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by Izyan Nadzirah

‘Any decisions made today must consider the benefits and influence on the next seven generations.’  So states the Great Law of the Iroquoi, which is frequently associated with a familiar buzzword — Sustainability.

In September 2015, the United Nations and 193 countries of the UN General Assembly developed the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals, which address 17 major issues ranging from healthcare equity to an unbiased justice system.

Singapore has pledged to join hands with other countries to achieve many of these goals solve many of these issues, one of which is Goal 11, which calls for sustainable cities and communities. This encompasses egalitarianism, proper public transportation for any type of commuter, and a good balance between greenery and city infrastructure.

At the surface level, we seem to have already become a largely sustainable city, with gazetted green spaces, rojak(multicultural) lifestyle, and a largely-connected public transport system from end to end. Yet, are we really as sustainable as we think we are?

I had the opportunity to discuss this with three alumni who are making waves in Sustainability — Bernise Ang (RGS’96) of Zeroth Labs, Peter Goh (RI’01) of Chloros Solutions, and Muhd Ibnur Rashad (RI’01, RJC’03) of GUILD (Ground-Up Innovation Labs for Development) and GUI (Ground-Up Initiative). In this article, we gather their opinions on how far Singapore has come, and what more can be done in the road towards becoming a sustainable urban city.

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Many countries have struggled long and hard to balance economic growth with environmental preservation. In recent decades, developed countries prioritised city infrastructure, flattening green spaces to make way for factories and promoting gentrification to cater for concrete office building and apartments. Now with mature economies, these same countries are instead focusing their efforts on building the ecological aspects of a sustainable city, like bicycle paths and green spaces, to improve the environmental and social quality of life.

Developing countries, inspired by the success of their developed neighbours, want to follow in their footsteps by prioritising the economy over environmental conservation.

However, they are often discouraged from doing so by the very countries they admire, much to their annoyance.

‘If you created the problem in the past, we will create it in the future,’ said Sunita Narain of the Centre for Science and Environment in Delhi to Leonardo DiCaprio in Before the Flood, a National Geographic documentary he hosted. Narain pointed out that even though India does care about climate change, the lack of access to energy faced by its population of more than 700 million is a far more pressing problem.

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Bernise is highly aware of the priorities of developing nations, as well as their discontent at having to contend with the views of others. In her work within a consultancy that uncovers behavioural insights and applies them to public policy issues, she often helps to mitigate the policies of developing nations’ governments by suggesting solutions that can better cater to both the people and the environment.

Singapore was not much different just a few decades ago, she says. Recall the Singapore of the 1960s, when the priority was on building our economy. Forests were razed to the ground to make way for factories, kampongs and slums were demolished and flats were built, and our waterways were busy with trade and commerce. Rivers became severely polluted — so polluted that the river cleanup project, implemented in the ’70s, took ten years to complete.

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Some may argue that the Keep Singapore Clean campaign, started in 1968, manages to prioritise both environment and economy by encouraging public hygiene and subsequently promoting industry and tourism. Yet, the preservation of our natural environment – primary green spaces – is not a priority in most iterations of this campaign.

Even today, the preservation of Singapore’s greenery seems to come second. Recent opinion pieces and petitions lament that portions of MacRitchie Reservoir are slated to be sacrificed for better public transport infrastructure, and that our coral reefs in Singapore’s offshore islands need to be saved after decades of damage from the maritime industry.

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This unbalanced approach begs the question of what it really means to be eco-friendly. Ibnur points out while businesses and communities may adopt ‘eco-friendly’ solutions, these may still result in high amounts of waste that negate an overall environmental approach. A household may be using solar panels to generate energy, but they may not take steps to reduce their overall energy consumption, like switching lights off when they are not needed and setting the air-conditioner to an optimum temperature. In fact, some studies claim that Singapore’s temperature is higher than the regional average due to the heat and vibration from concentrated numbers of air-conditioning compressors within small spaces.

Bernise concurs. ‘We should not confuse efficiency with the ultimate goal of environmental work, which is to reduce our overall impact,’ she says. ‘If we increase our efficiency but continue to consume a ridiculous amount, that still takes us backwards. There needs to be a push from both sides of the community – top down and bottom up to encourage a high quality of life harmonious with nature.’

So how can we come together to ensure that we build an eco-friendly Singapore, especially now that we are beyond simple, individualistic solutions like changing lightbulbs to LED-friendly ones and sorting our trash into recyclables and non-recyclables? How do we affect change at a legislative level when appeals and petitions have not yet done so? How invested is Singapore in building an eco-friendly city where built and natural environments exist harmoniously?

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At the industry level, legislations have been put in place to ensure environmental accountability. Ibnur applauds the SGX’s (Singapore Exchange) move to require all Singapore listed companies to publish a sustainability report at least once a year, as he believes that it is important for businesses and the nation as a whole becomes aware of how much water, electricity and carbon dioxide is being consumed and produced. This way, businesses can work towards becoming ecologically productive or regenerative.

Additionally, businesses are pushing the envelope in environmentally-sustainable design by working towards achieving ‘energy-plus buildings’. Ideally, buildings should be ‘zero-energy’, with an energy consumption that has little to no impact on the environment. Energy-plus buildings go one step further to produce more energy than they consume.

Peter shares that Singapore has one zero-energy building to date, which is the Building & Construction Authority Academy (BCAA) near RI.

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‘BCA Academy is still in its testing phase, but I believe that other buildings will eventually be able to emulate BCA’s success’, he says. ‘It requires quite a number of inspections and decisions on specific energy-consuming items and installation of energy-producing items, from efficient lighting systems to solar panels, but it will eventually have a significant environmental impact and even lead to energy generation.’

In addition to the SGX’s mandate to report on sustainability, the BCA has also mandated that all new buildings are to be Green Mark certified, and all existing buildings will have to be Green Mark certified by 2030. Green Mark certification has different tiers (Platinum, Gold Plus, Gold and Certified) and different zones in Singapore must adhere to different tiers.

For example, buildings within the Marina Bay Financial Area must attain a Green Mark Platinum certification.‘Although,’ Peter quips, ‘to be honest, even if BCA did not mandate it, most of the multi-national companies (MNC) in that area are already gunning for Green Mark Platinum because it adds to their string of accolades!’

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At the community level, there is a significant shift towards individuals being more aware of the environment and the importance of having green spaces. GUI (Ground-Up Initiative) is one such outfit that encourages Singaporeans to connect and tune in to best environment practices. From encouraging the community to feel a deeper sense of connection to the Earth through farming activities, to holding repair sessions where Singaporeans can learn to repair items instead of throwing them in recycle bins, GUI has set an example to rally Singaporeans to take action and acquire the tools and skills to affect positive climate change. Businesses like Chloros Solutions also provide electrical recommendations to households that help families reduce not just their utility
bills, but also their carbon footprint.

Is this enough? What more can we do? Singapore is nowhere near exemplary eco-friendly cities and countries like Taiwan and Japan, but we’re moving forward. Green solutions, opportunities to recycle and environmental awareness are now readily accessible, and legislation has started to involve the community in green decisions like gazetting the Botanical Gardens and using solar panels to power lights in certain neighbourhoods.

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Being a small city state, most areas of Singapore are accessible to any demographic of the community, from the financially needy to the physically-needy. With multiple major public transport service providers constantly expanding their rail and road services to decrease commuting time, Singaporeans have got it relatively good when it comes to commuting. Yet, there is always room for improvement. The concept of ‘first mile, last mile’ becomes a new motivation for the community, especially at the legislative and business level.

‘First mile, last mile’ takes into account the efficiency of the first and last mode of transport a passenger uses to travel to their destination and back again, which is often the same. For example, if an individual has to travel half an hour to the nearest train station and the only way is to drive, then their first mile uses an inefficient mode of transport that adds to pollution.

In a typical Singaporean’s commute, the first and last mile is usually a few minutes’ walk, bus ride or cycle to an MRT station. These modes of commute are already energy efficient.

The challenge, then, is for policy makers to ensure there are enough spaces to accommodate bicycle parking, and that it is easy for pedestrians to travel regardless of the weather. Ibnur highlighted the importance of using smart technology to enhance a commute and add value to their first and last miles.

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‘Apps that provide the arrival times of public transports allows the commuter to make better decisions and plan ahead,’ he says. ‘It is highly effective in minimising anxiety and waiting time, and improves the commuter’s experience. In Singapore, many people from all economic structures can afford a smartphone and have equitable access to such
technology.’

Ibnur also highlighted the importance of appreciating all stakeholders of public transport companies when thinking of sustainability, from staff to consumer. To achieve the network of interconnectedness, these companies need to ensure their most direct stakeholder, their staff, aligns their own vision with that of the company. This includes providing staff a sense of value and having a career progression mapped out for them alongside a positive workplace culture to encourage them to take pride in their jobs and go the extra mile to maintain the transport systems. This positivity will cascade down to the commuter, making for a positive transport experience from start to finish.

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There is another aspect of a utopian sustainable city — that everyone can live side by side without fear of biases and have equal access to facilities and opportunities. This includes city dwellers from different races and economic backgrounds.

In large countries, villagers travel to the city to seek better opportunities. Besides over-stretching resources due to the influx, enclaves start to form by those from the same village or by those of the same race, and communities of similar financial means start to congregate and live together.

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While Singapore is a city-state with no countryside, the enclaves formed by our forefathers still remain today. With a high cost of living, affluent areas distinctly stand out from others. Hence, focusing on race issues, I asked our interviewees if they feel that Singapore’s racial enclaves – Chinatown, Malay Heritage Centre and Little India – fit the
idea of egalitarianism.

Peter believes that it is a ‘never-ending race to build a totally inclusive society and I do not think it is possible.’ Comparing Singapore’s progress to other countries, he feels that Singapore has done a great job in creating inclusiveness through both organic and government-pushed environments. Government-pushed environments include schools, national service, and workplaces. Organic ones include widely-visible traditional foods and fashion.

Bernise agreed that although Singapore is certainly more progressive than many nations when it comes to ensuring cultural and racial diversity, she encourages fellow Singaporeans to challenge themselves further and to really try to understand other identities and cultures.

‘Growing up, there were no proper avenues to discuss race and religion openly, as it was quite taboo. I feel that if we are able to open up and discuss the difficulties faced by each race in Singapore, we can understand each other better beyond kueh and traditional costumes, two aspects that are most celebrated during Racial Harmony Day,’ Bernise says. She acknowledged that there are a few conversations discussing identity recently, but urges for more to be done. She shared that antagonistic conversations are part of the pains of growing into a mature society.

‘To use a parenting analogy – you would need to let your toddler explore when they reach a certain age. Similarly, we need to open up our physical and emotional spaces and not be so kancheong about hurting others. When you support laws that enable an unhappy person to take action at the slightest provocation, you are taking away the space for deeper understanding and reflection to take place.’

Bernise’s and Peter’s views bring to mind a recent episode at an event Ibnur organised under GUI spearheaded by GUILD — the WIEF (World Islamic Economic Forum) Young Fellows in Singapore, a weekend-long forum and innovation bootcamp that saw delegates from around the world discussing sustainability and capacity building among Muslim youth leaders.

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Because the event was open to everyone, a Chinese participant had signed up for it without knowing that it was Islam-centric. Upon receiving the information booklet she felt inclined to pull out, but decided to attend it anyway. ‘During our first reflective session she shared that being part of the forum allowed her to be a temporary minority,’ says Ibnur. ‘She became privy to the questions that minorities ask themselves every day when they are interacting with the majority. Eventually, she became comfortable, became more aware of the needs of Muslims.

‘Interestingly enough, she echoed Bernise’s view that conversations on racial harmony needed to be deeper and more open. However, like Peter, she also felt that our progress is still significant as compared to other nations. She also shared that although everyone would always have internal biases, anyone with the opportunity to engage someone
different should seize it.’

Besides adopting green actions as part of our subconscious, Singaporeans should also start validating assumptions and sparking honest discussion among the different races to build an inclusive society.

Community initiatives like SGKITAx, and social businesses like The Thought Collective and Inconvenient Questions promote open conversations on multiple problematic issues passed by legislation, including race. We need to start participating in them to share our prejudices, voice our opinions, and create an environment of inclusivity and understanding.

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When dealing with negative situations and people who seem ‘difficult’, Bernise recommends taking a step back and approaching it from their point of view. ‘Ask yourself: is that person’s actions really annoying you? Why do they think that their actions are professional? What worldview might validate that?’

Such questions challenge us to be more aware of other people’s perspective of order, and recognise that humans, ourselves included, are naturally irrational. With the right motivation, we can change policies that accommodate racial fear-mongering and biases to become a more united Singapore.

Ibnur was quick to point out that a serious focus on inclusivity can be brought down to bear upon urban design. Beyond race and religion, we also need to ensure that those less physically and mentally capable are given parity in design considerations. Insights from explorations into inclusivity hold clues for designers and technologists to develop better products, processes and policies.

In the end, the key to becoming a sustainable city boils down to the actions we take as individuals. People are the largest resource in an urban setting, and if everyone adopts a sustainable approach, the influence can travel upstream and positively affect policies, which then flow back down to the community, forming a cycle of sustainability.

Singapore, a country with people as her largest resource, has definitely ensured accountability in various aspects of urban sustainability at the legislative level. Businesses are also making it their goal to be sustainable in many avenues, from environment to leadership. The next phase to ensure urban sustainability, then, is perhaps to encourage Singaporeans to practice mindfulness and self-validation to ensure an inclusive city open to ideas and change. After all, all our actions will decide the future we leave behind for the next seven generations.

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