DPM Heng Swee Keat at the SUTD Design Innovation Forum "Design For a Sustainable World"

DPM Heng Swee Keat | 26 May 2023

Remarks by Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies Heng Swee Keat at the SUTD Design Innovation Forum “Design For a Sustainable World” on 26 May 2023.

Thank you all for joining us at the SUTD Design Innovation Forum this afternoon. I look forward to the discussion with my fellow panelists. Let me start by talking about what a sustainable economy is. There are at least four dimensions to a sustainable economy. The first dimension is about sustainability in an environmental sense, that some economic activities can be bad for the planet. Therefore, how do we have economic growth but at the same time take care of the planet?

The second dimension is sustainability in the form of our social support and social consensus for what we do. At the end of the day, economic growth is not growth for its own sake. It is to make lives better for our people.

The third dimension is in an economic sense. You will find that the global economy goes through very sharp cycles and sometimes some growth comes through very rapid expansion of debt, of financial instruments, of excessive spending. This is a short-term boost but not sustainable. That kind of growth can come to an end and sometimes very badly. 

Finally, the fourth is resilience. A sustainable economy should be resilient in that it is able to bounce back from downturns, especially sharp downturns. Let me now say a few words about each of these and what we can do about it. 

On the environmental dimension, we are very fortunate in Singapore. This year is Mr Lee Kuan Yew's 100th birth anniversary. One of Mr Lee’s consuming passions was about trees. We are one of the rare city-states to have such a high percentage of green cover. I am very glad that Minister Desmond Lee is continuing with that, with the One Million Trees programme. The aim is to plant a million trees by 2030.

Taking care of our environment is not just about trees, but also about how we reduce, reuse, and recycle, so that we minimise waste. In Singapore's case, it is again very important because we only have one landfill –  Pulau Semakau. So, a very important aspect of a sustainable environment is how we close the waste loop, and how we develop a more circular economy. 

Another aspect of the environment is that temperature change affects the whole planet’s biosystem and ecosystem. When we talk about food, food security and so on, changing temperatures affect the ocean in a very deep way, which in turn affects lives on land and in the sea, and that will have very significant consequences not only for Singapore but for the whole world. 

The second area which I mentioned is about social sustainability. I do believe that future economic growth is going to come from technology and innovation. If you look at the progress on digitisation, in AI, it is going to have a very significant effect on the future of jobs and the future of skills. Now, are you going to have a world where machines and AI systems replace all human beings?? Or are you going to have a world where humans learn how to make the best use of all this technology? In SUTD, for example, will professors who know how to use AI systems replace professors who do not know how, or refuse, to use AI systems?

I think those are the questions that we need to ask about whether we can sustain what we do today. Or do we pretend that the technological innovation we are seeing is not going to affect us, and therefore we just carry on as before?

On the economic sustainability dimension, with greater digitalisation in a global economy, I think all of you are familiar with the term “unicorn”. A digital economy can give you very outsized gains because you can now reach a global market which you previously could not. At the same time, the winners in this game will take a lot more than the losers. In fact, there is discussion today about a universal basic income, where you do not have to work but you will still receive a certain basic income. Personally, I think it is a bit too utopian.

I think the impact of technology on jobs, and whether you can sustain the consensus on technology and digitalisation, is going to be a major issue in the coming years. This will probably be less so for Singapore because we have a small and aging population and we should therefore welcome all these new technological innovations. But if you are a developing country with a young population, hoping to reap a population dividend from the youth, it is going to be an issue because the advances in robotics and AI are going to change the shape of economies significantly. 

And finally, for the resilience dimension, whether we can bounce back as a country from these rapid changes and sustain our economic growth depends first on whether we have the financial resources to do so. 

During COVID, I had to issue five budgets as Finance Minister. We spent in one year what we normally do in two years, but without borrowing a single cent. The young people here today are the biggest beneficiary of this because you do not have to take on debt for what we spent. We are fortunate that our Pioneer Generation, our pioneer leaders left us these savings to let us use when the crisis came. 

Another important aspect that we saw during COVID, was also social resilience. In other words, whether we have enough trust in our society, enough care and concern for others, that we all pitch in together during a major crisis. The sense that we can come together and overcome it together. 

I know you might be thinking much more about the environment when you talk about sustainability, but as I said earlier, I think the term “sustainability” has many dimensions. If we define sustainability as something which we can carry on into the future, then it is not just about the environment. The environment is one critical component, but it is also all these other things that allow Singapore to continue to be successful, and to be a place where our young people can grow up and say, “I have a future in this place”. Thank you.