Speech by Minister for The Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli at the Leaders In Science Forum on 10 September 2019, at Genexis Theatre in Fusionopolis One

Distinguished guests,

Ladies and gentlemen,


Good morning. I am pleased to join you at the Leaders in Science Forum.

The theme of this year’s forum, “Innovating for a Sustainable Future”, is timely and important.

As a small city-state with no natural resources, Singapore has pursued sustainable development from the beginning. We have always sought to balance economic development with environmental protection and social inclusion. But today, we are at an inflexion point. Sustainability can no longer be viewed merely as a means for nations to provide a green and liveable environment. On the contrary, sustainability has taken on an existential significance. Climate change, the over-consumption of resources, pollution of the air, land and water; these are all pushing our planet to a breaking point, and threatening our very existence.

These challenges compel us to stay on the path of sustainable development. As the forum’s theme reminds us, we have to press on towards a ‘sustainable future’, because there is no future otherwise.

We must however change the way we pursue sustainable development. Our challenges are many – protecting against sea level rise; overcoming water, food and other resource shortages; building liveable communities amidst harsher climates and environments.  
These are all immense challenges that we cannot overcome by depending on conventional approaches. We have to rethink our assumptions, break the mould and find new pathways towards a sustainable future.

Accelerating Towards a Circular Economy

One major shift Singapore is pursuing in sustainable development is our move towards the circular economy. Instead of the linear “take-make-use-throw” model of consumption, we seek to reuse resources for as long as possible. By closing resource loops and turning “trash into treasure”, we can secure critical supplies of water, food and other materials. This reduces our vulnerability to global supply shocks and future-proofs our economy, ensuring that Singapore continues to thrive in a carbon and resource-constrained world.

To this end, my ministry launched the Zero Waste Masterplan last month, which holistically presents our strategies to meet our vision of a Zero Waste nation. Just last week, the Resource Sustainability Bill was passed in Parliament, putting in place a systems-level framework to enable nationwide resource re-use and recycling focused on our 3 key waste streams; food waste, electrical and electronic waste, and packaging waste including plastics.
This Bill marks a distinct shift in our approach to resource management, bringing our regulatory framework upstream by sending an economic signal to producers to account for their impact on the environment. The regulatory framework encourages innovation and redesign of products such that they require less material and are more easily recycled, and will also fund recovery and aggregation of resources from waste.

An example of a “trash-to-treasure” strategy we are exploring is urban mining.  A few months ago, we announced our plans for NEWSand:  a strategic endeavour to turn incineration bottom ash into construction material, instead of landfilling it. Together with other measures in the Zero Waste Masterplan, turning ash into NEWSand will help to extend the useful lifespan of our only landfill Semakau beyond 2035.

Adopting a circular economy approach can also create new business models. Recycling, creating value and manufacturing useful products out of waste will present new economic opportunities, industries and jobs for Singaporeans. Preliminary studies estimate we can reap a net benefit of $40million by recovering and reusing materials from electrical and electronic waste. It could also help our economy remain competitive, as improving material efficiency helps reduce business costs and increase productivity.

For example, A*STAR’s SIMTech conducts a Lean Manufacturing course under the Singapore Workforce Skills Qualifications system, to encourage companies to adopt resource-efficient practices.  The programme teaches engineers and managers how to optimise workflows in manufacturing to eliminate waste and gain productivity breakthroughs.  Techcom Technology, a local provider of engineering solutions, successfully identified process improvement targets through this course, and were able to achieve time savings of over 60 per cent, while more than halving the rate of cosmetic defects in their production process.

Science and Technology a Key Enabler of Sustainability

Secondly, we are putting science and technology at the centre of our sustainability strategy. Our policies must be evidence-based, and guided by insights from all knowledge domains, from the physical, biological and engineering sciences, to human psychology and behavioural sciences. Science can shed light on the most appropriate pathways towards a sustainable future, while technology can help us get there more efficiently.

MEWR has been investing heavily in the science and engineering capabilities of our agencies – NEA, PUB and SFA. We will harness science and technology across a wide-range of applications; from developing new technologies like Wolbachia to help suppress the mosquito population, using autonomous drones and sensors to monitor water quality in reservoirs and detect illegal discharges into waterways, to embracing high-tech farming with robotics and data analytics to maximise agricultural crop yields.

Our policies and plans for coping with climate change must especially be based on robust science. In 2013, we established the Centre for Climate Research Singapore, or CCRS,
to further our knowledge in climate science, specifically tailored to the tropics. Climate science has already guided us towards specific policy formulations to protect against the adverse impacts of climate change, such as rising sea levels and extreme weather events. That is why we have built new critical infrastructure like Tuas Port Terminal and Changi Airport Terminal 5
on higher platform levels.

To further strengthen local climate science capabilities, MEWR will set up a new Climate Science Research Programme Office under CCRS next year. This office will take the lead in formulating and implementing a National Climate Science Research Masterplan, working closely with research institutes and universities on cutting-edge, interdisciplinary climate research.

Scientific research also plays a critical role in pursuing a circular economy and closing resource loops. NEA introduced the Closing the Waste Loop R&D initiative in 2017. One of its objectives is to develop technologies to extract resources from our 3 key waste streams. These include techniques to extract valuable components from plastic packaging waste, and novel methods of recycling precious metals from used lithium ion batteries found in laptops and mobile phones.

For example, NTU researchers are working to develop an ultrafast enzymatic process to convert food waste into high-grade organic fertilisers in 8 hours. Not only is this much faster than conventional methods, which take up to 24 hours, but the enzymes used are cultivated from the food waste itself – indeed, nothing goes to waste! NTU intends to design and build a compact modular pilot plant using this process that can treat 100kg of food waste per cycle, making it easy and flexible to deploy.

Collaborating and Co-Innovating to Grow and Scale Sustainability Solutions

Third, the complexity of the challenges we face demands a multi-sectoral and multi-disciplinary approach to innovation. This requires collaboration across sectors – governments, academia and companies, as well as across academic disciplines.

Each sector plays a different yet important role. Academia provides the deep scientific knowledge and know-how to turn concepts into workable prototypes. Companies help test-bed prototypes, give a market perspective to help translate technologies into commercially viable products, and also provide financial backing. The government further catalyses the development and translation of R&D by providing the infrastructure, funding, platforms for collaboration, and a conducive regulatory framework.

Our water story is a good example of such collaboration. Water has always been an existential issue for Singapore. Over the last few decades, the Government has heavily invested in infrastructure to recycle every last drop of water, while right pricing water according to its long term scarcity. PUB also worked closely with researchers and companies
to develop technologies, giving us NEWater and desalination as part of our 4 national taps. As a result, we not only closed the water loop, but also groomed a thriving water sector in our economy, creating close to 15,000 jobs in Singapore across 200 companies and 25 R&D centres in the past 10 years.

A key role government plays is balancing innovation with public interest and safety.  Policy makers must have constant dialogue with researchers and innovators, and continually review policies and regulations to ensure relevance in the face of disruptive technologies.

This is relevant, for example, in the field of food safety innovation. Under the Singapore Food Story R&D Programme, SFA, A*STAR, and NTU will set up a new platform called the Future REady Food Safety Hub, or FRESH in short, to foster deep collaboration between the food industry, researchers and regulators. Not only would it allow “first-in-market” food products to be safely launched in Singapore, it could also enhance our local food regulatory capabilities, and help promote Singapore-developed food standards internationally.

Other than collaborating, we must also readily explore multi-disciplinary solutions. We can come up with better solutions by combining ideas and approaches from different disciplines. For example, PUB will roll out 300,000 digital smart water meters across the island by 2023. Smart meters enable daily reading and tracking of water consumption by PUB, allowing quicker detection of leaks in the water supply network. Smart meters also allow customers to easily access their daily water usage, which could empower and “nudge” them to change their usage behaviour. By harnessing both smart digital technology and behavioural science, smart water meters can help increase both operational efficiency and water savings.

Scientific Talent Essential to Powering Singapore’s Sustainability Efforts

Of course, the foundation of innovative, game-changing science lies in having good scientific talent. We need scientists and researchers who not only have deep scientific expertise, but can also educate and communicate science to the general public, and stoke a passion for sustainability in others, especially our youth. If our youth can appreciate the importance of science, technology and sustainability, they will be prepared to face tomorrow’s environmental challenges, and safeguard Singapore’s future.

I am pleased to know that there are scientists and researchers giving their time and expertise to such efforts. Let me name a few.

Dr Poh Hee Joo, a senior scientist at A*STAR’s Institute of High Performance Computing, actively shares knowledge on environmentally-friendly building design with the construction industry, as an adjunct lecturer under the BCA Green Mark professional course. He also helps BCA assess ventilation projects, and applies computational fluid dynamics to achieve greener building designs.

More recently, Dr Poh led a team of researchers and collaborators from HDB to develop a modelling tool to simulate the interaction of environmental conditions with the urban landscape. This tool could help planners and architects design and site new flats to maximise thermal comfort, and create a more conducive living environment. This innovation received an MND Merit Award at the recent Urban Sustainability R&D Congress.

Another outstanding researcher is Dr Goh Chee Keong, a senior manager who spearheads R&D efforts at Republic Polytechnic’s Environmental Technology Centre.  Over the past 10 years, Dr Goh has worked with NEA to find ways to treat incineration ash for utilisation in construction and automobiles, by eliminating the risk of toxic heavy metals in the ash leaching into the environment.

Dr Goh and his team have created novel chemicals which prevent toxic heavy metals exposed to water, sunlight and air from polluting the surroundings. They are conducting further studies to ensure these chemicals could be adopted by industry. Dr Goh is also passionate about educating and inspiring the youth to apply science towards sustainability, through his concurrent role as a lecturer in Environmental Science at Republic Polytechnic.

I look forward to meeting the researchers and innovators here today who are doing meaningful scientific work.


Let me conclude. As we move ahead on our journey of sustainable development, we must shift our mindset to embrace a circular economy approach, put science firmly as the foundation of everything we do, and collaborate across sectors and disciplines.

As we pursue science and technology for the betterment of Singapore and the world, I invite the research community and companies to partner with the Government to safeguard our environment for our children and grandchildren.

Thank you, and I wish you all a fruitful forum.