Singapore seeks to push the boundaries on sustainability: Desmond Lee

National Development Minister hopes to adapt building designs and alter mindsets

By 2030, urban life in Singapore is likely to look greener and feel cooler. More buildings could see facades clad in a protective envelope of nature, said National Development Minister Desmond Lee, as he set out his vision of a City in Nature.

The country is planting one million more trees, which will make the outdoors cooler. Indoor temperatures, too, will be made more comfortable, with improved building design that places windows where they can best harness natural ventilation.

All these efforts will help mitigate the heat from global warming, without the need for additional cooling, Mr Lee said in an interview with The Straits Times on key environmental and sustainability issues.

It was his first interview as Minister for National Development since taking full charge of the ministry in July. Previously, he was its second minister while being the Minister for Social and Family Development.

Residents will be made more aware of the need to save resources - by switching off lights when they are not in use, recycling more and saving water - and coexist with the wildlife that will inevitably be drawn into the green urban landscape, he added.

In short, the Ministry of National Development (MND) on his watch will push hard for urban sustainability. This is not just in terms of physical infrastructure - MND oversees the Housing Board and Building and Construction Authority - but also the way people use them.

Sustainability as a concept is not new to Singapore, but the coronavirus pandemic has prompted the country to push the boundaries.

At the opening of the 14th Parliament last month, President Halimah Yacob spoke of overcoming the economic fallout from Covid-19 with a push towards a green economy and more sustainable growth.

Mr Lee said: "Sustainability has to be a whole-of-government effort that involves many ministries."

And for MND, the focus is on Singapore's physical infrastructure.

The built environment is resource-intensive so it is critical to ensure that resource-and land-scarce Singapore maximises the use of space, Mr Lee stressed.

"Sustainability and resilience go hand in hand. To be resilient to shocks, we have to be sustainable in the way we do things," he added.

 
 
 

The notion of sustainability is also a mindset, he said.

It is one that engenders a spirit of stewardship - so resources are carefully used and set aside for the future - and partnership, so resources are used efficiently. This would put the country in good stead to weather challenges like Covid-19, Mr Lee said.

"For a government to be sustainable as a steward is to recognise that these resources are to be marshalled, cared for and used judiciously... (while) recognising that you owe a responsibility to the future of Singaporeans who have no voice today," said the 44-year-old.

Mr Lee has intimate knowledge of flora and fauna, revealing his passion for the environment. This was clear at last Wednesday's interview at the Singapore Botanic Gardens, where he reeled off the scientific names of several plants.

Nature has many gifts to offer, he mused as we stood under a princess vine (Cissus verticillata).

Trees provide shade, cleanse the air and take in heat-trapping carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. "Mangroves are the most effective because of the substrate," he added.

On these services of nature, he said: "In a city, we should cherish it all the more because the artificial or industrial solutions are costly and nowhere as effective."

Asked how Singapore will balance its aspirations of being a City in Nature with people's needs, the minister acknowledged the perennial tussle between development and conservation. Stewardship is part of sustainability, he said.

"In MND, we have to make sure we care for all Singaporeans... In the limited land that we have, we have to be very good stewards and try to balance all the needs and, where possible, find the middle ground, rather than see them as polar opposites."