SM Teo Chee Hean's interview for Credit Suisse Supertrends Webinar series

SM Teo Chee Hean | 24 September 2020

SM Teo Chee Hean's interview with CNBC Anchor Martin Soong for the Credit Suisse Supertrends webinar series on 23 September 2020.


“Singapore 2030: Navigating the next decade”

CNBC Martin Soong: Let us start our conversation with Senior Minister. It is great to have you with us here, and we must necessarily start with the coronavirus first. I think a lot of people in Singapore are wondering –how safe are we? I have been keeping track of the numbers daily. They have been falling for the last week or so, they have been in the low double digits. How close are we to starting to normalise, the way New Zealand seems to be now?

SM Teo Chee Hean: First of all, Martin, it is a great pleasure to join you and also all our friends out there who are joining in via the webinar. It is an indication of how COVID-19 has impacted all our lives, and how it has changed the way we work, the way we think about what is important in life and how to organise our lives in a more efficient and effective way. Actually, I think we have found that we have been able to do quite a lot of things effectively, even though we have lockdowns or what we call a circuit breaker in Singapore over several months. We have been able to contain the effects of the virus gradually and slowly, through a very careful and painstaking process. It involves early detection, containment, isolation and making sure that we can keep control of the situation. But, let us remember that the virus remains the same. It is as infectious as before and as potent as before. What has changed is how we have responded to it in our daily lives, and the measures we have taken. So, it is not a question of if we go back to where we were before. If we go back to where we were before without safety measures, we will be in trouble again, because the virus is going to behave in exactly the same way. My experience in dealing with the virus over the last four or five months, is that it is a very fast moving virus, it will find all the nooks and crannies and crevices, and come through and surprise you in a way which you have not thought of before. So, we are going to open up, but in a very careful and controlled way, and we are already beginning to do that.

CNBC: Talk to us about air bubbles. How close is Singapore to having air bubbles with certain countries?

SM Teo: This takes two hands to clap. It is not a question of, ‘oh, we are prepared to do it’. But other countries must be prepared to do it. We must be confident of them, and they must be confident of us. Quite frankly in the world today, most countries are frightened of each other. The thought of opening up – if we think we are safe, you want to be sure that the other side is also safe. We have done it with New Zealand and Brunei, we have opened up unilaterally with testing requirements. We have got bubbles with Japan, Korea and Malaysia. We have opened up in a controlled way but actually in quite a broad way, and we are discussing with a number of other countries as well.

CNBC: In the bubbles, and the travel experience, does it include quarantine or does it depend on country to country?

SM Teo: It depends on country to country, so it is a question of testing either before embarking on the journey, or upon arrival in the country of destination. Some of it will require quarantine, some of it will require abbreviated quarantine.

CNBC: Is this reciprocal then for Singapore? If the other country requires one week, then Singapore will require one week as well?

SM Teo: What we have said is that, we should conform to the health requirements in the country which you are visiting. That may vary from country to country. With New Zealand and Brunei, we have quite reasonable confidence that they have got it under control, so we have minimal requirements and restrictions.

CNBC: Senior Minister, if you do not mind, I should try and personalise this – for somebody like yourself, a senior leader in government, what has the experience been? How has the coronavirus changed your life? I mean, do you work from home like millions of other people, or how does it work?

SM Teo: It has impacted everyone's lives, in Singapore and around the world, and everyone’s working life – some people have lost their jobs, or have been put on a furlough of some kind, so it has had a very serious impact on many people in Singapore and elsewhere. For myself, I have spent much more time working from home, and I spend much more time working on COVID-related issues – helping to manage the outbreaks, specifically in our migrant worker dormitories.

CNBC: How is that going? Because that at one stage was pretty controversial and attracted a fair bit of criticism from outside.

SM Teo: Actually, very few places in the world were ready to face such an infectious disease. Most cities and domiciles were really not ready for it, whether it is a university hostel, cruise ship or aircraft carrier. If you say it is lack of discipline and cleanliness, then why do nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, such as United States and French nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, get infected with this? They are disciplined, they maintain good hygiene standards on board and, in fact, they are designed to continue fighting in a nuclear, biological and chemical environment. Why do cruise ships get it? They are living in the lap of luxury. So, it is really whether or not your system was designed to be able to withstand an infectious disease of this kind. It has been shown that in a number of different settings, whether you are in a developed city like New York or Paris, or whether you are a city in a developing country like New Delhi, you face serious problems because this is a disease which is highly infectious and spreads. So, all of us have to take this seriously.

For the dormitories, it took us quite a while to bring it under control, because we wanted to do several things. We wanted to make sure that we look after the workers well. They are here to make an honest living, they work, and it is our responsibility to look after them. So, we make sure that we look after their pay, their food and their health. This shows in the extremely low fatality rates. It is not serendipity; it was something which we set out to do, deliberately. When we had the problem, we set out to achieve those objectives.

Let me give you one example. In many countries, if you are tested coronavirus positive (C+), you are asked to isolate at home, and your family members are asked to isolate at home. Everyone in Singapore who is tested coronavirus positive, is brought to a healthcare facility, including every one of the migrant workers in Singapore, and we look after them. We had more than 20,000 pulse oximeters, which we distributed to our migrant workers so that they could monitor their health status daily, and hourly, if need be.

CNBC: Senior Minister, have all of them been tested now?

SM Teo: Yes, they have. More than once. But you have to understand that no test is 100 per cent perfect. We have tested all of them, we know what their status is and they have started work already. All of them have returned to work. We trust but we verify. In fact, everyone who works on a construction work site, which was where some of the initial infections and mixing took place, has to go on a Rostered Routine Testing cycle once every 14 days. Everyone, whether it is a migrant worker or Singaporean, if he mixes together in that work site milieu, he has to be tested once every 14 days. That is where we are getting some of these cases now, because we are sort of running everyone through a filtration system again to make sure that we clean it all up.

CNBC: Singapore is part of global efforts to come up with a vaccine, can you update us on that?

SM Teo: Sure, we are fortunate that we have invested over the last two decades in a fairly strong biomedical sector in Singapore – in R&D, as well as a strong healthcare sector, and the two sort of overlap and reinforce each other. We were able to sequence the virus very early on, and that helped us to develop a very good test early to combat the virus. We have labs here which are doing therapeutics as well, so there is some promise there. We also have some vaccine candidates which are going into test. But I think the solution is not to look at a single-country solution to a vaccine, but to look at a global solution to vaccines. I think you and your readers would have read about COVAX. They have 156 members, and they have enlisted I think nine candidate vaccines from across the world. The idea is that we should be able to bring the vaccine to those people most in need in all the participating countries in the world, rather than having it being cornered by any particular country. We are a big supporter of that, and we think that is the way to go. We, together with Switzerland, are chairing the Friends of COVAX group, to encourage more people to come on, and we hope that some of the major countries which have not come on, like the US and China, will do so as well.

CNBC: Once the vaccine becomes available, let us say through this COVAX initiative – for people here in Singapore, will the vaccine be offered free, subsidised or what is the intention?

SM Teo: Initially, we will make sure that those people who need it the most will get it. Those on the frontline, our healthcare workers who are exposed to it. They have done a sterling job in Singapore and elsewhere in the world, so we must protect them. Then there are the vulnerable groups like the elderly. We have not worked out the economics yet, but these are the groups that we will target, and make sure that we can reach them first. That is the whole point of COVAX, that we want to reach these groups all over the world, not just in a specific country. That is what we would like to do.

CNBC: Senior Minister, you mentioned China and the United States. They do not seem to be playing nice with anybody these days but we will get back to that in just a bit. I want to move on and talk about climate change, because there is a big connection. Earlier on at the beginning of the virus and the lockdown etc., one of the unusual experiences that a lot of people had, was suddenly, “oh my gosh, clear skies, no pollution, I can see no traffic.” The waters and rivers were clean, it was almost amazing right? The irony and the sad thing is this was simply because activity had literally ground to a halt. That obviously cannot be the case.

The question now arises, whether this can be an opportunity for governments around the world, including Singapore, to take a look at this and go, “what has happened to climate change?” Should we be using this as an opportunity to continue pushing climate change?

SM Teo: Yes, I think this provides a wonderful opportunity to, as they say, build back stronger, or in Singapore we say emerge stronger from the crisis. That is important. What you said is that this is a temporary phenomenon where economic activity had to stop. I saw that too in the Beijing Olympics and the Athens Olympics, where suddenly the traffic jams disappear and the skies are clear, but that is a temporary phenomenon. How do we get each country and the world to move in that direction? I believe the European Union is taking quite a big step in that direction. In its recovery package, they put aside quite a lot of money to build back stronger, and in Singapore that is what we are doing too. It is something which we should not take our eye off because, while COVID and the pandemic are an immediate concern, climate change is a long-term concern which will affect all of us, and which requires global action for it to be effective. You cannot (just) take local action.

CNBC: Let me ask you, the extra budgets that Singapore has already come up with to offset or address the negative impact of the coronavirus, how much of that money has gone towards climate change related goals or targets, or is that is that totally separate budgeting?

SM Teo: We have drawn on three sets of reserves if you would like, in order to combat COVID. First, we have drawn on our reserves of social cohesion and social harmony, so that people hold together and help each other to come through the crisis. Second, we have depended on our reserves of organisational capability, or Whole-of-Government and Whole-of-Nation capabilities in order to bring resources together to combat the crisis. Third, we have depended on our financial reserves in order to be able to fund all the things we needed to do to fight it and then to recover.

Dealing with climate change – adaptation, mitigation – has always been a part of our Singapore agenda. In a way, we were green before green was fashionable, because we realised this early. Our first Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, knew and we all knew that we only have this one little island. If we despoil it, there is nowhere else we can go. So, we had better make sure we look after it well as our precious little island. That is why we have taken steps early. For example, we moved from fuel oil for electricity generation to natural gas. We are almost 100 per cent natural gas except for some renewables for electricity generation, and we did that at least 15 years or maybe 20 years ago. Well before anybody else was doing it. I mean, in Europe, several major countries are still quite dependent on coal. We have moved to nearly 100 percent natural gas, as a transition fuel 10 or 15 years ago. It cost us at that time because natural gas is expensive. But we were prepared to pay the price.


CNBC: Talking about the price, I know that Singapore is intending or planning to spend $100 billion to specifically tackle the issue of climate change. I cannot remember whether that is over… 100 years? For viewers who are interested, someone is going to have to pay for it somehow, does that necessarily mean taxes and subsidies are going to have to go up?


SM Teo: I have a little diagram, perhaps I can ask our friends to share it and show our viewers (link to download (pdf, 102.77KB)). This describes what we have in mind. On the left, you will see our Nationally Determined Contribution and our targets up to 2030. We intend to peak our emissions by 2030. Today, we are already one of the 20 best countries in the world, out of 140  countries that were measured, in terms of emissions per dollar of GDP. By 2030, we intend to improve our emissions intensity by 36 per cent compared to 2005. On the right column, you will see the number 33 there – what we intend to do by 2050, is to halve our emissions. This is 33 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. We are making a huge effort in this. Even though we are responsible for about 0.1 per cent of the world's emissions, we think that it is important for every country to do its part. So we are going to halve our emissions by 2050. We are going to do this in three key ways.


The top section in the middle column there, is transforming the way that we run our economy – energy efficiency, carbon efficiency, electrification of vehicles, and so forth. We can talk about these later. In the middle, we are investing a lot in R&D. In the last five-year period, out of 15 billion for the Research, Innovation and Enterprise package, we have allocated about a billion into sustainability and environmental investments in R&D. The last part of that, the bottom row in that middle column talks about international cooperation, and that includes having properly working carbon markets and so on. This is the mitigation part. And then the adaptation part, what you do to respond to the effects of climate change, is where the $100 billion comes in.  If we do it slowly over a period of time, and if we do it smartly, we may actually get a positive return from it.


CNBC: Interesting, but sea walls, mangrove swamps etc. Because one of the unusual things about Singapore, because of its location geographically so close to the equator, is that it is more affected than most other places by rising sea levels.


SM Teo: Correct. We are a very low-lying Island, and for most of your audience who are familiar with Singapore, we are just about 700 square kilometres. We are about 40, 50 kilometres on one diagonal and about 20, 30 kilometres on the other diagonal. That is all. Quite a lot of our coastline is at or near sea level.


If you look at Marina Bay, which I think many of your viewers will be familiar with, that is a multipurpose development. One of its key purposes is actually flood protection for the city. The barrage is to protect the city from very high tides, and it allows us to keep the level inside the Marina Reservoir below the sea level outside. If there is an extremely high tide, we actually have very powerful pumps to pump water over the barrage out into the sea, to keep the level (in the reservoir) low and prevent flooding in the city. At the same time, it has allowed us to have a freshwater reservoir to add on to our water resources. And it has also allowed us to develop a new city centre. Three-in-one.


You can do something for flood protection, sea level rise adaptation, but in an economically sensible way. We could have reclaimed the whole lot, filled it all out, including the Bay itself. But a doughnut is interesting, only because there is a hole in the middle.


CNBC: You mentioned reclamation, SM. If I am not mistaken, since independence, the physical land mass of Singapore has increased by literally 25 per cent through reclamation, and Singapore is at the limits of that already. Otherwise, you start encroaching into other people's territorial waters. Is that true, and if so, how does that affect reclamation plans as part of trying to offset the rising sea level?


SM Teo: We are very respectful of international law and international borders, so there is no danger of us encroaching into other people's territory. We have increased our land area by the percentages that you talked about, but actually over a very small base. The Prime Minister described two years ago, what we could do to protect the east coast of Singapore, which is fairly low-lying. We could develop for example a series of barrier islands. Between the coastline and the islands, we could have a water body in between. The barrier islands could protect against higher sea levels. You could have land there which is developable, which is very nice waterfront land. You have waterfront land on all sides, protection against floods, and a water body in between which, depending on whether it is possible could be freshwater, or seawater. You can develop these things with a positive economic return, if you do it carefully and thoughtfully over a period of time.


Today, we are investing around $200 million a year on drainage works, to make sure that the drainage and flood control in Singapore is well done. If you talk about $100 billion over 100 years, it is something which is doable, and it is not money down the drain. You can get a return from it, just like Marina Bay.


CNBC: So far, we have been talking about ways that Singapore is planning to mitigate the effects of things like rising sea levels, which is a result of climate change. Let us now talk about Singapore's efforts to not aggravate the situation, which is the top part of the slide that we were looking at a few minutes ago. Before we started this we were talking about electric vehicles (EVs), and a lot of people are still wondering why there are not more EVs on the roads in Singapore, when Teslas were on the roads in Hong Kong more than a decade ago. What has happened here?


SM Teo: Well, because we do a complete accounting of the carbon footprint of vehicles. An EV is not a zero-emission vehicle if you do a complete accounting of the energy, because the energy must come from somewhere. In Singapore, although we have switched completely to natural gas – the cleanest fossil fuel today – for electricity generation, it is still emitting. So, you have to count all that in, and see how that electric vehicle or electric-powered vehicle compares with a very efficient internal combustion engine (ICE). You have to look at both of these on the same basis, and that is the proper scientific, climate change and economic basis to look at it.


CNBC: So you are saying on a whole cost basis, EVs are still not…


SM Teo: That was at that time, but EVs have made tremendous advances since then. Battery technology, efficiencies have gone up tremendously. In fact, in Singapore, we have stated our objective to move towards a greener vehicle fleet by 2040.  We are agnostic as to whether they are electric vehicles or hydrogen-powered or some form of these vehicles.


CNBC: But no internal combustion engines by 2040?


SM Teo: Hybrid vehicles may well have some sort of combination of the two, because there may be some use cases where that is needed, when you need high traction power. But, in principle, we are moving towards an all green vehicle fleet by 2040. Already since March this year, every new public bus we purchase is either a hybrid, or an electric. That is the way we are going. We intend to develop a charging infrastructure in Singapore because you cannot have electric vehicles without a charging infrastructure. You cannot have hydrogen cars without a hydrogen distribution structure. We intend to implement something like 28,000 charging points by 2030 in Singapore. Singapore is a bit different from other cities because most of our people live in apartments, and so cars are parked collectively in the collective car parks and you cannot charge your car in your own garage. We need to have some kind of public charging infrastructure. That is for cars, but our intention is to lean towards public transport. Today, public transport accounts for about 70 per cent of commutes. We intend to move towards 75, and at peak hours 90 per cent of commutes by public transport or some form of private shared transportation means. I do not think it helps the city very much if you convert every internal combustion engine car today to an electric vehicle. You will just have converted a traffic jam of internal combustion engines into a traffic jam of electric vehicles. I am not sure that improves things very much. You actually have to reconsider how you design a city, and many cities are moving towards car-lite and we are too.


CNBC: In terms of powering Singapore, you mentioned that many years ago, Singapore made the decision to go with natural gas, rather than coal for electricity, for power generation. I know this question has come up a number of times but not very regularly – the last time I remember it brought up was probably a decade ago – and that is the issue of nuclear power. You have been quoted saying, at that point when you recorded that, that it is not safe enough and I think that is the key issue. What about today though? Is it back on the table?


SM Teo: First of all, the last time we used coal was probably in the 1950s, and then we moved to fuel oil, and for at least the past decade and a half we have been using natural gas already. We looked at nuclear energy very carefully. Today's technology for fission nuclear reactors is not quite appropriate for Singapore yet. If you look at Fukushima’s nuclear reactors, those were not the current generation, but were of a generation and a half ago. The evacuation area was 50 kilometers in diameter – that is bigger than the whole of Singapore. It is not possible for us. But there are new generations of fission reactors and fusion reactors, which offer some promise, designed with fail-safe inherent safety measures.


We had a very interesting, closed-door seminar some time last year to examine all the nuclear technologies and the safety issues including fusion. We were looking very carefully at what the Europeans have been doing with the new, huge Tokamak project. Some of the scientists said it is no longer science, it is engineering; that he science problems have been solved, and it is now about how to get it to work as an engineering problem. I think that is a little bit optimistic, but that is where they assessed it to be. These are people working on the project, so they know, but I think they are inherently a little bit optimistic.


CNBC: Vested interests there.


SM Teo: But they are very good people.


CNBC: Is nuclear power generation still an option for Singapore some time in the future?


SM Teo: We have not ruled it out, and it is certainly something which we have to keep watching very carefully. But this generation (of reactors), and I think even the next generation – are not quite suitable for us. We probably have to go two generations down in order to have nuclear energy which is appropriate for Singapore with the right safety requirements, and maybe to fusion.


CNBC: Would it be fair to say that the honest truth also is – above and beyond everything we have talked about – for a small state like Singapore, the decision whether or not to go with nuclear power generation is also very much a political one?


SM Teo: Yes, of course. We want to make sure we understand the science and the safety. That is why six years ago, we started the Singapore Nuclear Research and Safety Initiative. We want to make sure that we are completely up to speed on these issues, we know all the issues with regard to nuclear power generation and all the safety issues. So that some time in the future, we will be able to make a well-informed decision on how to proceed, and also to contribute to regional thinking on nuclear safety and nuclear power. There will be countries in our region who will also be interested in that.


CNBC: We have talked about the coronavirus and climate change. What are the other huge challenges which Singapore, and the rest of the world, are facing? The increasing confrontation with the US and China – both nuclear powers – what do you make of it right now? On one hand, it started as a trade war and now, it has morphed into what looks to be a semi-conductor or chip war. At the same time, people are talking about a hot war as well, with what is going on with Taiwan, Hong Kong, South China Sea and etc. What do you make of all these?


SM Teo: If you allow me, I will just take one step back and look at the issues and trends that we are facing today. Our participants might be interested in how we think about these issues. I mentioned earlier that we see three major trends which are going to drive government action, where the investment opportunities are. These are healthcare, including longevity, partly also because of COVID-19. Then the whole sustainability issue which we have talked about. And then digital, which also has been given a big push by COVID-19 and all the lockdowns and circuit breaker. These are the three big opportunities for countries, companies or investors, but I would say that there are also three risks and watch items.


The first, as you mentioned, is geopolitics – how countries interact with each other, what the shape of the world is, what the China-US relationship is.


The second I would say is financial stability because many countries today have acted very quickly to inject very large amounts of money to keep their economies and jobs going, but that is going to have a tail. How that tail will be digested and worked out over the next five, ten years will have an impact. That is something to be watched and is a risk.


The third factor is the whole issue of balanced development and equity. How the benefits of growth are shared, and how the difficulties that may arise from COVID-19 may fall upon different groups of people. These are the three watch things, but we can come back to China and the US if you want to.


CNBC: Let's do that. You are a former Navy man, with 20 years in the Navy, and finally retired as a rear admiral. What do you think China's intentions are? I think we talked about this offline. It is building a blue-water Navy. That is a fact. We have seen the evidence already. Is it its intention to project power or to defend access to that other country?


SM Teo: I am not in a position to know what their intentions are, but I have read Admiral Liu Huaqing (who was the third Commander-in-Chief of the PLA-Navy from 1982-1988). He is the father of naval strategy in China. I had the opportunity to meet him when I was a very young man. He was very kind and shared his views with me. When he was passing through Singapore, we had a meal together. He basically developed the concepts for China's naval strategy. But you have to understand that China has inherently been a continental power, and that has been what its orientation is. For example, through the early years after 1945, when they went (towards) self-sufficiency, they looked at themselves as a continental power. Only in relatively recent times have they looked at themselves with more widespread maritime interests. The only time in its history when it came close to that was in Admiral Zheng He’s time, when China sent expeditions abroad, but withdrew into itself again quite quickly. The sea has been an axis of threat for China over generations, not necessarily an axis of opportunity. I think now they are changing their view because they trade with the world, their exports flow to the world, they bring their energy and raw materials from around the world, and sea routes are important to them. I have had these discussions with my Chinese friends and I said, “Eventually, you, together with other maritime trading nations, will come to the conclusion that free access to the seas are important to all countries including yourself, and we will have more of an alignment of interests.” I hope that that will actually come about.


CNBC: Talking about alignment of interests, for myself, and I think a lot of other people who follow what goes on in the South China Sea, one of the most frustrating and puzzling things is why, even after so long, a code of conduct (COC) which everybody can agree on for the South China Sea, still has not been agreed on or developed. Some of the critics say it is because of the approach that China is taking. Let's say with regard to ASEAN – rather than negotiate with ASEAN collectively as a group, it is negotiating one-on-one directly, and therefore, literally, picking off allies, dividing and conquering. Is what they are doing fair? Does that make it harder too?


SM Teo: If we come back to the use of the sea for commerce and freedom of the seas for navigation, that is provided for under UNCLOS. It is a public good which every country in the world has an interest in preserving. China has contributed to it, for example, by countering piracy in the Gulf of Aden, which has been very helpful and very useful. That is a separate issue from territorial claims in the South China Sea. When it comes to sovereignty, it becomes very difficult to resolve, because it cannot be yours in the morning, mine in the afternoon, and his tomorrow. It does not work that way.


CNBC: What you are saying is if commercial interests and money are involved, it is a lot easier to negotiate?


SM Teo: Sovereignty is indivisible. But production sharing and the sharing of economic benefits are infinitely divisible between two, three, four parties – it can be done. It has been done before. Even in our own region, in the Gulf of Thailand, there have been negotiations over parts of the sea, which have been disputed, but production agreements have been able to be worked out. In the Timor gap between Australia and Timor Leste, there had been production agreements though re-negotiated at some time. It can be done. You set aside sovereignty and then you focus on how we can extract the economic benefits. If all sides are benefiting from the economic outflow, everybody has a vested interest in maintaining stability. It is not unusual for countries to do that, and I hope that we can arrive at that. But the COC and other kinds of arrangements are meant to maintain stability so that we do not have flare ups, which lead to situations which then become uncontrollable.


CNBC: Very quickly, one last one. I think this is one of the key questions much longer into the future. Come November, in less than two months’ time, the US elections – whether it is a second term for Trump or whether Joe Biden and Kamala Harris come in – what does it mean for Singapore potentially, and what could it mean for the rest of the world?


SM Teo: Actually we had our own elections barely two, three months ago. To be honest, one of the things at the back of our minds when we were trying to decide when to have an election, was not just domestic issues but the international environment. We looked at COVID-19 and we wondered if things were going to get better or worse. We needed to have an election, when do we have it? I am glad that we had an election because we have been able to put that behind us, and now we have a stable political environment and we can use that stable political platform to think about the future, and to deal with some of these uncertainties including what is going to happen in the US elections, the relations between US-China, how COVID-19 will develop, and all these other things. There are so many uncertainties and I think it is good that we have put our own election behind us to provide a stable platform for that.


It would appear that there have been bipartisan feelings that there needs to be a renegotiation or reevaluation of relations between the US and China. I think that is probably a given, whoever wins the election. But I would say that we should also not treat it as inevitable that the two countries will clash. I need to be more optimistic than that. I was doing my Master's in Public Administration 30 years ago in Harvard, and Japan was the most popular topic back then. There was even a book called ‘The Coming War with Japan’. I think it is incumbent upon all of us to make sure that this does not happen. I see that we can work for a more cooperative world and we can envision a better future for all of us.


This is the 75th anniversary of the United Nations. Out of that huge global calamity of World War II, we developed the UN, its institutions, the International Court of Justice, the Bretton Woods institutions, that have kept the world together and progressing over the last 75 years. The last time we had a very major financial crisis – the global financial crisis – the G20 leaders’ meeting was born. The G20 leaders worked together to restore global financial stability and allowed the world to move on and recover. I think we can do better than that as a world.


CNBC: I would share that hope as well. SM, we have about five minutes left. Let's get to some questions from the virtual audience. He or she asks “Is suppressing the virus a huge mistake? How will Singapore manage to ever open up again if it sticks to a target of no COVID-19 cases?”


SM Teo: I would say that the assumption is wrong in that we do not believe that we can get to no COVID-19 cases. We want to have a situation where if any COVID-19 case arises, we want to be able to contain it. I have been dealing with this issue in Singapore for the last four to six months personally. I look at it every night and I look at it every morning. These are the first reports I read. We managed to contain it quite well in the first couple of months. But it almost got away from us in April and May. In the first week of April, we had numbers in the low double digits. By the third week of April, we were having four digit numbers, over 1,000 a day, and that is how fast it moves.


If you listen to what the scientific adviser and the chief medical officer in UK said, if it doubles every seven days, the UK will have 50,000 cases a day within two months or eight weeks. That is the way the virus moves, so we have to maintain strong preventive and containment measures, and make sure that we do not end up with super spreading events. Once it gets out of control, it is very difficult to bring it back under control. We are gradually opening up, and we are opening up in a careful and controlled way with other countries. We have greater capabilities now, including testing and isolation facilities, and we understand the virus better, so it allows us to open up safely, and we intend to do so.


CNBC: Here is another one, which I think is interesting and also relevant given Credit Suisse’ private banking, because we talked about this whole issue of generational wealth transfer a lot. The question is, “Do you think that the millennial generation has accelerated the rate of change in Singapore with regard to, for example, in climate action, in working behaviour?”


SM Teo: I think it is good that the millennial generation and the younger generation are more aware of these issues – climate and the global impacts. For us in Singapore, I would say that from a government perspective, we are climate realists. We do not take one extreme position or another. There are some people who say climate change does not exist, there is another group of people who say that climate change is the be all, end all of everything. We are climate realists. We studied the science, we know what it means, we know it is serious, and we know that everybody has to do something about it and we are doing our best. It is a good thing that the younger generation are taking this on board, and we need their support in order to get many things done. For example, we are one of the countries that have put in comprehensive carbon pricing and we need the support of the public in order to have this done.


CNBC: This is an interesting question, talking about how the coronavirus has changed the way we live our daily lives. My wife cooks, but I think a lot of people order in through all sorts of delivery services and that is a necessary event. I think you have seen it too – a very sharp increase in the use of plastic bags. This is another question – plastic use is a big issue for the environment. Why can't Singapore be harder on plastic use instead of slowly implementing policies? Shouldn’t we be drastic about it?


SM Teo: Plastic has important uses. It keeps food fresh and healthy, prevents the spread of diseases, and it helps to prevent food wastage too. Plastic has its uses, but one must do so in a careful way. I think what is important is that we cut down on excessive packaging. We use plastics when we need to, for example, to protect health workers. We must be careful when we dispose of it – we should dispose of it in an environmentally friendly way, make sure it does not go into the waterways, and make sure that if we can recycle it, we recycle it. I think that is the responsible thing to do. But plastics are an important part of the whole ecosystem, because if we do not use plastics, we have to use something else – whether it is wood, paper or pulp. So we need to do a full accounting as well from an environmental point of view.


CNBC: On social media, there have been some cheeky critics who have wondered out loud whether Singapore and its action to fight climate change is being held back because of the oil majors here. They were very early, and so are very significant investors – Jurong, Bukom, etc. Are they being harnessed to become part of the solution, or are they holding Singapore back?


SM Teo: They want to be part of the solution. I have spoken to some of them fairly recently. Royal Dutch Shell, for example, has just come up with a vision for the future. But do not forget that in Singapore, we probably have one of the biggest biodiesel plants in the world, if not the biggest. It is a company called Neste. They opened about a decade ago – the largest biodiesel plant in the world in Singapore - and they are investing in Singapore to double this capacity. These are the things which we are doing in Singapore as well. We are developing a whole suite of solutions. We are one of the first countries in the world to offer bunkering using natural gas, which will also help cut down maritime emissions by a very large amount.


CNBC: With just seconds left, please sum it up for us –are you more optimistic or pessimistic today about the future?


SM Teo: I have to be optimistic about the future, and I am. Coming out of COVID-19, it showed that Singaporeans have very strong social cohesion. We work together and drew upon that to build a future for individuals, for our country. In Singapore, we have moved from trying to preserve jobs to trying to move companies and workers to new jobs of the future, including green jobs. Then, we need to envision a world which is more cooperative than the world which we have today. I do not think that a bifurcation and a collapse of the international architecture is inevitable. It is up to us to see what we can do, and we in Singapore will work towards that. I am optimistic that there are many people, many countries in the world, which share the same ambition, that we will be able to come out of this crisis, and emerge greener and stronger.


CNBC: Thank you Senior Minister.