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Speech by Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, Committee of Supply Debate, 12 March 2013

March 13, 2013

Originally published on 12 Mar 2013 by the Ministry of Environment and Water Resources.
1          The Ministry’s mission is to secure public health, to upgrade the quality of life for all Singaporeans, to foster an inclusive society and to ensure Singapore’s resilience in the long term, the very long term.

2          As a doctor, I am always reminded that actually, that it is the engineers and the staff of PUB and NEA, that have saved far more lives through the provision of clean water, modern sanitation, clean air, safe food and public hygiene. These staff save far more lives than doctors like me curing patients in a hospital. And this is something which we should not take for granted, and I hope members of the House and in fact members of the public, will also give due recognition to all these engineers, all these staff and all these cleaners, who work so assiduously to protect our environment and ultimately protect our welfare.

3          I believe it is worthwhile spending a few moments contemplating the key principles behind all the work of the Ministry. First, our primary concern is really the welfare of human beings. I know many people talk about protecting Mother Earth, protecting the environment. But let me be quite frank. The Earth will survive human beings, no matter what we do to it. What is at greater risk are human beings and the welfare of human beings. So really, human beings are both responsible for protecting the environment as well as being exquisitely vulnerable to the damage that we cause to the environment. The point I am making is that we do all these for the sake of ourselves. When we protect the environment, we are protecting ourselves and our children.

4          The second key principle is that we are all in this together. This is ultimate democracy – we all breathe the same air, drink the same water, eat the same food, and are susceptible to the same dengue or leptospirosis or all the other diseases which we are environmentally susceptible to. The point is that we are all equal before the environment. In fact, one very gratifying point is that I am glad that in this House, that there has been bipartisan support for the work of this Ministry.

5          The third principle is that we have to think long-term. For water, for waste and in fact, for all the major infrastructural projects of our Ministry, we think 50 years and beyond. And we have to make long term investments, and cannot just kick the can down the road.

6           Allow me now to address some of the specific issues which members have highlighted.

Building a Quality Living Environment

7          We set very high environmental standards for Singapore. Not because this is an ideological obsession or because it is fashionable, but because this is an obligation in the governance of a dense city-state. Paying attention to the environment is an investment in our future and our health. Even our economic viability depends on it. For instance, our high quality environment is a key competitive strength and it is the reason why companies and people decide to base their families and situate their headquarters in this safe, secure, liveable and loveable city called Singapore. So it is not a trade-off between the economy and environment, in fact, it is a virtuous cycle.

Good Air Quality

8          A clean environment starts with the air we breathe. I know we often take this for granted, but when you start experiencing scenes – one of them is the scene from the volcanic eruption in Iceland (I remembered that because I got stuck in London and could not fly for few days as a result of that). The other scene you will recognise is the smog in Beijing. We quibble here about the PSI being 10 or 20 but over there, we talk about a PSI of 500. So you know it and you appreciate it when you miss it.

9          Mr Charles Chong and Mr Nicholas Fang asked about measures to improve air quality. Last August, we had announced that Singapore would adopt new air quality targets, back to the more stringent WHO air quality guidelines by 2020. We have not actually yet reached those targets, and that is why we need to step up our game and enhance standards.

10        So for instance, in order to reduce sulphur dioxide emissions, MEWR and MTI are jointly working with the major emitters, and as Mr Nicholas Fang has said, in fact the only six suspects in the room, as far as sulphur dioxide is concerned. We are working directly with the power generators as well as the oil refineries, to improve their processes and to invest in appropriate technology. Quite frankly, technological solutions are available – it is a matter of cost and liability. And in the case of the electricity-generating companies, a switch to natural gas has been a big benefit for the environment.

11        We are also concerned about Fine Particulate Matter, in particular, what we call PM2.5, smaller than 2.5 microns. The paradox here is in fact, it is the stuff that you do not see that is more dangerous, because PM2.5 is inhaled deeply into the lungs embedded in those tissues, and often never leaves our bodies. Vehicles account for 57% of all PM2.5 that we have in Singapore. We have progressively tightened standards for diesel vehicles for the past six years. And, we will next impose Euro V standards for all new diesel vehicles, with effect from 1 Jan 2014. I think Mr Charles Chong asked for the percentage of Euro V-compliant diesel vehicles that are currently on the roads. It is very small – there are only about 3,400 of such vehicles on the road, but over the years to come, we hope with these new standards in place, the fleet will gradually be replaced.

 

12        Speaking of replacement of the fleet, we currently have 38,000 very old diesel commercial vehicles of pre-Euro or pre-Euro I emissions standards. You see, commercial diesel vehicles have a statutory lifespan of 20 years, so that means they actually have a very long tail. The Ministry of Transport and my Ministry will be implementing an Early Turnover Scheme which will incentivise the owners of these old commercial diesel vehicles to retire them early and to upgrade them to vehicles that meet the new Euro V emissions standards.  We will provide more details of this scheme within the next two months.

13        We also need to deal with motorcycles. There are more than 143,000 motorcycles in Singapore and most of them are of Euro 1 standard. We will be raising the emissions standards for all new motorcycles to the Euro III standards with effect from 1 Oct 2014. These new motorcycles will emit less than a fifth of the pollutants compared to the current fleet.

14        Finally, we also need to address air pollution from beyond our shores, as Mr. Nicholas Fang and Mr. Charles Chong have emphasised. This is a chronic recurrent problem and as I have said before; in fact, this is a commercial problem. It is cheaper unfortunately, for our plantation owners to clear land by burning forests, and unfortunately, a lot of this land is on peatland which continues to burn subterranean, for weeks or months thereafter. Working with our fellow Ministers and Ministries in ASEAN, we are trying to put pressure on these companies by the use of technology such as digital geo-referenced concession maps and satellite and other mapping technologies so that ultimately, we can name and shame the culprits for engaging in such anti-environment and anti-social activities.

Developing Community Spaces

 Expanding the ABC Waters Programme

15        Let me now turn to the ABC Waters programme. I totally agree with Dr Teo Ho Pin that this has been a programme which has been very welcomed by members of the public who have gained access to our reservoirs. We have converted canals into riverine attractions in their own right. I will take his suggestion about improving car parking, toilets and facilities, and catering facilities specifically to different segments of our population – the seniors, the children, as well as the long-distance joggers. We will make sure that we will interconnect these ABC or what I call blue ribbons of water, with the national green park connector network, so that you will be able to have access throughout the island and you can run many marathons along these routes.

16        We have completed 20 projects so far, but the good news is that in fact we have identified about 100 sites that could potentially be developed over the next 15 to 20 years. I am not saying we can do all 100, but I am saying there is potential to do many more sites.

17        The ABC programmes have encouraged new lifestyle activities in many of our waterways and the surrounding lands, such as the Sengkang Floating Wetlands project at the Punggol Reservoir and the urban wetlands at the Alexandra Canal. PUB will continue to work with NParks on more of such projects, including mega projects like the Bishan-Toa Payoh Park.

18        I am pleased to update Mr Heng Chee How who has asked for his own constituency, that PUB will explore another ABC project along the stretch between Whampoa Drive and Kim Keat Road, taking into account the opportunities that will open up when there are new developments such as the new HDB project opposite the Whampoa Community Club.

19        There are three more ABC projects which are due for completion later this year, at Sungei Pandan, Sungei Ulu Pandan and the Geylang River. Construction will begin on another 5 projects later this year, at Sungei Tampines, Sungei Api Api, Kallang River (next to St Andrew’s School) and Siglap Canal.

20        Between 2014 and 2017, construction will commence on new projects at the Kallang Riversideand the Jurong Lake.

Developing and Enhancing Hawker Centres

21        Let me now move to a topic which Er Lee Bee Wah, Mr Gan Thiam Poh and Mr Liang Eng Hwa, and indeed many members of this House have focused on and it is something close to our hearts, or more accurately, closer to our stomachs –hawker centres. They are a source of livelihood for our hawkers and a space where all Singaporeans have access to delicious, freshly cooked food at affordable prices.

22        We started off as a hygiene project – to move mobile hawkers with no running water and questionable sanitation, into centres where you have running water, in order to improve public hygiene. But over the years, hawker centres have become part of our uniquely Singapore identity, and the fact that we can go there in our slippers, shorts and tee-shirts, reflects the informality of life in Singapore. And the fact that all of us, including politicians on both sides of the House, go to hawker centres to meet people, also reflects that multicultural cohesion and that uniqueness of Singapore life, the way it is today.

23        So, hawker centres are an essential part of our social infrastructure. More than half (55%) of our cooked food hawkers today currently pay subsidised rents. What this means is, that these are the original hawkers, or their immediate family members who have inherited the practice from them, and they have, as I have said earlier, resettled from the original mobile stalls.

24        The more recent hawkers, the other 45%, are people who came in later, in the decade since then, and one question then is on what basis do you allocate these stalls? The newcomers have been allocated stalls on the basis of open tenders – in the interest of fairness. Their rents, therefore, vary according to locations. So for instance, if you are going to bid for a stall in Newton hawker centre or Maxwell, it will be much higher than the stall in Taman Jurong or one elsewhere. It varies according to location, food type, traffic, size, frontage and business conditions overall.

25        In 2011, we announced that, after a hiatus of 26 years, we would restart the hawker centre building programme. And I announced where the new hawker centres will be, and in case you asked me on what basis you chose those dots (on the map of hawker centres), those were areas which are relatively underserved with respect to cooked food. My objective of restarting this programme and injecting supply was to put downward pressure on rentals.

26        In addition to the fact that there is new supply coming on, we also changed policy. For instance, we removed reserve rents and this has led to falling tender prices. 55% of the stalls awarded in the past one year were awarded at below their previous reserve rents. Successful tenders as low as $21 for a cooked food stall at Taman Jurong and $5 for a market stall at Changi Village, have emerged.

27        That said, I want to make this point, that rent is only one component of the hawker’s operating costs; in fact, raw materials and cost of labour are higher component costs of a hawker centre. Rents are important but not the key game. In fact, I went to check on the vegetarian beehoon that Mr. Png Eng Huat highly recommended. I went there yesterday, unfortunately it was closed at 2pm, but I then did research. I identified nine other vegetarian beehoon stalls along Jalan Bukit Merah and guess what?  The two stalls selling at $1.50 are paying market rates. The three stalls who are enjoying subsidised rents are charging more than that. I think it makes the point that rental is important, but not the key determinant of prices. Ultimately, hawkers will charge what they think the market will bear, and to reach out to the volume of work that they are aiming for.

28        But besides the rent policy, we also changed the rules on subletting and assignment because we wanted hawkers to personally operate their stalls. And we will uphold this principle even as we pilot new not-for-profit management models. I think Mr Seah Kian Peng in his Budget speech gave a very eloquent explanation for the special role of cooperatives like the NTUC Foodfare and I cannot add to what he has already said. But having said that, I want to say that Foodfare will not have a monopoly on the new hawker centres and in fact, I hope to see several different not-for-profit operators enter this space.

29        NEA will continue to be the regulator, the developer and exercise oversight over of all hawker centres in Singapore. I am pleased to inform Er Lee that planning works have begun on the ten new hawker centres – five will be completed between 2015 and 2016 or thereabouts, including the one at Yishun. So, it will be on time, do not worry.

30        Mr Seah has also asked for an update on wet markets. The new hawker centres like the one at Bukit Panjang will have wet markets selling fresh produce. But I want to caution here – that whilst I am very confident that there is a demand for cooked food, the demand patterns for wet markets are not so clear cut. So this is something which we will evolve as time goes on, and we will respond according to demand.

31        Let me now touch on another point which Er Lee brought up. The nearly 2,000 hawkers who bought their sole stalls about 20 years ago and their leases are coming to an end over the next few years. All of these centres will continue to operate after their leases expire. There may need to be a short period, where we will need to do refurbishments, renovations or redevelopment, but I will ensure that there will be centres.

32        All stall-holders who are interested to continue their businesses will have the option to do so. And in fact, stall-holders who were previously on the subsidised rent scheme – I intend to emplace them back on the subsidised scheme, and they will pay only the current subsidised rental rates. For those who were not previously subsidised stallholders, I will give them the option to continue but they will pay the prevailing market rate. In other words, I am doing my best to ensure that we are fair to everyone concerned, and that these centres will continue on a not-for-profit basis, and hopefully residents will continue to patronise them and enjoy the food options that they provide.
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