Environmental Governance in Singapore – Questioning the Narrative, Questioning the Future

Singapore

The evolution of environmental policy in Singapore is a topic that has intrigued me for a quite a while now. Growing up, the narrative since primary school had always been that the foresight of our pioneering post-Independence leaders paved the way for the rise of the Garden City1 – the clean and green Singapore, as it we know it today. The city that we hold ourselves responsible to keep litter-free, the city with streets lined with trees methodically planted to splash shades of green upon the mundane grey of our pavements and roads.

At the same time, we learnt that the removal of the negative externalities harboured by the Singapore of the past was necessary to improve our environment so as to render our nation attractive for foreign investors1. A clean nation was not good for public health and the well-being of our own people; it had broader economic consequences that would make Singapore stand out against the rest of the developing Southeast Asian nations of the time.

Today, Singapore’s economic success has been, in part, hailed as one that was borne out of foresight in environmental governance1. However, not all is well with the environment in Singapore. What was seen as necessary development yesterday is today perceived to be the destruction of relics of the past. The changing landscape of Singapore foreshadowed the trade-offs2 we had to make in losing our natural heritage, built heritage and even cultural heritage for the sake of economic development. This is a reality Singaporeans today are all too well aware of and perhaps too complacent about.

Of course, the current government does not deserve all the blame for this. Indeed, one of the most consequential alterations made to our environment was carried out by our former colonial masters. The extensive deforestation of natural vegetation in Singapore provides us with the historical context to explain the existence of merely 0.04% of our natural forest cover that remains today3. To be fair, the government has also done a fair bit to preserve what they felt they could. Our historic cultural districts have always been a feature of our built heritage. Today, iconic suburbs are conferred the title of ‘Identity Node’ to celebrate their unique place in modern Singaporean history4.

Nevertheless, we are faced by challenges today that will require us to rethink environmental governance in Singapore. Steps have been taken in this direction – sustainability perhaps means more today in the context of Singapore’s environmental governance than it had in the past1; climate change is also being looked at by the government2. But is this enough of a shift in our approach or in our assessment of our desired ends? There are pertinent questions to be answered within the next 50 years. Are we ready for climate change? When will we pause for a second to realise there surely must be limits to the amount of land we can reclaim? Can we predict what our optimum population and the corresponding infrastructural requirements will ever be? Are we going to continue to trade our natural heritage for more development, more economic gains and more convenience?

There are questions to be answered. But first, enough of us need to ask them.

References:

[1] Tan, P.Y., Wang, J. & Sia, A. (2013). Perspectives on five decades of the urban greening of Singapore. Cities, 32, 24-32.

[2] Tan, F., Lean, H.H. & Khan, H. (2014). Growth and environmental quality in Singapore: Is there any trade-off? Ecological Indicators, 47, 149-155.

[3] Castelletta, M., Thiollay, J.M. & Sodhi, N.S. (2005). The effects of extreme forest fragmentation on the bird community of Singapore Island. Biological Conservation, 121, 135-155.

[4] Yuen, B. (2005). Searching for place identity in Singapore. Habitat International, 29, 197-214.

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One thought on “Environmental Governance in Singapore – Questioning the Narrative, Questioning the Future

  1. Interesting read! Maintaining a clean image is important for Singapore for both social and economic well-being. However, I feel that this is largely attributed to the high employment of cleaners in the city, more so than due to the mindset of our people.

    In view of recent events like Amos Yee’s case and the Sim Lim tourist scam, we could observe a greater voice of Singaporeans, more than ever before. Singaporeans certainly do speak up for what they believe is right, and as BES students, this is something we can leverage on to spread a greener mindset to our fellow Singaporeans and promote greater environmental awareness.

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