S’pore must emphasize climate change and environmental issues given its unique position to provide leadership: Yeoh Lam Keong and Tay Kheng Soon

Former GIC chief economist Yeoh Lam Keong took to his Facebook on Tuesday (16 Feb) to talk about the “greening of the Singapore economy”.

“The recognition of climate change as a global emergency by parliament that needs a concerted national response and the subsequent slew of significant policy and budget measures to restructure our economy and lifestyle in a green, more sustainable direction is to be greatly welcomed,” he wrote.

However, Mr Yeoh noted that this greening of Singapore’s economy and society overlooks at least three equally deep structural changes that if not implemented, may result in a much more superficial greening that does not address sustainability in a way that is integrated into solving the country’s most pressing economic problems and vulnerabilities.

“For our most fundamental economic weaknesses stem not from the natural environment, but our structural excessive dependence on foreign capital and foreign labour,” he added.

Mr Yeoh also shared a video presentation on the topic in his post, collectively prepared by veteran architect Professor Tay Kheng Soon and himself.

The presentation on “The Future of the Singapore Green and Regional Economy” under the umbrella of the non-partisan ‘Future of Singapore (FOSG)‘ discussion group includes key strategic issues that Singapore’s economy is facing plus the suggested solutions for a greener economy.

Mr Yeoh and Prof Tay spoke at length about regional cooperation, and included people from different political parties in a bid to create a “new political culture of friendly two-way communication in the spirit of open inquiry”.

Among those featured were Francis Yuen from the Progress Singapore Party (PSP), Murali Pillai from the People’s Action Party (PAP), Paul Tambyah from the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), and Yee Jenn Jong from the Workers’ Party (WP).

Current global economic stagnation not caused by COVID-19

In the presentation, Mr Yeoh and Prof Tay noted that the current global economic stagnation was not caused by COVID-19. To them, the coronavirus merely magnified the problem that was already present.

The stagnation is “structural” and “not cyclical”, they remarked. In the Singaporean context, they asserted that Singaporeans are too reliant on foreign investments and cheap foreign labour to tap into the global supply chain, which is dwindling anyway.

Mr Yeoh and Prof Tay also quoted from macroeconomists Lawrence Summers and Thomas Piketty, both of whom cautioned that the global economy is in stagnation because the current economy is biased to the growth of wealth for the already wealthy as opposed to growth as a whole.

In other words, the rich are getting richer, and the rest are not rich enough to invest. They also quoted Joseph Stiglitz who stated that the world economy was affected by the US economy, which is in free fall.

“In order for Singapore to emerge stronger out of these developments on the world stage, Singapore needs to build up a highly skilled value-creating workforce and move away from the low-value cheap labour-intensive model. For this to happen, we need to reorganise our economy through regional cooperation and active leadership,” said Mr Yeoh and Prof Tay.

AIs won’t take away human jobs; more investment for SMEs

The world is changing with the advent of Artificial Intelligence (AI) which would affect jobs. However, with this change comes an opportunity to create new jobs, Mr Yeoh and Mr Tay hinted.

The presentation included a short video clip of venture capitalist Lee Kai-Fu giving a TED talk saying that there are “humanised” jobs that AI can never replace, such as jobs of compassion and creativity. In his speech, Mr Lee highlighted the importance of social workers, caregivers, and teachers to society as a whole.

To this, Mr Yeoh and Prof Tay noted that the task at hand is for Singaporeans to have open discussions with industry experts and neighbouring countries to see how everyone can work together in the spirit of collaboration and integrated mutuality.

Subsequently, they spoke about the need for investment in small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) that are locally owned but are globally competitive, as they called on the Government to support such SMEs who will need access to technology and information.

Mr Yeoh and Prof Tay also stressed that the Government-linked companies (GLCs) need to be reformed in line with the “best practices industry development” which have been successful in countries like Germany, Switzerland, Scandinavia, The Netherlands, Taiwan, Korean, and Japan – upon having adopted and adapted to suit Singapore and the region.

The time to address climate change and environmental issues is now

They went on to say that a big emphasis must be placed on the environment and climate change where Singapore is in a unique position to be able to provide leadership, given that Singapore is a signatory to the Paris Accord and also a small and nimble nation.

Mr Yeoh and Prof Tay then highlighted the need to leverage off Singapore’s Sovereign Wealth Fund – which belongs to everyone in Singapore – as well as the ability to leverage off Singapore’s triple-A status so as to raise a Green Bond dedicated to the greening of the economy.

“Singapore’s triple-A status would help us raise borrowings easily and successfully,” they remarked.

Mr Yeoh and Prof Tay are also of the belief that the time to act is now. In particular, they stressed the need to decarbonise. Instead of using petrol, they said that Singaporeans ought to be shifting to hydrogen, adding that this can be done via partnership with oil companies with the aim to transform Singapore to a zero-carbon country in the next decade.

They also spoke about the importance of utilising bamboo to prevent deforestation, noting that bamboo is a fast-growing tropical crop that can also provide opportunities for “small village economies”, which will benefit those in rural communities so that no one is left behind.

Mr Yeoh and Prof Tay then highlighted the need to develop rural townships, and acknowledged that the creation of proper infrastructure and quality of life is also required for security, as it would prevent susceptibility to dangerous ideologies.

Ultimately, their presentation charted Singapore’s potential role in this post-COVID-19 brave new world where this little red dot can be “the shining light on the green hill” that Singaporeans can all be proud of.

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