Crossed With The Cross Island Line – Where We Draw The Line

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The debate on the Cross Island Line has been progressing steadily since the release of the first phase of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). On the one hand, we have witnessed how proponents of the Cross Island Line’s currently planned route have continually supported the Land Transport Authority’s plan to encroach into the Central Catchment Nature Reserve to construct a new MRT line. This is in spite of the environmental consequences that have been spelt out by the EIA. It has been found that these consequences cannot be mitigated in their entirety or even with a level of confidence high enough to guarantee minimal impact on our local biodiversity. On the other hand, we see a group of concerned Singaporeans, from geographers and scientists to environmentalists and ordinary citizens advocating for the proposed alternative route along Lornie Road. Even NParks’ former conservation manager of Bukit Timah Nature Reserve has joined the chorus of voices against the current route. Much has been fairly said about the specific localised and generalised merits and drawbacks of each route.

 

Contrary to what some might assume, however, this debate is not just about pragmatism versus principle. It is not the usual kind of trade-off we have witnessed in the course of our nation’s development. This debate is one that will help shape environmental governance, land use planning and our notions of sustainable development as our nation matures.

 

Central to the arguments over the Cross Island Line is the type of sustainable development Singapore will show it is committed to, through its decision. What environmental groups like the Nature Society are arguing for, whilst focusing on the intrinsic value of biodiversity, stops short of deep green philosophy. By accepting the real need for better transport infrastructure, capacity and efficiency to support a growing population, these arguments are more in line with the kind of sustainable development that Singapore has been accustomed to than with what the typical pragmatic Singaporean may think of as mere idealistic drivel or bluster. The alternative route, while costlier, will prevent encroachment into the most pristine of our nature reserves while meeting the demands of a 6.9 million-strong population. Simply put, the economic loss brought about by building the alternative route today will be worth what we stand to gain from this decision in the future. It is crucial to note that not only do we stand to conserve our local biodiversity for future generations to learn about, our public transport operators will also benefit economically from having the chance to build one more station along the alternative route. Indeed, residents in Central Singapore will get to partake in the joy of being better connected to both Jurong and Changi like never before. We will all stand to gain from the alternative route of the Cross Island Line which is a project that boasts clear benefits for most of the suburbs that it will ply.

 

Too often, however, the end game of sustainable development in Singapore has involved environmental losses, in the pursuit of economic or social gain. We live in a country where greenery, no matter how man-made or manufactured, is viewed no differently from that which is natural. We relish in the number of neighbourhood parks we have access to, and in the image of the Garden City, nay – a City in a Garden. But we forget that even a garden no matter how well-manicured or maintained cannot truly conserve the biodiversity that is unique to our Central Catchment Nature Reserve. When we build an expressway through the rainforest, we build a bridge for animals to cross the gap and hail it as a unique solution to a necessary problem. Today, we are committed as a nation to even more land reclamation, drawn out in the 2030 Land Use Plan that will harm more coastal ecosystems in the name of development. Against the backdrop that this mentality provides, for all the merit our nature reserves hold, they are not valued as much as environmental resources upon which we depend more directly are. Interestingly, the water in MacRitchie Reservoir is valued more highly than the trees that surround it, than the soil through which it infiltrates, than the flora and fauna that depend on it as much as we do.

 

Granted, in the past, development necessitated many trade-offs. Even today, such trade-offs may very well be necessary. However, given not only our current level of development but also the need for us to become smarter and more innovative in addressing land use planning challenges that will only provide more strain with a rising population in the future, the current Singaporean style of sustainable development needs to be rethought.

 

Otherwise, it is worth questioning if the story of the Cross Island Line presents the new normal of environmental governance in Singapore. Where one government department develops a national biodiversity strategy and another ignores it? Where we change our tune on the environment depending on whom we are talking to? – It is interesting that on the one hand, we tell the world that we are committed to a new global environmental pact founded upon the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities insofar as climate change is concerned. But, on the other hand, we cannot even be committed to safeguarding the green lungs of our own backyard even though we can financially afford to via a potentially viable alternative? The issues of climate change and encroachment into our nature reserves may not be directly linked. But, the clearer picture that the Cross Island Line debate paints of our attitude about the environment suggests that we may not yet be as committed to a new Earth systems-based model of sustainable development as our well-executed dealings in COP 21 may have had begun to suggest.

 

What we stand to lose from the construction of the Cross Island Line’s current route, however, is much greater than the lost opportunity of increased transport efficiency and capacity. Our commitment to sustainable development is on the line. Today, it might be the Cross Island Line. In a few decades’ time, it might be a residential or industrial development. As most people would surely hope for, Singapore will be around for a long time. Shying away from making smarter decisions about land use planning today will only exacerbate our urban problems in the future in what shall certainly be a more complicated landscape.

 

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Why We Shouldn’t Have 2 Houses of Parliament

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1 Parliament with 2 Houses, or bicameralism, is an idea that is most intriguing. The Mother of Parliaments has the House of Commons and the House of Lords. The world’s oldest democracy has the House of Representatives and the Senate. The world’s largest democracy has the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha. Even our neighbours across the causeway have the Dewan Rakyat and the Dewan Negara. While bicameralism may be a feature of the most well-known parliamentary systems in the world today, it would do little to further democracy and strengthen our existing institutions in Singapore.

 

The potential creation of an upper chamber was viewed by the Rendel Commission in the mid-1950s as the unnecessary stratification of Singapore’s political society – an upper class of the political elite in contrast to a lower class of elected representatives. An unelected upper chamber would be symbolic of a parliamentary feature that even our former colonial masters are trying to do away with today in their own country. Reform of the unelected House of Lords in the UK has been rendered as a common-sense cause tainted with political inertia to do anything about it. As recently as 1999, the UK moved to severely limit the hereditary peerage system, where the son of a Baron or Earl could inherit not only his father’s title but also his seat in the House of Lords by right of birth. Today, hereditary peers remain a vestigial component of the House of Lords. Nonetheless, the unelected Life Peers who replaced most of the hereditary ones may be of questionable quality themselves, in terms of what they have to offer. Why should we should have a wholly or partially unelected upper chamber of people deemed to be experts on policy or some other area of public interest appointed by a committee of other politicians (or worse, bureaucrats) rather than elected by the people themselves? What often happens is people who might ordinarily be unelectable because of other attributes get a free ticket into Parliament. For instance, renowned playwright Andrew Lloyd Webber who conceivably, being a celebrity, would not have had the interest or humility to put himself before the people in an election was given a peerage to sit as ‘the noble Lord Lloyd-Webber’ in the House of Lords and could then vote on a motion on government tax credit cuts for the poor when he had no professional expertise or experience, let alone the democratic mandate, to do so. Establishing an upper chamber with people similar to Justices of the Peace, Presidential Advisers, NMPs and other professionals would unnecessarily create an elite upper class who do not deserve to sit in Parliament without having to fight for their seats through a public debate of their values and policy platforms in what are known as general elections.

 

Proponents of an upper chamber also suggest that two chambers would be useful in allowing some parliamentarians to focus on grassroots work while others can be left to focus on political advocacy. The more pertinent issue therein is whether the vote means so little in Singapore as to suggest that its usefulness in electing policy makers pales in comparison to its importance in electing constituency managers or vice versa. MPs have always had to be competent in both policy making and the running of their town councils. In the same vein, ministers should also be experts in their own field whilst being expected to manage a constituency for they must be directly accountable to the people just as any other MP is, or arguably even more so as they are entrusted with greater responsibility than the ordinary backbencher MP. Indeed, ministers would be better off having first-hand knowledge of the experiences and grievances of their constituents.

 

We should also not underestimate the usefulness of the vote’s ability to lawfully depose ministers who lack the confidence of even their constituents let alone the nation. Suppose for a second that Dr. Manmohan Singh was truly unworthy of being the Prime Minister of India such that the people of the state of Assam would never have elected him to be their representative in a hypothetically elected Rajya Sabha – the Congress Party’s senior leadership would still have been able to keep him and other ministers with seats in the unelected Rajya Sabha in power for personal reasons rather than because these ministers had won the right to govern on their own merit through securing the confidence of the people via an election. In other words, elections have real value in establishing the merit of a politician by means of a popular vote; the will of the people should never be underestimated in a democracy to the extent that we begin to assume that technocrats must surely know best. Hence, an upper chamber might pose unseen threats to our democracy borne out of the whims of technocrats who cannot in any way be lawfully kicked out of power by the people for doing a bad job. This goes against the grain of the meritocratic pedestal that Singapore has been built on.

 

Moreover, in view of the reality that exists in the Parliament of Singapore today, an upper chamber would be practically unnecessary. One of the argued merits of an upper chamber is that its members would be able to scrutinise bills more thoroughly. To this end, upper chambers like the US Senate and the House of Lords, whether elected or not, do provide a greater scope and more time for debate on each bill that passes through these chambers. However, is there a need for this additional avenue of legislative scrutiny in Singapore when our Parliament already does so little to scrutinise bills? The Parliament of Singapore has certainly not exhausted its own means of scrutiny as far as bills are concerned and has a long way to go in improving its procedures to do so. It is extremely rare for a bill to be committed to an ad-hoc Select Committee of MPs for further deliberation, even though such calls for this to happen have been made before. Amendment motions on bills are unheard of. We have come to point where Parliament does not even need to sit as often as the UK’s House of Commons upon which it was based because bills in Singapore are rushed through the House. This is partially due to nature of the PAP supermajority as there is little political impetus for PAP MPs to publicly scrutinise Government bills in Select Committees or to seek to amend these bills even if they feel they cannot completely agree with pieces of legislation introduced by ministers while the few Opposition MPs lack the power or resources to do so. Hence, so long as the current Parliament of Singapore does not do all that it technically can to improve scrutiny, extend debates and raise more issues in the House, an upper chamber would be unneeded and would instead add nothing more than financial burden on the public purse with respect to its hypothetical members’ remuneration.

 

I recall a random afternoon in my secondary school library when I chanced upon a book on the 1953 Rendel Commission and its report which paved the way for the establishment of the Legislative Assembly of Singapore. (The Assembly would later be reconstituted to Parliament after Independence in 1965.) The book outlined the Commission’s reasons for recommending a single chamber in a unicameral system rather than two chambers in a bicameral system which included the fear of political class stratification and the overall lack of any practical need for two chambers. The truth that Singapore’s politics lacks the space for an upper chamber remains as evident today as it was back then, during the time our forefathers were on the brink of self-government.

Is Aviation In Singapore Flying In The Right Direction?

Aviation F16s

Serving in the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) as a Flight Line Crew (FLC) and Dedicated Crew Chief (DCC), I have developed a fascination for aviation and in particular, military aviation. I had the opportunity to work on the Lockheed Martin-manufactured F-16 Fighting Falcon Block 52 D+ fighter jet. Apart from getting myself acquainted with the ins and outs of the jet, refueling the jet encompassed a small albeit important part of my duties. Aviation is certainly an energy-intensive industry.

The sheer force with which an engine afterburner can provide sufficient thrust for flight coupled with the fact that the F16 travels at supersonic speeds to allow pilots to withstand forces as great as 9Gs, are a testament to the forces the F16 can both exert and withstand.

I started to wonder, however, just how energy-intensive is the aviation industry in general? Are there regulations in place to ensure energy efficiency in the industry? What progress has engineering made to allow the use of cleaner fuels by planes?

Singapore Airlines, our nation airline, has committed1 to undertaking energy-saving practices to “reduce fuel consumption and emissions include various initiatives such as flight operations enhancements, engineering performance and maintenance improvements, and weight saving measures.”

Legislation can also be enacted to ensure compliance on the part of transport operators. Airport service operators can be required to meet different minimum energy efficiency standards before being qualified as transport facility operators, for instance. In Singapore, the Energy Conservation (Transport Facility Operators) Order 20132 puts this to effect.

In 2006, the Ministry of Trade and Industry reported3 that Singapore, in spite of being an aviation hub, has “energy intensity is roughly on par for an economy of its level of development.”

Questions remain. I look forward to seeking these answers in the near future.

References:

[1] Singapore Airlines. (2012). Environmental Report 2011/2012. Singapore: Singapore Airlines. Retrieved from http://www.singaporeair.com/pdf/media-centre/report2012.pdf.

[2] Energy Conservation (Transport Facility Operators) Order 2013.

[3] Ministry of Trade and Industry. (2006). Economic Survey of Singapore 3rd Quarter 2006. Singapore: Government of Singapore. Retrieved from http://www.mti.gov.sg/ResearchRoom/Documents/app.mti.gov.sg/data/article/5901/doc/ESS_2006Q3_EnergyIntensity.pdf.

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

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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.

Quantifying Air Quality – The Pollutant Standards Index (PSI)

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Most Developed Countries (DCs) regulate environmental standards by putting caps on the emissions of criteria pollutants that empirical evidence has shown to be harmful to human health1. The PSI is one way to quantify air quality and has been adopted by Singapore to be the authoritative indicator of air quality in the country. Once quantified, it also aids in informing the public about the risks posed by different levels of air quality by affixing health advisories to each level.

Since 2013, every incident of transboundary haze brings with it a period during which the PSI becomes an oft-cited figure amongst ordinary Singaporeans in our daily lives. It seems as if when communicating about air quality with one another, merely saying that air quality is unfavourable would be unsatisfactory. A means by which we can put a number to air quality gives people a sense of scale as well as benchmarks for comparison as air quality usually varies as often as throughout the course of a day.

How is the PSI calculated?

The concentration of each criteria pollutant is compared to a standard index which is used to determine the sub-index assigned to the most recent recording of the concentration of the pollutant in question. The highest sub-index, whichever criteria pollutant that may represent, is taken as the PSI level2.

The PSI, as it was calculated before April 2014, took into account five criteria air pollutants. These were SO2, nitrous oxides, CO, PM10, and O3. The inclusion of PM2.5 occurred in 20142 when the National Environment Agency was of the opinion that a greater focus on PM2.5 was necessary to better reflect reality on the ground in the air as PM2.5 are finer particles that pose a higher threat to human respiratory health as compared to the more generalized pollutant known to us as PM10.

Was the inclusion of PM2.5 as a criteria pollutant in April 2014 necessary?

Velasco and Rastan (2015)3 of the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology and the National University of Singapore respectively, certainly seem to think so. A paper published by the pair in 2015 noted that “the real hourly pollution levels” during the haze incident that year had still been unrecorded. This was in no small part attributable to the fact that before 2014, the only indication of PM2.5 in the atmosphere was the PM10 reading. This was in spite of the fact that during the episode, it was shown that the reported PM10 levels had been an under-representation of the significantly poor quality of air that existed in reality at the time. The methodology undertaken by Velasco and Rastan was to use newly collected information on PM2.5 concentrations since April 2014 and derive statistical models by which they could predict with an insignificant degree of uncertainty the actual hourly PM2.5 during the episode in mid-2013. Their findings indicate that these values could very well have been “twice the maximum 24-hour moving average reported by the authorities.”3

The findings of Velasco and Rastan seem to provide credence to the notion that incorporating PM2.5 as a new criteria pollutant measured by the PSI was a good move on the part of the local authorities. While it seems intuitive that more needs to be done to overcome the problem of the lag time in the official PSI readings published by NEA, refining the methods of measurement of the PSI seems to be a step in the right direction.

References:

[1] Hamilton, S.F. & Requate, T. (2012). Emissions standards and ambient environmental quality standards with stochastic environmental services. Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, 64, 377-389. Retrieved from http://ac.els-cdn.com/S0095069612000538/1-s2.0-S0095069612000538-main.pdf?_tid=694d5626-7df9-11e5-ae0e-00000aacb35f&acdnat=1446094767_6ae8a0a14e35f289d579711c6397edb6.

[2] National Environment Agency. (2015). PSI. [Online]. Retrieved from http://www.nea.gov.sg/anti-pollution-radiation-protection/air-pollution-control/psi/psi.

[3] Velasco, E. & Rastan, S. (2015). Air quality in Singapore during the 2013 smoke-haze episode over the Strait of Malacca: Lessons learned. Sustainable Cities and Society, 17, 122-131. Retrieved from http://ac.els-cdn.com/S2210670715000463/1-s2.0-S2210670715000463-main.pdf?_tid=fd72d6f8-7dfb-11e5-b248-00000aab0f26&acdnat=1446095874_7c02d98301a4465fb7cb71472bc5fa0a.

Transboundary Haze – Care To Air Your Views?

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Dr Haridas
Ms Lee Li Lian
Beckham
Tirta

The haze affects different people in different ways. But there are things we can do to make life a bit better for those around us and ourselves as well.

My aunt, Dr Haridas, whilst keenly aware of the health hazards posed by the haze and that she has to look out for patients showing symptoms of haze-related health issues, also knows she has to exercise due diligence by not assuming that every patient who reports irritation to his or her eyes, for instance, is not suffering as such due to the haze alone.

Ms Lee Li Lian, using her voice and influence as my Member of Parliament, had tabled a Parliamentary Question in 2013 to ask the Minister for Health “(a) what effort has been made to make parents more aware of the advice that N95 masks are not designed for children; and (b) whether the Government intends to make available masks that are certified for children in public health emergencies.” 1Today, she continues her efforts to help the local community in various ways, having distributed masks to residents at a grassroots event recently.

My young friend and neighbour, Beckham plays his own part as well by reminding his secondary school friends on Facebook to wear masks when leaving the house.

And last but by no means least, my best friend Tirta whilst feeling sympathetic towards his fellow countrymen who have little choice but to bear the worst consequences of the haze, also recognises that this is a problem that not only doctors, politicians and those more vulnerable to the effects of the haze should be worried about – it is a problem that speaks to all of us, young or old, with urgency regardless of how seemingly helpless ordinary folk like us may perceive ourselves to be.

References:

[1] Parliament of Singapore. (2013). Safeguarding Singaporeans’ Health During Occurrence of Haze. Official Reports -Parliamentary Debates (Hansard), 90, Sitting 19. Retrieved from http://sprs.parl.gov.sg/search/topic.jsp?currentTopicID=00000151-WA&currentPubID=00000140-WA&topicKey=00000140-WA.00000151-WA_2%2Bid-43fcd59a-3ee3-45fa-a762-817fde5e1d55%2B4.

Photo Credits:

IMG: Ms Lee Li Lian – Punggol East Constituency Committee

IMG: Beckham – Beckham Song Ying

Clearing the Air on the Haze – A Hazy New Year?

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“As any geographer would attest to, the haze itself might be dull in sight, but insight into the haze is surely never boring.”

The Straits Times reported on October 19th 2015 that the haze could persist until 20161. A researcher from the Centre for International Forestry Research was quoted as saying that it might very well last until the final month of 2015 or the first month of next year. Unsurprisingly, many Singaporeans might wonder why we are to bear the brunt of the haze for a longer period than our squeaky clean and ‘sterile’ respiratory airways are normally accustomed to. Amongst the reasons for the persistence of the haze are factors of a geographical nature.

The seasonal monsoons experienced in this part of the world that straddles the Equator are the main culprits. In June 2013, the worst haze in Singapore’s meteorological history was recorded. The southwest monsoon was the main cause of the haze as winds blowing from Sumatra to Singapore carried a comparatively higher concentration of particulate matter (PM) particles with them2. In March 2014, the haze was back again – but this time, the northeast monsoon was the primary cause of the public’s ire. Its northeasterly winds were retreating back northwards3, accompanying the gradually moving Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) with the approach of warmer temperatures in the northern hemisphere. Now, in October 2015, however, one would expect a taming of the haze as the northeast monsoon comes to our rescue – to rid us of the prevailing southwesterly winds that have been carrying too many PM particles4 with frequencies greater than comfort ordinarily affords. However, in any given locality, the replacement of the southwest monsoon by the northeast monsoon during the inter-monsoon period is a gradual process5 that requires patience on the part of the people who would be expected to relish in this seasonal change.

SST

Diagram 1: Sea Surface Temperature anomalies across the tropical Pacific (22nd October 2015) enable us to visualise the temperature disparities across the Pacific Ocean that drive the El Niño Southern Oscillation. Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), United States.


This time, however, hope for clearer skies might be further afield than initially expected due to the current cycle of the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) being experienced in our part of the world. The ENSO is brought about by cross-longitudinal changes in oceanic water circulation that results in a change in temperatures across oceans (Diagram 1). In the case of the eastern margins of the Pacific Ocean, warmer sea surface temperatures bring higher rainfall to South American countries such as Chile. The corollary to this is that Singapore and the rest of Southeast Asia that lie along the western margins of the Pacific Ocean experience drier conditions brought about by easterly winds rid of moisture6. The ENSO occurs every few years and lasts for variable periods of time7. Drier conditions that may exacerbate forest fires in Indonesia due to the persistence of the ENSO are the reason cited by geographers and meteorologists as to why the haze might continue up until January 2016. It is worth noting that this is certainly not the first time the ENSO and Indonesian forest fires made for a fearsome combination. In 1997, the ENSO brought about forest fires in Kalimantan, Indonesia that emitted a thick aerosol plume, forcing the shutting down of airports in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.

There might exist a commonly held misconception in the Singaporean psyche – that our country does not experience seasonal changes in weather patterns. We do. There is also perhaps a feeling amongst those who are uninitiated with the geography of weather and climate that compared to life in temperate countries, living in Singapore makes for a boring existence due to the high year-round temperatures and rainfall experienced here where snow can only be artificially manufactured in air-conditioned enclosures and where tomorrow’s weather must surely be as mundane as that of any other day in the year. On the contrary, our susceptibility to seasonal weather patterns has impacts on our daily lives that are more real than one might imagine, given the right conditions (in this case, an anthropogenic condition imposed upon us by our neighbours which is being heightened in its effect by physical conditions). As any geographer would attest to, the haze itself might be dull in sight, but insight into the haze is surely never boring.


References:

[1] The Straits Times. (2015). Hazy new year: South-east Asia set to suffer for months as Indonesia fails to douse fires. (2015, October 19). Retrieved from http://www.straitstimes.com/asia/se-asia/hazy-new-year-south-east-asia-set-to-suffer-for-months-as-indonesia-fails-to-douse.

[2] Velasco, E. & Rastan, S. (2015). Air quality in Singapore during the 2013 smoke-haze episode over the Strait of Malacca: Lessons learned. Sustainable Cities and Society, 17, 122-131.

[3] Meteorological Service Singapore. (2014). Update of Regional Weather and Smoke Haze for April 2014. Singapore: Government of Singapore. Retrieved from http://wip.weather.gov.sg/wip/pp/ssops/reparch/apr14.pdf.

[4] Ministry of Foreign Affairs. (2015). Press Statement: Singapore Registers Haze Concerns with Indonesia. (2015, September 10). Retrieved from http://www.mfa.gov.sg/content/mfa/overseasmission/jakarta/press_statements_speeches/2015/201509/Singapore_Registers_Haze_Concerns_With_Indonesia.html.

[5] ASEAN Specialised Meteorological Centre. (2015). Update of Regional Weather and Smoke Haze for September 2015. Singapore: Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Retrieved from http://asmc.asean.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Sep15.pdf.

[6] Cane, M. (2005). The evolution of El Niño, past and future. Earth and Planetary Science Letters, 230, 227-240.

[7] Chen, D. & Cane, M.A. (2008). El Niño prediction and predictability. Journal of Computation Physics, 227, 3625-3640.

What Would Goh Keng Swee Do? – The Challenges of Education Reform

The intrinsic value of education renders reform of the system serious business.

Education reform will, by no means, be easy to devise, let alone successfully implement. Any person with the onerous duty of effecting such change would, for the most part, not be in an enviable position in Cabinet. In attempting to envision a new consensus for public institutions and systems post-General Elections 2011, much has been said lately about the need to rethink our current pursuit of meritocratic ideals in Singapore. The desire for reform of the public education system in Singapore is a natural progression from such calls, for meritocracy has been the cornerstone of our education policy for decades. Before anyone should wish to delve into the intricacies of policy, however, we need to take several steps backwards, to come to a common agreement on the desired outcomes of education. What, then, are the purposes of education? Have they changed since then Minister for Education, Dr Goh Keng Swee, published his influential Goh Report in 1979 that helped to cement the framework of our public education system?

 

Surely, a primary objective of the education system is to confer upon young Singaporeans the knowledge, skill sets, experiences and, increasingly, metacognition to equip them with not only satisfaction in studying areas of general and personal interests but also, the distinction of employability ideally in a field of personal interest. Whilst the Government has made efforts over the years in opening up alternative pathways of education to foster holistic education and to bolster the academic competency of one pursuing a route other than the traditional ‘Secondary School (Express Stream)-Junior College-University’ pathway, the persistent pragmatists who are People’s Action Party policymakers will be amongst the first to forewarn that the education system must be able to not merely equip students for jobs in the wider economy but, indeed, to also equip the economy with sufficient manpower for its industries and sectors. This is not without reason. From any government’s perspective, a situation where a few industries host a great deal of competition for jobs amongst young Singaporeans simultaneously exists with one where other industries are undervalued and suffer a shortage of manpower would only exacerbate the manpower problems of the day whilst providing fodder for the argument that more foreign workers will have to be brought in to make up for the shortfall in labour. Hence, an unavoidable point of contention for the Ministry of Education is to decide how they can go about encouraging students to pursue their interests whilst deliberating where to draw the line on related issues such as limiting the number of university vacancies for certain courses, bringing in new degree programmes to cater to the needs of an ageing population and even setting unspoken and unpublished limits on the proportion of degree-holders in the workforce to comfortably support the existing or targeted national employment structure. Perhaps the most pertinent question is if the trade-off between encouraging students to pursue individual interests and meeting economic targets has to matter, let alone exist, in the first place.

 

Another main objective of a good education system is to empower students from across the socio-economic spectrum and our multi-racial society with the promise of the ideal that hard work will always be fairly and fittingly rewarded both during and after their schooling years. Such an ideal is one that is hard to find fault with. Meritocracy and fairness go hand-in-hand and are meant to offer social mobility rather than to intentionally contribute to a widening income gap. In fact, some might go so far as to postulate that meritocracy, first in schools and subsequently in the workplace, is complementary to incorruptibility which Singapore often prides herself on upholding. The idealistic vision of meritocracy is also a central tenet to the democratic socialist philosophy that parties such as the People’s Action Party and the Workers’ Party would ideologically attest to. Meritocracy, in and by itself, is not the problem our education system faces today. On the contrary, the relentless and mismanaged application of meritocracy is to be blamed for producing an education system too often labelled as unforgiving, stress-inducing and even unhealthy to the common psyche of young Singaporeans. Quite ironically, this has done nothing to close up the divide which exists between those who are academically successful and more likely to enjoy a stable career that affords better remuneration in the future and those who are at risk of falling into the gaping holes between the rungs of the steep academic ladder, left behind to either bloom later or perhaps not at all. Clearly, the apparent pitfalls of meritocracy demand reform of the education system. However, the appropriate answer is nothing short of challenging. How do we make the education system less stressful but more equitable whilst continuing to improve academic standards across the board?  Do we, on the one hand, seek to reduce stratification and create a level playing field through making examinations and streaming easier or even doing away with them entirely at earlier stages of education? Or, should we, on the other hand, introduce a great deal of flexibility to the criteria for admission to secondary schools and post-secondary academic institutions (Junior Colleges, Millennia Institute and the Polytechnics) through an extension of schemes such as Direct School Admission (DSA)? Unfortunately, solely pursued together, both of these policy shifts alone will result in arrangements that are antagonistic to meritocracy. What, then, of the kind of academic excellence one can find in Raffles, Hwa Chong and other top Junior Colleges? What of the progress we have made in ensuring that our syllabi prepare our pre-University students with the best exposure the GCE ‘A’ Levels can offer, the world over? What of the great leaps and bounds made by Polytechnics and the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) over the decades that have made them, in their own right, respectable academic institutions with quality programmes that add diversity to the range of pathways available to students? The idea that a relaxation of examination procedures and admission criteria across the board will lead to a deterioration of academic standards in our best institutions amongst the JCs, Polytechnics and ITE courses is not entirely inconceivable and unwarranted especially with problems such as grade inflation prevalent in countries like the United Kingdom and across the Causeway. Equally, it must be seriously questioned if those who have proven themselves to be academically stronger at a younger age should be the only students deemed fit to enjoy the benefits of alternative methods of instruction and teaching strategies through elite programmes such as the Gifted Education Programme (GEP) and the Integrated Programme (IP). Another point worth recognising is that changing the way students are taught without also significantly changing the way they are examined or if they are examined at all in earlier stages of education, will not result in a reduction in the degree of stress our students are subjected to as the race for grades will continue as before, in the classroom and, more worryingly, in the hundreds of tuition centres across the island. Will such approaches truly prevent the academically disadvantaged from falling through the gaps? Certainly not. Moreover, any individual of an honest and sound mind would not be able to concur that ‘Every School is a Good School.’ It cannot be convincingly denied that schools vary in the quality of their academic and non-academic programmes. The challenge of our meritocratic education system, therefore, is to ensure that every school strives to become a good school by delivering programmes that are executed well by teachers who are equally qualified and determined to help their students whilst actively seeking out and guiding those who lag behind. That will be the true test of whether we can make meritocracy with safety nets work.

 

I would venture to add yet another key aim of education that rather nicely sums up its purposes and is derived from its etymology. The term ‘education’ stems from Latin words such as ‘educere’ and ‘eductum,’ which, in turn, are derived from ‘educo’ which translates to mean ‘to lead and to raise.’ Therefore, on hindsight, an overarching objective of the education system is to grow leaders in a myriad of fields out of the permissibly unwitting children each and every one of us starts off as at Primary 1. Holistic education, as the Government is fully aware, is an invaluable instrument in ‘Moulding the Future of Our Nation’. Hence, there has to be a shift in the manner in which students are taught to lead. Providing inspiration and genuine social engagement to students are forms of teaching, just as forced Community Involvement Programmes (CIP) and Co-Curricular Activities (CCAs) governed by points-based systems are. However, policy planners need to realise which type of teaching will produce students who are more motivated to pursue non-academic interests they are passionate about. Education helps us to not merely comprehend the world for what it is but also serves to guide us in understanding the roles we can play in it. This intrinsic value of education renders reform of the system serious business.

 

The multi-faceted nature of the slate of problems presented by the prospect of education reforms will have to be solved in a plurality of areas and by a plurality of means. Firstly, through suitably tweaking testing and admissions. Secondly, through accordingly revamping teaching and learning pedagogies. Thirdly, though rather crucially, re-energising the Teaching Service by reducing bureaucracy without compromising the professionalism of the Service. Moreover, from a practical perspective, appropriate changes to the Ministry of Education’s internal administration and operations will also be required eventually, should reforms ever be carried out. Exactly how reforms in these four areas are to be achieved will be up to future policymakers to decide. MOE is to be congratulated and thanked on a number of counts for attempting to make our education system fairer in recent times. On a note of caution, however, failing to seriously question the very foundations of our education system during the Ministry’s periodic reviews might be costly to future generations of Singaporeans. One cannot help but wonder – what would Goh Keng Swee do?

 

 

 

References:

 

Goh C. B., & Gopinathan, S. (2008).  The development of education in Singapore since 1965.  In S. K. Lee, C. B. Goh,  B. Fredriksen & J. P. Tan (Eds.), Towards a better future: Education and training for economic development in Singapore since 1965 (pp. 12-38).  Washington, DC/Singapore: The World Bank/National Institute of Education.

 

Low, D., & Vadaketh, S. T. (2014). Good Meritocracy, Bad Meritocracy. Hard Choices: Challenging the Singapore Consensus (pp  48-58). Singapore: NUS Press.

 

Ministry of Education. (2010, May 15). Tribute to the late Dr Goh Keng Swee by Ms Ho Peng, Director-General of Education. . Retrieved June 7, 2014, from http://www.moe.gov.sg/media/press/2010/05/tribute-late-dr-goh-keng-swee.php

 

Ministry of Education. (2012, July 22). The Singapore Education Journey. . Retrieved June 7, 2014, from http://www.moe.gov.sg/education/landscape/print/sg-education-landscape-print.pdf
 

Seah, C. N. (2011, September 19). ‘A degree is nice, but we need something else’. Yahoo News, Singapore.

 

 

Mapping Our Home, Mapping The House

http://tinyurl.com/lujo6lj

The Republic of Singapore – 87 Constituencies

Pulau Ujong. A name of utter unfamiliarity which would only make you think less than twice about passing it off as another one of those small offshore islands or islets that we would go to ‘war’ to protect our sovereignty over at all costs (and by ‘war’, what I really mean is the International Court of Justice). Ironically, if you’re reading this from the Republic of Singapore, chances are, you’re on it. Pulau Ujong is none other than mainland Singapore. Intrinsically, knowing about the place we inhabit informs us of what it means to be Singaporean for how can we claim to be truly Singaporean if we are unaware of our local environment? Knowing about the spaces we live, play and work in from a geopolitical perspective also affords us several practical benefits in areas such as landuse planning and electioneering.

The political map of Singapore has evolved through the ages, reflecting differences in electoral systems, population densities, infrastructure and land use. The 12th Parliament of Singapore consists of 87 elected MPs, each representing a different constituency. However, with the Group Representation Constituency (GRC) system introduced in 1988, most MPs are elected in groups and modern political maps in Singapore usually only show GRCs and a handful of single seats in the existing Single Member Constituencies (SMCs). However, from a practical perspective, knowledge of which individual ward ones lives in is important for the purpose of knowing which MP to visit should one wish to attend a Meet-the-People Session (MPS) and, indeed, for the greater purpose of keeping our elected MPs accountable for their actions (which entails knowing who they are, in the first place!). Currently, a map that shows every ward as if it were a SMC does not exist. However, using information gathered from a variety of sources, I managed to map out the 87 constituencies of Singapore so that everyone can know which district they live in.

Link to map: https://mapsengine.google.com/map/edit?mid=z7C8bz0UE1gI.ksK88Xfv6Ivg

Each constituency sends 1 MP to the House, either individually (SMCs) or in groups (GRCs).

Each constituency sends 1 MP to the House, either individually (SMCs) or in groups (GRCs).

Diversity within Singapore

Knowing which district we live in affords us a sense of identity. People affix memories and experiences to places and spaces in an intangible manner. A common and easily comprehensible example of this is the sense of identity and belonging people declare when associating themselves with the neighbourhoods in which they spent their childhood, almost as if they feel they have a sense of personal ownership of those areas. From a political perspective, spatial identity is especially signficant in a representative democracy such as ours where our legislators represent constituencies that are demarcated by geographical boundaries. It is, therefore, no wonder that politicians often make it a point to draw a link between their past personal experiences with their constituencies. In the Parliamentary Election of 2011, Jeannette-Chong Aruldoss of the National Solidarity Party referenced her childhood experiences in Mountbatten SMC to highlight her view that the constituency has lost its “idyllic charm…in the seventies” and now reflects a widening socio-economic divide and that Mountbatten is, therefore, a microcosm of the rest of the country. More simplistically, in the Punggol East SMC By-Election of 2013, the People’s Action Party candidate Dr Koh Poh Koon was famously touted as being “the Son of Punggol” while perhaps carelessly forgetting that the seat he was running for was indeed in Sengkang and not actually Punggol. I reckon my map will help Dr Koh get his geography right. In any case, however, both of these examples show that cartography or, at least, the evaluation of local maps is important for our identity.

Political maps also help elucidate patterns of population density and land use. By virtue of the fact that each constituency in Singapore purposely accounts for roughly 20 000 to 30 000 electors, it is easy to infer population densities across the country. For instance, it is quite clear that Yew Tee Constituency is less densely populated than, say, the ward of Teck Ghee, judging from land area. However, this is not to say that the residential areas in Yew Tee are sparsely located as most of the land is used for military purposes. Hence, the map is useful for gauging population density on a constituency-scale in Singapore rather than on a smaller scale. Interestingly, a comparison with older political maps provides supporting evidence for the decentralisation of residences in Singapore over the years. In the 1960’s, when every seat was a SMC, the smaller constituencies were located in the urban core whilst the rural surroundings housed the larger ones (refer to map below). Furthermore, a detailed political map of Singapore also sheds some light on land use. As in the case of Yew Tee and other large cosntituencies such as Zhenghua and Siglap, the areas not used up for residential purposes serve other uses – military, environmental conservation, aviation, etc.

General Election 1968 - Results. Credit: singapore-elections.com

General Election 1968 – Results. Credit: singapore-elections.com

Constituency-based maps also aid in tracking changes in electoral boundaries. Variations in delimitation have been a contentious issue in Singapore’s political system, given the frequent re-drawing of the boundaries of GRCs at every election by the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee (EBRC) which is under the purview of the Prime Minister’s Office. The lack of explanatory information in the reports of the EBRC has been cited as further evidence of gerrymandering and partiality. Most recently, the constituency of Aljunied – Hougang which traditionally votes strongly in favour of the Workers’ Party, as it did in the close contest in Aljunied GRC in 2006, was shifted out into Ang Mo Kio GRC and re-named ‘Ang Mo Kio – Hougang’ in 2011. Because of the unpredictability of the electoral map in Singapore, perhaps a single-constituency map will allow political parties to view different agglomerations of wards or potential GRCs in a more accessbile and efficient manner, enabling them to possibly draw out their electoral contingency and campaigning plans more easily in the future.

Methodology and Sources

To derive the boundaries of each constituency, I used information from a variety of sources such as Town Council websites, most of which provide information on almost every individual ward albeit to different degrees. The People’s Association’s constituency tracker which uses postal codes to identify constituencies as well as Community Development Council websites also came in handy. Another crucial source of information was a map on Google Maps published as ‘The Ward Boundary Project 2012/3’, which provided me with the boundaries of many of the wards in the eastern half of Singapore. Where the boundaries were more difficult to differentiate and delineate, I used a list of revised polling districts published by the Elections Department as well as a map of each polling district within each GRC and SMC in Singapore, both of which are documents that specifically pertain to the 2011 Parliamentary Elections. (Note: A ‘polling district’ refers to a smaller group of electors within a constituency. Each ‘polling district’ accounts for one polling station.)

Maps are so much more than what most people take them at face value for. Any able Geographer knows this. It is my earnest hope that this map will be interesting and not solely useful to people who may require reference to it. This concludes yet another one of my Mapped Musings, although in a more literal sense this time.

References:

Government Gazette. Elections Department, (2011). No. 63 – Parliamentary Elections Act (Chapter 218) (Section 9(2)) – Boundaries of Altered Polling Districts. Retrieved from website: http://www.eld.gov.sg/gazette\G_RE2011\Boundaries of Altered Polling District.pdf

Lay, B. (2013, January 27). Three reasons why Dr Koh Poh Koon lost Punggol East. Yahoo! News. Retrieved from http://sg.news.yahoo.com/blogs/the-flipside/three-reasons-why-dr-koh-poh-koon-lost-230036743.html

National Solidarity Party. (2011). Jeannette Chong-Aruldoss. Retrieved from http://mountbatten.nsp.sg/about-jeannette/

Parliament of Singapore. (2014, February 14). List of Constituencies. Retrieved from http://www.parliament.gov.sg/list-constituencies

Teo, E. (2013, March 19). The Ward Boundary Project 2012/3. Retrieved from https://maps.google.com.sg/maps/ms?msid=201386689841976634251.0004d0404d9abf09208c8&msa=0

The Online Citizen. (2010, April 27). GRCs and Gerrymandering – The Root Causes of Problems: Sylvia Lim. Retrieved from http://www.theonlinecitizen.com/2010/04/grcs-and-gerrymandering-the-roots-causes-of-problems-sylvia-lim/

Water for All? – Conserve. Value. Enjoy.

Water for All?

As Singaporeans, we take water for granted. There is hardly any question in that statement, in a country where water is clean enough to drink out from the tap. It is therefore, rather remarkable that in Singapore today, there exists a generation that knows the pains of dehydration and the need to have rationed, scrimped and saved every drop of water they could during a tumultuous world war some 70 years ago. Any reasonably educated student in our country would be aware of the fact that while approximately 71% of the Earth is covered with water, only 2.5% of this water is freshwater while the rest of it is trapped in rather inaccessible stores such as glaciers and groundwater. The constant need for freshwater to support population growth throughout human history has gradually given rise to the demand for technologies to tap on as much water as possible. The extent to which countries of high and low levels of development have been successful in such pursuits, however, has been markedly different.

In landlocked Less Developed Countries (LDCs), reliance on groundwater extraction remains high while access to freshwater from lakes or rivers is declining in reliability. However, the 2012 discovery by the British Geological Survey (Diagram 1) of a vast groundwater network in the aquifers beneath Africa, where 300 million people live in environments where potable water is hardly attainable, points towards the possible amelioration of conditions there. Thanks to technological advancements, the use of magnetic resonance sounding (MRS) can aid in identifying easily accessible aquifers from which groundwater can be extracted for human consumption and agricultural or industrial use. However, the complexity in this water management strategy arises chiefly from the fact that the huge demand for potable water in such areas would surely undermine the sustainability of groundwater resources since the extraction of groundwater can occur at a faster rate than at which it is recharged. Thankfully, strategies such as NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) can help authorities to closely monitor groundwater stores so as to manage them sustainably. Ultimately, the success of such modern technology in aiding LDCs to overcome water scarcity will depend on the financial feasibility of these methods coupled with political willpower on the part of national or regional authorities to manage their water resources pragmatically.

A newly-mapped out view of aquifer productivity in Africa, a sign of groundwater supplies deep under the ground surface.

Diagram 1: A newly-mapped out view of aquifer productivity in Africa, a sign of groundwater supplies deep under the ground surface.

 

In Developed Countries (DCs), water scarcity is usually rarely ever a national issue than it is a regional or a seasonal one. This is attributable to the extensive usage and supply of water through modern irrigation methods and utility services that exist in DCs. This is, of course, largely unsurprising, given that DCs tend to be more financially capable to afford the infrastructure required for the reliable supply of clean water to homes and industries as a basic necessity. Nonetheless, DCs have had to rely on modern technology to solve the issue of water scarcity within their own borders. Singapore is no stranger to this challenge. With the anticipated increase in pressure for water supplies due to the impending expiration of an existing water agreement with Malaysia in 2061, Singapore has had to throttle forth to attain self-sufficiency at a greater pace. This is envisioned to be achieved through the continued development of reverse osmosis (NEWater) as one of the four integral National Taps (Diagram 2) to the extent that it will meet 55% of our water demand, up from the current 30%, by 2060. Simultaneously, an increase in the demand, from 10% today to 25% in 2060, to be met by the use of desalinated water as another National Tap will enable Singapore to make better use of the waters around our island-nation in our quest for self-sufficiency. Hence, while the availability of water in DCs is not as life-threatening as it is in LDCs today, some DCs such as Singapore have to continue to upgrade their diversified water resource usage to maintain self-sufficiency while, in time, other DCs that currently depend on large water bodies as their main sources of water may have to re-evaluate their reliance on these sources as climate change gradually but inevitably makes drying lakes and waning rivers an eventual reality.

Singapore's 4-pronged strategy for water self-sufficiency.

Diagram 2: Singapore’s 4-pronged strategy for water self-sufficiency.

 

Water may be a basic necessity but the demand for water is always increasing. Naturally, we require gargantuan quantities of water for sustenance – for our burgeoning populations, for our growing industries, for the regulation of global atmospheric temperatures amongst other things. Perhaps, the only time we fear water is when it acts as a natural destructive force through crippling floods, hurricanes and drought.  This dualism that exists in the ways in which water affects our survival puts us in a somewhat ironic position as we go about developing ways to conserve as much water as possible in a world that has more than all the water it needs but still needs to water down the challenges preventing people from getting enough of it.

 

 

 

References:

Gleick, P.H., ed. (1993). Water in Crisis: A Guide to the World’s Freshwater Resources. Oxford University Press. p. 13, Table 2.1 “Water reserves on the earth”.

McGrath, M. (2012, April 20). ‘Huge’ water resource exists under Africa. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). Retrieved from http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-17775211

NASA. (2013, April 30). Missions – GRACE. Retrieved from http://science.nasa.gov/missions/grace/

Public Utilities Board (PUB). Government of Singapore, (2013). Our water, our future. Singapore.

World Health Organisation (WHO). United Nations, (2012). Global analysis and assessment of sanitation and drinking-water (GLAAS).