Speech by Mr Desmond Tan, Minister of State for Sustainability and the Environment at the Debate on the Motion of Thanks for the President’s Address
1 Mr Speaker, I rise in support of the Motion.
A. FINDING THE SILVER LINING IN THE COVID-19 CRISIS
2 Much has been said about how the COVID-19 pandemic has severely disrupted our lives and forced massive changes to the way we work, live and play. It is no exaggeration to say that this is indeed the crisis to test our generation. But it has also not been without some silver linings. Let me highlight three.
Looking out for one another
3 First, people are looking out for one another. We can take pride and draw strength from this. Many Singaporeans have gone out of their way to help others – giving free masks to strangers, delivering groceries to those in quarantine, hawkers cooking for the hungry, customers rallying support for hawkers on social media. These are just a few examples of the great many heart-warming acts we see all around us.
Finding Opportunity in Crisis
4 Second, our businesses and workforce are seizing opportunities and trying new things in response to the crisis. Traditional businesses have innovated and accelerated their adoption of tech solutions. Our wet market stallholders are hawking their fresh produce over livestream on Facebook. Many Members may also recognise getai veteran, Wang Lei, who has sold seafood, durians and even cars online. In his words, he turned the crisis into a business opportunity, in Chinese, 把危机转成商机.
Allowing Nature to Recover
5 Third, the enforced time-out has allowed nature and the environment to recover. The air is cleaner, and humanity’s carbon footprint has shrunk with the reduction of transportation and industrial activities. At the peak of the lockdowns around the world in early April, global daily carbon emissions were slashed by 17%, dropping to levels last observed in 2006. It was My nine-year-old daughter who noticed the butterflies and wildflowers in my estate during our evening walks.
6 These silver linings give us confidence that we shall prevail. And we will continue to grow stronger as a nation.
B. A CRUCIAL JUNCTURE TO ENVISION THE FUTURE OF SINGAPORE SOCIETY
7 Madam President has said that “domestically, Singapore is at an inflection point of our history.” This is indeed the time to chart the future we want for Singapore and Singaporeans. And our youth will be key in shaping our collective future, for they are the leaders not only of tomorrow, but also of today. Our youth, with their ideals and ideas, can play a critical role in building the kind of society we would like to have, to see in Singapore.
A Society of Opportunities for All
8 What would such a society be like? First, I would like to see a society of opportunities for all. Second, I would like us to build a liveable and sustainable environment and third, I hope Singapore will be a society built on trust.
9 First, on a society of opportunities. The economic impact of COVID-19 has not been borne evenly. Lower-income households are hit much harder. We have a family in Punggol in which both parents lost their jobs and finding new ones was not easy, partly because they were past offenders. They got by with Comcare and COVID support grants. But what weighs most heavily on them is their worry about the future of their four children, who are all in school. There are families out there who need help. I am most concerned about young children and the opportunities they may lose, if nothing is done.
10 While there are various Government schemes to support individuals and families along their life journeys, there is an important role for the community and individuals to reach out to fellow Singaporeans, like what we have done during this pandemic.
11 Two years ago, I worked with some colleagues in the public service to initiate a social programme where volunteers befriend children from the rental blocks at Casa Clementi and give tuition to them after school. 24-year-old grassroots leader Hameed played an active role in setting up and sustaining the centre, together with youth volunteers from the NUS and ACS Independent, and even MINDEF and SAF regulars.
12 Besides tutoring, Hameed and his team organised activities and holiday programmes for them, such as coding classes, football sessions, and trips to the Zoo and the Wild Wild Wet. During the Circuit Breaker, they delivered special care packs to each of the children’s homes on top of the regular Zoom sessions, just to remind them that they were not alone. It was heartening to see the students improve in their learning attitudes and in their results. Two of them even received the Edusave Bursary Award recently.
13 I asked Hameed recently what kept him going. His answer was simple - seeing the excitement in the children when they turn up, watching them develop and grow, and simply wanting to make a difference to the community he lives in. I am sure we have many Hameeds in every community to bring all Singaporeans on board the moving escalator, to give each generation a better future. I urge members of this house, many of whom have spoken passionately about this topic, to rally our community to step up and do something for our children who may not have a good start, to ensure they receive a good education. Together, let us ensure that there will always be social mobility in our society and that this remains deeply anchored in our value system.
A Liveable and Sustainable Environment
14 Second, I hope that we can together build and nurture a liveable and sustainable environment for all Singaporeans. Climate change will remain an existential threat for many, many generations to come and we must never stop pushing for sustainability as a key consideration in all our decisions.
15 Sustainability is about meeting the needs of the current generation, without compromising that of the future generations. This has become more pressing than ever with the gathering pace of climate change and its impacts. As a low-lying island with limited natural resources, Singapore is especially vulnerable to rising sea-levels and disruptions in global supply chains of critical resources like food and water. So it augurs well for the future of our common home that sustainability is a high priority for many of our youth, as studies commissioned by the National Youth Council have shown. Many of them are also stepping forward to make their voices and their actions count, and some are working together to make a bigger impact with their efforts on sustainability.
16 In Pasir Ris, we have residents who are keen to turn seaweed and mussels into bio-plastics and then to turn into alternative fuel. We have youths who want to champion roof-top farming, clean up beaches and estates, promote car-lite by improving cycling path networks, and so on. There is no lack of ideas and energy from all our residents. We now have a Pasir Ris Sustainability Action Group with over 20 volunteers and growing, from both young and old.
17 I am excited now to be in the Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment, which has committed to plans for a green recovery from COVID-19, one that supports a transition to a low-carbon and climate-resilient future. MSE will galvanise sustainability efforts across Government, promote green growth, ensure resource resilience and pursue circular economy. We will create jobs in the green sector and develop a pipeline of talent to support sustainability in Singapore.
18 Sustainability requires a whole-of-nation effort. Besides working with businesses and other partners, we must actively engage and create opportunities for youth to play a bigger role in co-creating and co-delivering solutions. We must take our youth’s efforts seriously. They are not an interest group. They are taking ownership to lead in fighting climate change, to make Singapore a more liveable and sustainable city. I will certainly do my best to support their efforts.
A Society Built on Trust
19 Finally, and most importantly, I hope that we can build a society based on trust. This is more relevant and important now than ever.
20 How does a society built on trust looks like? I believe that such a society is characterised by a sense of togetherness. Where individuals and groups are willing to sacrifice their own interests for the larger good of the society. A good example in our history is our Land Acquisition Act of 1967. As a young growing nation, our kampongs and squatter huts had to make way for high-rise housing and industrial development. Our Pioneer and Merdeka Generations understood that and they reluctantly moved from places they were familiar with to the HDB flats. There was trust that this was indeed necessary for the greater good of our nation. Today, our world class housing bears great testament to what we can achieve when there is trust between the Government and the people. As our founding Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew once said, “Our greatest asset was the trust and confidence of the people.”
21 COVID-19 has shown this trust still exists today. We saw this when workers accepted wage cuts so that more of their co-workers could remain employed, and when we all responded and stayed home to break the infection cycle and preserve our healthcare system for those who needed them most. I hope that we can continue to build and nurture this trust.
22 The question remains, “How do we build this trust between Government and people and amongst people?” We often hear the phrase that “trust has to be earned”. Over my career in the Army and public service, I found this adage, while may be true, may be counter-productive sometimes. Until someone earns it, we hold back trust to protect ourselves, build policies on the premise that a small minority may abuse the trust, and sometimes we micro-manage down to the dot. Instead, I believe that when we are in a position of leadership, trust has to be given. I learnt this as a young father. When my firstborn was in Primary school, I was called up by the school for an accident that he was involved in. Without even verifying with him, I chided him in the car on the way home for getting himself into trouble. He remained quiet for some time and then he turned to me and asked, “Dad, why don’t you trust me when I said I didn’t do it?” Like all fathers, I wanted to earn his trust. That day, I learned that I have to give him my trust first.
23 I hope we can build a culture of openness and trust. One in which the Government listens, consults and engages regularly with citizens. This may mean being more transparent about our considerations and trade-offs when developing policies. For example, since the start of COVID-19, our Prime Minister and the Ministers have been sharing very openly and regularly with Singaporeans about the pandemic, trusting us to rally together to do the right thing.
24 Beyond sharing information, our policies also need to reflect trust in our people in their delivery. In some areas, the Government can trust citizen groups to lead and execute policies and projects. One initiative that comes to mind is the youth-led Somerset Belt Masterplan which is a product of the ideas and aspirations of over 40,000 youths on what they wish to see in Somerset, and how they can achieve that. It is a good example of how innovative concepts and plans can develop when we give autonomy and trust to our youth who can take ownership of projects they feel strongly for.
25 On the other hand, an engaged citizenry must be prepared to listen and understand the various perspectives, considerations and trade-offs. We must create a discourse that is based on data, science and facts. Not one based on rhetoric and ideology. I hope to be part of this constructive engagement process.
26 Trust is ultimately a two-way street. It is only when we give trust, that we gain trust and achieve great things together.
27 Mr Speaker, let me conclude. I urge all of us Singaporeans to come together to build a society with opportunities for all, that is liveable and sustainable, and founded on mutual trust. Let us learn to listen well to one another, and communicate with more empathy. Consulting my two boys on the use of social media so that I can relate to the younger generation, I learnt that if I want them to understand me, I need to first connect with them in their channels, sometimes using their language. I hope to see better engagement, especially with our youth. Together, let us build on the solid foundation that the Pioneer and Merdeka Generations developed for us, and create a society that we will be proud to pass on to the generations to come. With all Singaporeans on board, we will surely get there, and grow stronger in the process.
28 Mr Speaker, in Mandarin please.
29 议长先生，我想在这里和大家分享一首新谣歌曲《新加坡派》的几句歌词： “爸爸说我出世在六十年代、一岁多国家才诞生出来、那时候没人相信新加坡牌、还有人移民海外；渐渐地我们进入七十年代、裕廊镇烟窗个个有气派；当我们不觉来到八十年代、地铁将这个传奇讲得更快、朋友说我越活越不赖、像岛国一样实在；一晃眼已经来到九十年代、现在是别人纷纷移民前来、谁不爱新加坡牌”。
31 歌曲的最后两句是: “我们的故事我们自己记载、未来就看下一代。” 我们这一代和下一代要建立的，是一个怎样的新加坡？我想我们大家必须扪心自问。我们要的，是一个相互猜疑，还是一个相互信任的新加坡？是一个相互指责，还是相互想办法解决问题的新加坡？是一个争先恐后的问“我能得到什么”，还是一个热心关怀的问：“我能付出什么” 的新加坡。