point.

Achieving our sustainable development goals requires adjustments in lifestyles and industry practices: individuals must embrace more environmentally responsible habits as a way of life, while businesses must improve resource efficiency by adopting new systems and processes, which reduce the environmental impact of their operations where possible. The public sector also has a role to play in setting the pace and demonstrating the benefits of environmental sustainability.

As a land- and water-scarce city-state, Singapore has had to overcome many constraints to enjoy the clean environment and quality of life we have today. With the continued growth of the global economy and population, and our own domestic growth, ever-increasing resource pressures necessitate a renewed emphasis on sustainable development. We do not have all the answers; there will be trade-offs to be made and dilemmas to be faced. These will require more creative management of resources and the development of more innovative solutions. While there may be some cost to conserving and improving the environment, there is a greater cost to inaction. Our collective efforts towards a more sustainable Singapore are crucial to fuel new areas of economic growth and secure a better home for future generations.


Tan Yong Soon is the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources, Singapore. He has served as Principal Private Secretary to the Prime Minister, Deputy Secretary in the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Finance, and CEO of the Urban Redevelopment Authority. Mr Tan holds a BA (Hons) and an MA in engineering from Cambridge University, an MBA from the National University of Singapore and an MPA from Harvard University.

The author would like to thank his Ministry colleagues Karen Tan and Diana Ng for their assistance in the preparation and research for the article.


  1. This section draws from the book: Tan, Y. S., Lee, T. J. and Tan, K. Clean, Green and Blue: Singapore's Journey Towards Environmental and Water Sustainability (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2008).
  2. Singapore managed to phase out the use of ODS by 1996, ahead of the schedule prescribed by the Montreal Protocol, and was presented the Outstanding National Ozone Unit Award by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in 1997.
  3. World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Report 2009.
  4. Mercer Quality of Living Survey 2009.
  5. The site chosen for the Eco-city is in an area consisting largely non-arable land, including salt farms and vacant land, and experiencing water shortages and low rainfall. To overcome these constraints, the Eco-city will have to draw a significant part of its water supply (the target is at least 50%) from non-traditional sources such as recycled water and desalination.
  6. The Brundtland Commission (or the World Commission on Environment and Development) was convened by the United Nations in 1983 amidst growing concerns about environmental deterioration and the impact of this on economic and social development. It defined the term "sustainable development" as that which "meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs" in their 1987 Report.
  7. More than half the world's population already lives in cities and the United Nations (UN) estimates that between 2007 and 2050, our population will increase by 2.5 billion to reach 9.2 billion, with almost all the growth accounted for by urban areas (World Urbanisation Prospects, 2007 Revision, UN.)
  8. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)'s 4th Assessment Report projects that global temperature could increase by up to 6.4°C, and global mean sea level could rise by up to 59 cm by 2100 (from globally averaged levels between 1980 and 1999). Some experts suggest that these scenarios understate the worstcase possibilities since the Report excludes the impact of melting ice sheets.
  9. HSBC includes renewable energy, nuclear energy, energy management, waste and water companies in the sector. See "Low-carbon industries come of age", Financial Times, 17 Sept 2009,
  10. Clean energy economy jobs in the US grew by 9.1% between 1998 and 2007, compared to total job growth of 3.7% in the same period. The clean energy economy is defined by the PEW report to include clean energy, energy efficiency, environmentally friendly production, conservation and pollution mitigation as well as training and support. See "The Clean Energy Economy—Repowering Jobs, Businesses and Investments Across America," PEW Charitable Trusts, 2009.
  11. Nidumolu, R., Prahalad, C. K. and Rangaswami, M. R. "Why Sustainability Is Now the Key Driver of Innovation", Harvard Business Review, September 2009.
  12. These countries also avoided about 5 Gt of CO2 emissions in 2006, equivalent to global emissions from the industrial sector (not including the energy supply sector) in that year. See "Towards A More Energy Efficient Future— Applying indicators to enhance energy policy," International Energy Agency, 2009.
  13. The Blueprint was issued by the Inter-Ministerial Committee on Sustainable Development, which comprises Ministers from the Ministries of National Development, Environment and Water Resources, Finance, Transport and Trade & Industry. The Blueprint can be downloaded at

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