Local environmentalists have a tendency to go overboard in their accusations of the PAP government when it comes to the environment. The image being painted in the popular media of the government is that it has largely neglected environmental preservation at the expense of unbridled economic growth.
Yet, a cursory study of the history of Singapore’s environmental policy and you will find this narrative to be largely without basis. In truth, the government has long committed to environmental efforts since the city-state’s independence. And it has performed relatively well.
The general approach Singapore has taken can be summarised as such:
A pro-growth long term investment strategy in energy-efficient infrastructure that deploys the use of free market mechanisms to phase out environmental harmful practices, as opposed to hard-handed carbon taxes and outright bans.
My coauthor Bryan Cheang and I capture this in much more detail in our upcoming book Liberalism Unveiled, but here are 5 quick pointers anyone interested in Singapore’s approach to the environment should know.
1. Based on most environmental measures, Singapore is doing exceedingly well. First, the Environmental Performance Index that measures environmental health across 180 countries ranks Singapore (in 2018) as the third best in air pollution and second in water pollution.
Second, Singapore has achieved energy efficiency. Energy intensity per GDP has been on a steady decline. Long trend data dating from the 1960s shows that Singapore has been able to sustain economic growth at an economised rate of energy usage (see below chart). What this means is that we are using less and less energy for each point of GDP growth, thanks to better infrastructure and technologies. In other words, Singapore has managed to simultaneously have their cake and eat it too.
2. Another sign of Singapore’s commitment to global environmental issues was the fact that it was an early signatory to the 1989 Montreal Protocol, an intergovernmental agreement that sought to phase out the usage of ozone-depleting substances (ODS). This was entered into despite Singapore’s heavy dependence on the import and manufacture of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and its domestic electronic and chemical industries for economic development, which should tell you something about whether the government cares about the environment. In 1998, Singapore was one of the first early adopters of market-based quotas (through the Tender and Quota Allocation System) to regulate the discharge of CFCs and other ODSs in commercial activity, allowing manufacturers to trade ODS permits and allocate it to its most economically desired ends. Rather than taking the politically attractive option of banning ODSs outright, market mechanisms were used to carefully allow moderate amounts of pollution and avoid strangling economic growth, while at the same time detering its usage toward environmentally superior alternatives over time.
3. Other examples of how Singapore has deployed the market mechanisms of pricing and profits to manage environmental waste can be seen in air pollution, water pollution and waste management. To combat air pollution due to increasing vehicle usage in the 1980s, the government introduced a differential tax rate to price leaded petrol at 10 cents per litre more than unleaded petrol, to encourage the shift in consumption. In the case of water pollution management, the Trade Effluent Tariff Scheme was enacted to allow the discharge of liquid waste or sewage (of a certain limit) into public sewers for a fee. These fees in turn go towards paying off the extra costs of treating the extra loads of pollution at water reclamation plants.
4. Privatisation of waste collection started in the 1990s, incentivising industrial sectors producing large volumes of waste to not only curb reckless disposal but also to pragmatically consider a cost-benefit analysis on the potentials of recycling waste. By 1999, the waste collection industry achieved free market competition among nine different sectors, subject to licensing criteria by the government. Licenses to construct waste incineration plants and NEWater plants was also awarded to privatised entities. The structure for these industries evolved toward a public-private partnership where the government remained as an overall regulator while businesses face commercial discipline and internalise operational risks.
5. Singapore’s vision to develop Singapore as a “Garden City” date as far back as the 1960s. Over just a few decades, at least 55,000 trees were planted by 1971, tripled to 158,000 in 1974, and reached 1.4 million trees by 2014. HDB is mandated by formal legislation to allocate space wherever possible for tree planting. Within a few decades, parks in Singapore grew from a measly 13 to 330, making the total area of green spaces 9,707 ha — approximately 7.4% of Singapore’s entire geography. This Garden City vision gave Singapore the international reputation of a lush and green city, a promotional marketing tactic that is synonymous with Singapore’s tourism.
One of the more abstract criticisms of Singapore’s environmental policy is how its rich agricultural forestry has come at the cost of economic development. This is true. Based on the Environmental Performance Index, Singapore has one of the lowest scores in preservation of its biodiversity and habitats (although the report also acknowledges that this is largely due to its small geographic size and the necessity of state industrialisation). However, this is not exclusive to Singapore’s post-independence time period, since much of its mangrove forests were felled during British colonialism.
Obviously, there is a lot more to Singapore’s environmental policy spanning more than 50 years. (I recommend interested students to start with this book by Yong Soon Tan) This article only scratches the surface but serves as a useful starting point to understanding the successful approach of Singapore’s market-oriented policy to environmental preservation.