Thrilled to meet Steve Wozniak – and why Singapore needs to quickly build up critical mass of engineers, artists and angel investors



Thrilled to meet Steve Wozniak – and to discuss why Singapore needs to quickly build a critical mass of engineers, artists and angel investors.

We spoke at the Midas Touch Asia 2013 Enterprise Award ceremony on 26 August.

Edited excerpts of my speech – on Singapore’s prospects for making an impact on the ICT revolution.

In 1982, my father bought my first computer – it was an Apple II Plus. Many of you here are too young to have used that venerable piece of technology.

I was a medical undergraduate, and my father had to take a loan to buy it. The cost then was a lot more than what one would pay for its equivalent today. I recollect the thrill of unpacking it, assembling it, and taking off the lid. I was telling Steve just now, I also remember putting in a Z-80 in order to run the CP/M operating system.

I was a very poor gamer. In fact, I was forced to learn programming in order to hack the games. I learnt Integer BASIC and I just discovered that Steve was the one who wrote Integer BASIC. He told me just now how he wrote it by hand and then transcribed it into the binary code which actually ran on the computer.

The purpose of sharing all this with you is for us to reflect that in over 30 years, our lives have been completely transformed. We pay progressively lower prices for ever more powerful technology. I experienced for myself the computer revolution in the medical and surgical fields.

Today computers around us can operate at levels of precision, far beyond the ability of my eyes and hands. For instance, for those of you who gone for refractive surgery – I know Steve himself has gone for this, computer-controlled lasers operate at the level of one-quarter of one-thousandth of a millimetre. No human surgeon can achieve that level of precision unaided, but computers have transformed what we can do with our hands and our eyes.

Of course, beyond the medical field, computers have also revolutionised the finance and technical fields. It has been a source of great opportunity. But let me give you a political angle to this. It has also been a source of great inequality.

Stop for a moment to think about it. The advent of new technology can lead to different outcomes for people in different circumstances. For example, who gets to borrow the money to access the new technology? Who gets educated on how to use the technology? And who are the people who will devise new uses for technology, which the original creators never dreamt of?

So the point is – although politicians may aim for equality of opportunities, the ability to exploit these opportunities can very often be very unequally distributed. It depends on where you are born; whether you live in a society which has access to technology; whether you have the initial funding to buy or to rent the technology; and whether the education system equips you with the necessary skills to do all these wonderful things. So this has been both a great opportunity and also a cause for inequality.

Another reason I wanted to be here is because I was very intrigued by Steve Wozniak’s view – I think in December 2011 or 2012 – when he said that a company like Apple could never emerge from Singapore. I didn’t have enough time to discuss this in detail with him.

But I wanted to share a couple of points. The first thing I wanted to tell Steve is that in Singapore, you can say anything you like. Steve Wozniak, in particular, is a friend of Singapore – your advice is sincere, and you are actually trying to help us. So contrary to popular belief, we are not going to structure your thoughts or your conversations. Thank you for being brutally frank.

Now, having said that, I also want to say that I do not totally agree with Steve. And let me explain why. First, Singapore only began on this journey 30 years ago. Steve and the people like him embarked on this journey a generation before us. We are late-comers to the party.

The second point is that I believe we need a critical mass of three groups of people if we are to make a significant contribution to this space. We need engineers, artists, and angels (- angel investors).

Let me explain. I visited Google in Mountain View a couple of times. Each time I went there, I asked to meet Singaporeans. And I remembered meeting 20 to 30 Singaporeans. And they told me: they are really happy working at Google, and I asked why. And they said: “because this is a company that values engineers. And as engineers, we can change the world”. It is not about getting fabulously rich. But it is that empowering sense that “we can change the world”. They were thrilled to have that opportunity to work in teams producing new products and services that could change the world. So we certainly need engineers.

The second group is artists. I use artists in the most liberal sense of word. Just now when I was having a chat with Steve, and he explained the key advantage of the other Steve. Steve Jobs was not as technically gifted as Steve Wozniak. Steve Wozniak would design the chips, the motherboard and did the programming. Maybe because Steve Jobs did not have that same gritty, down-in-the-chips knowledge – his mind was focused on design, packaging, branding; on making technology sexy and available to non-engineers.

The point I wanted to share with you is it is not enough to just have the engineers who can change the world – you need people who can humanise technology; make people desire that technology; and to want to identify with it and to want to use it. And that is why the whole concept of design is crucial. I think design is really about creating a language that speaks to the human heart and soul. And we need people like that as well.

The third group of people we need are Angels – Angel investors. Frankly, especially in Asia and in Singapore, we are not short of money. But what we need is smart money. People who are willing to invest in companies but who also know enough about technology and design. To give good, honest brutal advice, the same way that Steve Wozniak has given good honest brutal advice to Singapore. People who can put their money where their mouth is, exercise their minds, and to truly nurture and build up entrepreneurs. The way I look at it, we have not yet fully taken off in Singapore. We can, and I hope we will build up that critical mass of engineers, artists and angels.

For now, our objective in Singapore is to remain one of the world’s most open cities. Because ideas can only be generated in human minds. Only human minds imagine the future. And we need to make sure we get more than our fair share of the dreamers and visionaries of the world. If not to live here permanently, then at least to spend a significant amount of time – exchanging ideas, and building up our idea pool.

The second point is for Singapore to remain one of the most connected nodes of the world. It is not an accident that we have one of the most dense fibre networks in Singapore. I am not just referring to the fibre that goes into every home. But I am referring to the fact that we are a focal node of the fibres that traverse the globe. That is not very sexy – just fibre optics. But it represents our strategy to be a focal node of an inter-connected world. Because we believe that being an exchange, a focal point for ideas, data and information, will make us part of a larger network and give us access to the critical mass of engineers, artists and angel investors.

My final point is that we cannot be everything to everybody. The truth is, it is practically impossible for us to be a clone of Silicon Valley. The history, the skills, the climate, the academics, and the engineering expertise in Silicon Valley is not something we can transplant anywhere in the world. Anyone who says that “I’m creating a silicon valley” is probably overreaching.

But I believe, we should be comfortable with ourselves, by being a secure, beautiful and wonderful place to live, travel, and settle in. A place where you are happy to bring your wife to. A place where your kids can grow up to be educated, and not have to worry about guns and drugs. A place where your parents can get good healthcare. A place where you can meet secure, reliable and honest bankers. A place where you can meet other people with ideas. The point I am trying to make is that an open, secure, comfortable, family-oriented, and welcoming place, is also a core part of our strategy.

Let me conclude by congratulating all the winners. I have known people like George Quek and Derek Goh for many years. They are also part of the proof that Singaporeans can make it, with imagination and with determination. Because Singapore is so small, all of them had had to go beyond the boundaries of Singapore.

There are other examples like Sim Wong Hoo of Creative Technology and what he has done for the sound card. You think about the USB Thumb Drive invented by Henn Tan and his engineers at Trek2000 in Singapore. The point I am trying to leave with you is that we do have our own local heroes. But what we need to do now is to urgently build up the critical mass of local heroes who will be entrepreneurs of the world using Singapore as their home base.

I hope I have given you enough food for thought. And I hope to persuade Steve Wozniak in my own way, “don’t count us out yet”. We heard you and we will dearly love to prove you wrong sometime in the future.

Thank you all very much.


Your job, politics, position – everything is temporary. The only thing that you are forever, is a son, a brother, a husband, a father, a grandfather

FamilyEdited excerpts of an interview by Elgin Toh of the Straits Times that was published at

(Why did you choose this place – Senja-Cashew Community Club – to meet for supper?)

This place has special significance. Back in 2006, we decided to build a pool in Bukit Panjang. However, it was supposed to be in another location further south.

My first post-election block visit was to a block opposite here. At the end of the visit, the grassroots leaders went to the top, looked down, saw this pond (by the current location of Senja-Cashew CC), and said, “Actually, the pond is the centre of the town. So, instead of building the pool in the original site, let’s build it here.”

Immediately, there were several problems. First, you’ve already announced building it at another place. You shift it. Some people are going to be unhappy. So I said, well, my next block visit then has to be to the other block, to explain to them: I know the pool is not at your doorstep, but, really, if you take the bigger picture, this is a better site because everyone will benefit. So there is a political point there that sometimes, you have to make decisions where some people will be unhappy, though actually it is for the good of the majority.

(You have supper here often?)

I’m here every week, more than once a week. My Meet-The-People session is not far away, so I come here, hang out and meet people.

(But at home? Somebody cooks?)

Yes.  A combination of my wife or the helper cooking. Probably one-third of our meals are actually from Ghim Moh Market and Hawker Centre.

(You stay not far from there?)

Yes, I live in my own constituency. The standard stuff which we get from there would be the mee pok, chicken rice, char kway teow. But char kway teow is hard to get, because always the long queue. And then the tao huay. I suspect this is probably quite a common phenomenon in Singapore – eating takeaway local food regularly. Which illustrates the importance of hawker food and hawker centres in the lives of Singaporeans.

That is why one of the first things I did when I came to the Ministry of Environment and Water Resources was to revise the policy on building hawker centres. We had not built any for nearly 20 years. I persuaded my colleagues that hawker centres are a unique identifying mark of Singaporean society. More families like mine are actually depending on it even for staple food. It’s part of the local community because, especially for hawkers who have been there for a long time, you know them, they know you, you’ve grown up with them, that sense of social bonding is there.

And even more important than that, it’s a place where all Singaporeans gather. You go to Ghim Moh, literally, you meet all kinds of people – from those in shirts and ties to those in shorts and t-shirts and slippers. It is a place where social distances are erased. So hawker centres are a key part of our social infrastructure. After we said we were going to build, we also removed the minimum rent. Because I want to bring rentals down and to put pressure even on coffee shops and kopitiams, to bring rentals down.

(But there is still upward pressure on the price of hawker food. The latest survey shows prices are still going up.)

That’s because our new hawker centres haven’t come on stream yet. And I announced 10. But you know where I actually want to go. So I’m basically putting people on notice that this is a service, and we’re going to make it widely available.

(It has been a fairly busy year for you so far, with your ministry having to deal with one crisis after another – dengue, haze and hawker centre cleaning. Some would call this a perfect storm.)

Flooding hasn’t occurred yet.  Then we would have a perfect storm!

(What does it feel like to be under pressure like this?)

I must confess to being quite energised by crises. I enjoy the challenge of being under pressure. Maybe to some extent, it is due to my medical and surgical experience. There’s no such thing as a routine operation. Every single operation, even if you have done it thousands of times, has a risk of failure. Every surgeon, mentally before he starts, has already considered, or should have considered, all the complications and the failures.

So, to be honest with you even if I look at this year’s events, dengue – we are overdue for an epidemic. Our last epidemic was in 2005 and 2007, and if you check my comments, over the last two years I’ve been saying, it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen. In fact, every year that we don’t have a dengue epidemic, we are storing up the pressure for an epidemic the following year, especially if there is a switch of viral serotype. So did dengue surprise me? No.

Haze has been around for at least two decades. I knew full well that this was not an environmental problem, it was an economic problem. Because the economic incentives skew people’s behaviour in the wrong direction. Of course, I cannot predict the wind. So did I expect it to be so bad? No I did not. But did I anticipate that haze will hit us? Yes.

Hawker centres –  well, I did not expect the Workers’ Party to treat the hawkers so shabbily. That one I admit I did not anticipate. But I guess what I’m trying to say is that, from a surgical perspective, you always mentally prepare, and when things go wrong, that is the difference.

I put things in perspective because this is not the worst that I have faced or the worst that I will face. The most harrowing period in my last 12 years in politics is not this year. It was those two months in 2003 when (as part of the Ministerial Sars Combat Unit) I was tasked to go to SGH (Singapore General Hospital), put on a mask and help restore confidence and resolve the problems there.

I spent two months at the hospital, attending Cabinet meetings through video conference, and having a colleague – Dr Alex Chao – die. Can you imagine every day we met in the morning, sitting around the table wearing masks, and if one of us has a fever, he was whisked off to Tan Tock Seng hospital? So you’re wondering, when’s your turn? And during those two months, I slept in a separate room because I didn’t want to risk infecting my wife or my children.

(What do you make of the reaction of the public to the haze and dengue crises?)

Frankly, each time we’ve gone through a crisis, I’ve emerged more confident about Singaporeans. Let me explain why. During SARS, I watched medical professionals put their lives on the line. We were dealing with a disease that we didn’t understand. We didn’t know the level of risk. Every doctor, every nurse showed up for work. They walked into danger, not out of it. No panic. Just this deeply held sense of duty. You look even subsequently at dengue and at the haze. I’ve been impressed by how Singaporeans are calm, collected, looking out for each other and cohesive. And practical in a sensible way in the midst of challenges, which I think in many other societies would have led to either panic or rupture, and we haven’t. Of course there are things which we may not have done perfectly, and there will be people who complain. But actually you step back and look at it, there’s good reason to be confident about Singaporeans. It has strengthened my belief in Singapore’s and Singaporeans’ ability to cope with the future.

(What do you make of the reaction of the public to the hawker centre cleaning saga?)

Just one point. Prime Minister (Lee Hsien Loong), in fact the entire Cabinet, including me, wanted to affirm that integrity is sacrosanct in our political system. That is the key point.

(What do you do for fun, or to relax?)

For fun, I assemble computers, I programme, I learn new languages to programme. And because I don’t get to operate on eyes anymore, my latest thing is to assemble watches because I get to wear magnifiers and work with very fine tools. So I can take a watch and fix it for you.

(When did this watch hobby start?)

About a year and a half ago.

(How did you learn to do it?)

On the Internet, you can learn all that and then you go and buy all the equipment, buy the pieces. So, I can quite literally fix an automatic or even a quartz watch for you, including fitting the hands and painting the luminous parts.

(And computers?)

That’s decades ago. I was one of the early adopters in computers – since the 1980s. So I assemble it, I fix it, I even crimp network cables. I used to do some programming while I was working at a hospital. So in a way, now, I do so just to stretch the mind intellectually in a non-political direction. And for watches it is to keep my hand-eye coordination, because I don’t get to operate anymore. But again, the problem is time.

(What books are you reading?

The current books I’m reading – Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who also wrote The Black Swan. This is his latest book, and it is relevant to Singapore. Another good author whom I’ve been following is Michael Sandel, the philosopher who wrote Justice. The more recent book which I thought was interesting is What Money Can’t Buy, which is relevant for us in Singapore as well. So that’s politics. Science – I’m still trying to wrap my head around relativity and Albert Einstein. Then there is some economics. And I have a whole host of other books on programming. From C to Python to Lisp. So I’m quite indiscriminate.

 (You entered politics in 2001. Can you tell us about the journey that you’ve taken over the past 12 years. Has anything about you changed?)

I was recruited by the former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong. And I never forgot his key message to me when he was encouraging me to come in. He said: “You must hold fast to your values. If you have to compromise your values in order to join us, you lose your value to us.” Over the years, I have never forgotten that. And I think it’s the best advice you can give to any politician coming in.

He added: “You come in. It doesn’t matter if your beliefs or views are different from us. If you can convince us, we will make changes. But on the other hand, if we show you that this is the right thing to do, you must be intellectually honest enough to admit it.”

And looking back, these have been some of the most dramatic 12 years in terms of the assortment of crises, ups and downs, and social and political changes that have occurred in Singapore. So it’s been a fascinating journey.

(So how much was there of you convincing them, and how much was it them convincing you?)

I don’t think I can quantify. You must appreciate how seriously we take collective responsibility in the Cabinet. Collective responsibility doesn’t mean all Ministers agree on everything. But it requires us, after we have argued it and arrived at a decision, to collectively bind ourselves to that decision, to defend it, implement it and to make it happen. That is what Cabinet government means. Because, whether it’s transport or housing or environment or education, you can’t just let the minister go out there on his own. All of us have to stand by the policies.

So the discipline of collective responsibility forces us to think and argue far more intensely before the decision is made than after that. It causes a very detailed deliberative process.  The discussions are rigorous and intellectually challenging.

The other point is that we’re not a bunch of chums. We are all brought in as part of a team that is  focused on the country and the long term interests of Singaporeans. So there is no “I told you so”, no one-upmanship, no cliques or factions in Cabinet. Anyone that we felt was playing games would not survive Cabinet. So it leads to a very intense, but also a very objective decision-making process. I think that is one of the secrets of the government’s success over these decades.

(In 2011, former minister Lim Boon Heng broke down when he was talking about Cabinet deliberations on the casinos. It was a sign that such collective responsibility can bear very heavily on the individual, isn’t it?)


(Does it come to a point where it could weigh on your conscience? Has there been such a point for you?)

There are individual decisions which I would have made differently, but I have never been put in a position where my conscience was on the line.

(And if that point comes?)

If that point comes, the Minister has to, first, do his best to persuade his colleagues.

(Failing which?)

Failing which, if it is really such a fundamental point of conscience, then he should ask to step down from Cabinet. That too is part of Cabinet government. But a fundamental point, a difficult point, a controversial point and a divergent point are different points on the scale.

You pointed out how former minister Lim Boon Heng broke down in 2011 when he was talking about Cabinet deliberations on the casinos. You have seen emotional anguish showing through. But you will not see a minister step out of line. At least not the ministers I know, past and present.

(You said former PM Goh told you to hold fast to your values. What were these values for you?)

For me, it’s really about the family. On both my father’s and mother’s side, I’m a fourth generation Singaporean. My great grandparents came from China and India to Singapore. And I believe in a multiracial society. This is a deeply held belief, because my existence depends on a multiracial society.

Secondly – and this may not be a popular word right now – meritocracy is a very deeply held belief. 85 years ago, my mother’s father passed away on a business trip to China, leaving my grandmother one month away from delivering my mum. So my mum never met her father. And immediately, from what was actually a reasonably comfortable living as a motor car spare parts dealer, her world collapsed. And they became dependent on the generosity of my grandfather’s brothers.

Later on, both my parents became teachers. And we’ve seen social mobility – each generation having a fair chance to move up. That’s what I define meritocracy as. That also is a very deeply held belief.

The third thing is probably is a hangover from my mother. Because she had a deprived childhood, I’ve inherited her sense of austerity.

And I suppose the other element which I’ve come to appreciate even more over the past 12 years is that absolute necessity for honest government grounded in integrity. I’ve now travelled to so many countries. What we’ve done in Singapore – it’s not as if we have a copyright of the ideas. But the ability to execute so many things in Singapore is because we had an honest government which has enjoyed the trust of the people.

 (Right. But when you entered politics, you also said you had been sceptical of the PAP. So which were your points of disagreement?)

In 1984, I published my first letter to the Forum Page. I was against the graduate mothers’ scheme. I felt it was elitist and it didn’t show respect. After all, my mum was not a graduate. There were other issues. I remember once barging into Mr S Rajaratnam’s house. He stayed on Chancery Lane, not far from where I stayed. He may have retired from politics then. I knocked on his gate, he let me in, spent an hour, I was nobody, I was just a medical student. I remember that I was not happy with something about race, language and religion, that we were accentuating it. Later on, I had also voiced public opposition to linking votes and upgrading. That was probably in the 1990s.

So there were specific issues which I had disagreements with. But during the discussions with (then) PM Goh and subsequently in interviews with (former prime minister) Lee Kuan Yew and (then Deputy PM) Lee Hsien Loong, I was impressed that the PAP does not screen your views. What they want to find out is whether you have values. And that you can marshall the arguments in support of a view that is honest, genuine, and sincerely held. The PAP is not afraid of differences of opinion. What the PAP does not want are charlatans. We want people who are grounded.

(What would you say to a young person today who, like you in the past, may be sceptical of the PAP?)

I’ll say the same thing that (then) PM Goh said to me. Hold fast to your values and express your views, sincerely, honestly. And think deeply, don’t just posture, don’t just play to the gallery, don’t just think short-term. If you can go beyond all that, I hope you make yourself available and be part of a party or a movement that has focused entirely on the long-term interests of the nation.

(Why the PAP and not the opposition?)

Because I would say that this is an honest party. This is a party which is also a broad church, meaning we will never tell you what to say, but we will ask you to be honest. Secondly, this is a party that has made things happen, can make things happen. So be a part of it. Change is inevitable, but we want change that is principled, change that will make this fragile, beautiful flower called Singapore continue to thrive in a very dangerous uncertain world.

Many people have said the PAP is just concerned about money. But I’ve often told people who say that that, let’s take a step back in time. Let’s look back. The PAP fought for Merdeka – independence – because it was about our right to determine our future. That led us to Malaysia. Then in Malaysia, we championed a Malaysian Malaysia. This is actually a code word for equality regardless of race, language or religion. And we got kicked out of Malaysia because of our insistence on that ideal. We didn’t get kicked out of Malaysia because we thought it was good for the economy. In fact it was bad for the economy. But having got kicked out of Malaysia because of this obstinate adherence to an ideal, we then had our backs against the wall. And we had to survive and thrive in order to feed ourselves.

So yes, we were then focused on economic growth but it was done because we had no choice. It was done because of our obstinate belief in this ideal that we could create a fair and just society, where we would all be equal regardless of race, language or religion.

Over four, five decades, this has actually been an idealistic quest by the PAP.  So if I can come back to why I would want someone to join: this is a party rooted in ideals, rooted in history, and with a proven track record and consisting of honest people, not bound by ties of cronyism, but purely by a passionate desire to make this country continue to grow and thrive in an uncertain, sometimes unfriendly world. So be a part of it.

That doesn’t mean the opposition has no role. Mr Lee (Kuan Yew) used to tell us that the years that the PAP had a monopoly, which is I think from 1968 to 1981, were not pre-ordained. It was basically due to a strategic mistake of the Barisan Sosialis to walk out of Parliament. There has and there will always be a significant body of opinion that is different from the PAP. We are a democracy and there should be a legitimate expression of that divergence.

(Although, some people would say, yes, it was a strategic mistake by the Barisan Sosialis, but many from the opposition were also put behind bars.)

(Former Barisan Sosialis leader) Lee Siew-Choh never went behind bars. The guy whom I knew who went behind bars, whom I knew personally, was Dr Lim Hock Siew. He’s passed away now. But I’ve known him for a very long time, spoken to him in depth. He was, I believe, a patriot. And I have said that he was a good and honourable man. I still stand by those comments. In fact before I came into politics, I called him to ask him what he thought about me joining the PAP. He told me: “Do what you believe is right.” The sense he gave me was not to fight yesterday’s battles. Singapore has changed, Singapore has moved on. He bore no bitterness to the second and third generation leaders. At the same time it was also a salutary lesson of the price of politics. Politics is not just a game. It’s not just cricket. There are real lives at stake. He paid a very heavy price.

(You knew him very well. You knew his story. Do you believe he was unjustly put behind bars?)

He could have got out earlier if he renounced communism. Till this day, I do not know whether he was a member of the communist party. He’s never told me categorically. But I’ve interacted and discussed and argued with him enough to know that he’s on the hard left. When I was interviewed (as a candidate) by Mr Lee (Kuan Yew), and in the interview I told him I’d known Dr Lim for a long time, he just had one sentence to say: “Singapore would be very different if his group had been in charge.” And honestly, I think we all have to admit that it would have been very different if the extreme left wing of the PAP had been in charge instead of Mr Lee’s group.

(You recently posted a picture of you sending your son to school. Is that what you do every day?)

Yes. So last night I had a Meet-The-People session. By the time I got home it was past 1am. So I slept at about 2.30am. At 6am, he woke up demanding his drink, I had to give him. And at 7am I sent him to school. For 25 years, I’ve done all the night feeds, I’ve done all the nappy changes, and I’ve sent all four children to school. I did it partly because I don’t need so much sleep. As a doctor, I can cope with interrupted sleep, I can cope with short sleep. So I told my wife, all the night duties are mine. And sending them to school. Why do I do that? Because it meant, the last thing and the first thing my children saw each day was me. So no matter how busy I have been, all my four children know how much they mean to me. So when I talk about family, it’s not an idle boast. I will tell you quite honestly, I’m a very happy person. I’m very happy not because I’m easily entertained or easily satisfied. I’m very happy because of my family. And we should realise that everything else will pass: your job, politics, position – everything is temporary. The only thing that you are forever, is a son, a brother, a husband, a father, a grandfather.

(How old are your children?)

My eldest is 24, a daughter. I have a son who’s 23, another son who’s 20, doing National Service, and I’ve got this 7-year-old.

(That’s quite a gap, between the youngest and the other three.)

They are an enormous source of happiness.  Waking up at night, cleaning, changing and sending them to school are merely expressions of that profound part of my life that they represent.

(What do your children think of your job as a minister?)

The 7-year-old, I’m not sure if he fully understands. But for the other three, they’re all grown up. They have paid a price. So I would say politics imposes a heavy burden not only on the individual but on the entire family.

(What kind of price?)

The loss of privacy, the loss of family time and the pressure to always behave correctly. And that’s why we all understand that when someone says yes to politics, actually it’s his or her family that’s going to carry the burden too.

(How do your children deal with the nastiness on the Internet directed at you?)

They’ve grown up. They understand that this is the way it is. It is an unfortunate coarsening of discourse on the Internet, to a large extent because it is either anonymous or it is faceless. If people met face to face, eyeball to eyeball, certain human courtesies apply. But for some reason, behind the keyboard, people lose the safety circuits of decent human interactions.

(So you don’t think this is a phase?)

I think it can only get worse. In the old days, we were limited by the number of people we could physically meet within a geographical area. With the Internet, no matter how extreme your idea is, you can always find someone equally or more extreme than you to affirm you. You can be egged on, whichever way.

It’s unfortunate because it will make governance and leadership far more challenging in the future. So I think the politicians of the future will just have to learn to cope with it. For the current Cabinet, we do not look for gratitude or affirmation. We want to do the right thing and do it for the right reasons and for the long term. That’s the only thing worthwhile doing. We are confident we will carry the ground if we did right and served honourably. So that’s the attitude that we have and how we operate.

The need for ethical professional leadership and how doctors are key cost drivers in healthcare


Edited excerpts of a speech I made at a NUS Commencement Ceremony on 14 July 2013.

Good morning and congratulations to those of you who are receiving your degrees today, and even heartier congratulations to the families that stand behind each one of you this morning.

There is a great difficulty in making speeches like this – I could read from the prepared text or I could tell you how I feel. If you do not mind, I want to tell you how I feel, not as a Minister, but speaking as someone who has walked in the shoes of everyone of you today, who is receiving a post-graduate degree.

A lot has changed in the field of medicine in the last few decades – even in the decades since I graduated and trained in ophthalmology. I want to make three points for your consideration. The first on professional leadership, the second on healthcare costs, and the third, on the need for professional humility.

Let me deal with the first. We pride ourselves on belonging to a noble profession, and indeed, I can tell you that as someone who has had to make the transition from medicine to politics, I can assure you, medicine appears a far more noble profession. I say so, on the basis of the experience as I walk around the neighborhood – I still have people come up to me, warmly shake my hands and say, “ You operated on my child, you operated on my mother, and they are well, and they wish you all the very best”. I can tell you that as a politician, you do not get that kind of gratitude – so you have all made the right choice!

Having said that medicine is a noble profession, we need to also understand the difference between a profession and being technically-trained as doctors. By definition, a profession is not just an assembly of learned men and women; it is not just about self-regulation although this is something medical professionals all over the world take pride in. We need to remember that if we are to retain self-regulation, and to retain the trust and gratitude of our patients, then it is essential that we continue to exercise professional leadership.

Now what do I mean by professional leadership? It goes beyond being up-to-date. For instance, research is almost an industrial activity nowadays, if you look at the volume of papers that are being published today. But we need collectively as a profession to be able to critically analyse that research, to apply the lessons learnt to real- life needs which our patients seated in front of us are confronting.

We also need to ensure the highest quality control. When I was training in ophthalmology, my mentor Professor Arthur Lim insisted on recording every single operation that we did. The 99% of the time that operations were successful, you could throw away the tape; but that odd occasion when an operation was not so successful, that was the time the tape needed to be reviewed by the surgeon, by his peers and by his mentors. Initially it was an uncomfortable experience – “big brother” was always watching me. But this obsession with quality control and this commitment to always keep on improving, even when mistakes were made, are essential if we are to retain the trust of our patients.

Another aspect – which I am sure all of you can relate to – is the commitment to training our juniors. All of us “stand on the shoulders of giants”. We are not where we are now because we are the smartest people in class, but because someone else has taken the time to teach us, to mentor us, to guide us. And equally, if we are to be a profession, and to exercise professional leadership, then we need to make sure we do the same for those who come after us, and have the confidence to make sure they do better than we did. The worst thing that can happen to you is to work for an insecure boss – I have been blessed because I always had secure bosses, secure leaders, secure mentors who never held anything back, who gave me the best that they could and tried to ensure that I could do even better.

The final point of professional leadership is about putting patients’ interest first. The problem with medicine is that we have an extremely long gestation period – in the batch here this morning, you are all post-graduates, we are all overgrown, and probably wearing out the welcome of our parents at home. Sometimes, there is a temptation that because it has taken us so long, we are in a hurry. But there are no short-cuts. I would suggest to you, do not ever forget the old aphorism – “first, do no harm”. Our patients’ interests must always come first and everything else is secondary. So those are some thoughts I want to leave you, on medicine as a profession and on the necessity for all of us to exercise leadership by being grounded on values and the ethics behind the profession. If we lose sight of that, we will forfeit the right to the profession, and others will relegate us.

Let me quickly come to the second point – on healthcare costs. The greatest crisis facing healthcare systems all over the world, and not just in Singapore, is the cost of healthcare. In almost every other field, whether it is engineering, computers – pick any field that you like – the advent of better and newer technology has meant that things become better, cheaper and more accessible. For some strange, unique reason, this is not happening in healthcare, and all over the world, healthcare costs are escalating at unsustainable rates.

Now as a politician who has had a journey in healthcare, I know that the politically sexy topics are the loud arguments about subsidies, the role of insurance, third-party payer systems and all that. Those are important political debates, but I submit to you that in fact that is not the crux of the matter. Because the arguments about subsidies, insurance and third-party payments merely transfer the bills around, it does not address the core issue – the unsustainable escalation of the full, total real costs of healthcare.

One lesson which I learnt as a medical administrator is that the key cost drivers in any healthcare system actually are the doctors. Why? Because there is always going to be an asymmetry of information – we should always know more than our patients. But because of that asymmetry, there will never ever be a totally free market in healthcare. Our patients depend on us – they take our advice on the basis of faith, of trust. Therefore, what procedures they undergo, what drugs they use, what tests to go for – these are decisions not made by politicians, these are decisions made by us, as medical professionals. So the real cost drivers, the real decision-makers for the full cost of healthcare, are actually going to be the doctors and healthcare professionals in this room. Therefore I am appealing to you, that even as we delve deeper and deeper into our specialties, deeper and deeper into our profession, do not lose sight of the fact that we are also responsible for our patient’s wallets. And if we are to be responsible about that, then it behoves us as medical professionals, to gain at least a functional appreciation of finance and healthcare costs, because our decisions matter. And if we do not pay attention to this, ultimately our patients, ultimately our societies pay the full cost of it, regardless of politics. So that is my second appeal to you – pay attention to healthcare costs.

The third and final point I want to make is something I have come to appreciate more in my current phase of life. And that is, that actually more lives have been saved by engineers, public health inspectors, the people who ensure clean water, safe food, proper sewage, drainage and a safe environment. As doctors, we are used to being top of the class; we are used to being the lead surgeon; we are used to being the person everyone listens to at the bedside. But remember, we are only curing. The really big difference is in prevention – preventing people from falling sick in the first place. Therefore, my third appeal to you is to take on the attitude of professional humility and understand that we are only part of a much larger team and a system that truly gives people security and preventive healthcare.

The other big area that is unfolding in front of us is the management of chronic diseases. The management of chronic diseases is not a matter of cure – it is the matter of marshalling all the resources of the system, so that people are treated in the most optimal way possible for the long term. We need systems thinking rather than individual cures. If we are humble enough to understand that, we will also realise that the solution to the management of chronic problems is not going to be more sophisticated doctors, but really, a more effective healthcare system in the fullest sense of the word.

So, let me thank you for this opportunity to be here with you on this auspicious occasion, to share with you, to reflect on my own journey and hopefully give you some pointers. To reiterate, remember you are a professional; remember to exercise leadership; remember that our patients depend on us; and the difference between a profession and a trade is the sense of ethics. Pay attention to healthcare costs – because our decisions matter. Finally, just remember to be humble enough to acknowledge that we are merely one member of a much larger team.

I wish you all the very best from the bottom of my heart, and a most fulfilling career. May you continue to make a huge difference in the lives of everyone that you touch. Thank you very much.

The core issue is integrity – Hawkers vs Aljuneid Hougang Punggol East Town Council

Many well-intended people advised me not to pursue this saga. It was too mundane, and people wanted to move on.

But I felt duty bound to resolve this matter, because it goes far beyond clean ceilings.

The core issue is integrity.

The Property Manager of AHPETC, Mr Tai Vie Shun, demanded extra money from hawkers for cleaning the high areas of hawker centres. He did so on three occasions – 8 March 2013, 26 April 2013 and 28 April 2013. The hawkers have confirmed this consistently, and their account is backed up by notes of meetings.

When this scandal came to light, instead of putting things right, the Town Council Chairman, Ms Sylvia Lim, and the Vice-Chairman, Mr Pritam Singh, publicly denied that the Town Council had ever asked hawkers for more money.

That was why I said in Parliament that these denials by Ms Lim and Mr Singh were false and untruthful. And I say it again here.

Ms Sylvia Lim acknowledged that this was a very grave charge, but then she beat around the bush, and claimed confusion between spring and annual cleaning. But how can she, on the one hand, claim that the Town Council never asked for more money; and then, on the other hand, maintain that this was spring and not annual cleaning, i.e. the Town Council was justified to ask for more money?

Mr Pritam Singh sat conspicuously silent throughout the proceedings.

Mr Low Thia Kiang argued that it was all ‘a misunderstanding’. But interestingly he did not strongly defend the Town Council’s actions, or Ms Lim and Mr Singh’s public denials.

Politics is a contest for power, but people with power must never take advantage of those in their charge. Equally important, we must always be honest with everyone, including ourselves, especially if a mistake has been made. I therefore urged Mr Low to conduct a full investigation and clean up his Town Council.

To my surprise, at this point Mr Low, Ms Lim and Mr Singh all chose to remain silent, and raised no further questions or objections, and so the debate in Parliament ended.

The haze – and what a difference three weeks make



Our skies were blue and the air crystal clear today.

Had a long discussion in Parliament on the cause of the haze and our plans for the future. I thanked Singaporeans for your calmness, patience, and the fact that you refused to get rattled by the situation. It is that ability to respond sensibly, rationally, cohesively and collectively as a people that makes the difference and makes me confident that we will get through this together, whatever happens.

See transcript below.

1 Madam Speaker, what a difference three weeks make. And I would like to reassure you: you won’t need your haze action plan today. Today, our 24-hour rolling average PM2.5 is as low as between 6 to 9 micrograms per cubic metre. In fact, this is the level which we hope we can achieve on a long-term basis – this is our long-term aspirational target. I say this so that you understand how much and how quickly things change in a short space of time. Let me address questions 15 to 20 collectively, with your permission.

MEWR’s Mission
2 A major component of my Ministry and that of the NEA’s mission is to protect the public health of Singaporeans – public hygiene, food safety and the quality of air and water that we all breathe and drink. This is ultimate democracy: the air that we all breathe and the water that we all drink. This commitment also extends to the haze, although quite frankly, where the haze is concerned, our hands are somewhat more tied than in other areas. With the haze, we have no direct sight of the source at all – it is hundreds of kilometres away and is spread over an area that is many times the size of Singapore. In fact, various estimates have shown that every year, the area of forest that is burnt is probably about seven times the size of Singapore. So this is on a scale that probably most of us cannot even imagine. Our objectives therefore are to detect the fires early, to warn if it is imminent, and to mitigate the effects of the haze if it does arrive.

Early Warning
[SLIDE 1 – Hotspots with some covered by cloud cover]

3 Let me get the first slide up. To detect the fires, we use satellite pictures like this – this was the situation on the 14th of June. You’ll notice the white clouds and if you look carefully you’ll see a few red spots. These are hotspots. But the point I wanted to make with this slide is that even with a satellite picture, if there’s local cloud cover, you will not be able to see every hotspot that is burning beneath them. You will not be able to assess the ferocity of the fires or the density of the plumes, and there is also the subsequent question of the wind. As every sailor knows, wind can be both a blessing and a bane. Similarly, when you wake up in the morning and look out of your window, whether it is a blue or hazy sky depends very much on the location and number of the fires, the density of the smoke and the direction of the wind. And we must not forget that while the fires are beyond our immediate sight, the haze actually only takes a few hours to reach us. This makes early warning very challenging even with perfect knowledge of the ground situation and winds. Under ideal conditions, the longest warning that we can have from the time the smoke emerges from the fire to the time the haze hits us is around 6-10 hours. This helps frame how difficult early warning is.

An Assessment on the Haze
4 Ms Irene Ng asked me to share my assessment of the haze situation. Frankly, the haze is not a problem that will go away easily or quickly. This is a complex problem, and not least because it originates from the fires on land in another sovereign country.

[SLIDE 2 – Hotspots with Smoke Plumes]

5 Let me show you a second slide. This was the situation on the 19th of June. This slide shows you, quite dramatically, the extent of the burning that quite often takes place in Sumatra – you can see many more red dots now, those are the hotspots. And what is most obvious in this picture are the yellow plumes: the haze that is emanating from Sumatra and flowing across the Straits to Singapore. The problem transcends an environmental solution because the root cause of this is really commercial. Some big-time plantation companies and paper mills have a total disregard for their social and environmental responsibilities and indeed of the local Indonesian laws themselves. Their actions have severely affected millions of people in Indonesia itself, in Malaysia, and of course, the five million of us resident in Singapore. My Ministry and the other agencies have been working with Indonesia over the years to press for solutions. But let me also tell you very frankly, the improvements have been incremental at best. I will say more about this later.

The Government’s Response
6 The recent haze spell was particularly bad three weeks ago because there was a dry spell in Sumatra – indeed, Members would also recall that there was a dry spell in Singapore as well at that same point in time. There was also an unfavourable wind – basically the wind was blowing from the west and conveying all this smoke across the Straits to Singapore. We were already gearing up for the onset of the haze season – in fact, this is somewhat earlier than the usual haze season in other years – but the situation deteriorated sharply during a very short period. Nonetheless, given the circumstances, our officers acted swiftly and they worked very hard to detect, to give warning, and to put in place mitigation measures. Let me go through the chronology of events with you.

[SLIDE 3 – Hotspot Counts with Annotation of Events]

7 This slide plots the number of physical hotspots over the course of time from 12 June until 7 July. It is annotated by key events.

8 The inter-agency Haze Task Force (HTF), which comprises 23 public agencies, was set up in 1994 to co-ordinate our national action plans to ensure accurate information flow and to put in place plans to ensure service continuity. This task force met on 29 May 2013, before the haze unfolded, in order to update these plans.

9 Er Dr Lee asked when my Ministry first alerted the Indonesian Government on the haze. On 14 June 2013, the hotspot count was 46 in Sumatra, and 41 of these hotspots were in Riau. However, the full extent of hotspot activities could not be fully determined from the satellite images due to the cloudy conditions as I showed you earlier on. The PSI readings had moved from Good to Moderate at 1pm on 14 June. That same day, NEA issued a public haze advisory – I am not sure how many Members actually read the public haze advisory on the 14th of June. NEA also updated its website. NEA contacted the Head of the Forest Fires Division of the Indonesian Ministry of Environment to seek an urgent update of the ground situation and to request that urgent measures be taken to mitigate the haze.

10 Unfortunately, the situation worsened on 17 June 2013. Satellite pictures now showed 113 hotspots in Sumatra, of which 106 were in Riau. The 24-hr PSI at 3pm on 17 June 2013 had increased to 67-80 (Moderate) . At this point, NEA issued another public haze advisory.

11 The CEO (NEA) sent an official note to the Deputy Minister of the Indonesian Ministry of Environment on 17 June 2013 to warn of an alarming increase in the number of hotspots in Sumatra and sought Indonesia’s assistance to enforce the appropriate legislation on plantation companies to prohibit slash and burn. The CEO(NEA) also wrote to the Malaysian Department of Environment, because the Malaysians are currently the host of the next Sub-Regional Ministerial Steering Committee (MSC) on Transboundary Haze. He requested the Malaysians to advance the meeting.

12 On 18 June 2013, the next day, the satellite pictures showed 187 hotspots in Sumatra. The PSI was now 115 – 127 (Unhealthy). That same day, I telephoned my counterpart, the Indonesian Environment Minister, Balthasar Kambuaya to express my grave concern. I requested Indonesia take action to put out the fires and offered our assistance. I also requested him to publish the concession maps – this has been something I have been urging for a very long time – so that we could identify the companies and the persons who were responsible for these fires. Our Foreign Minister Shanmugam separately called the Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa the same day. I followed up with a letter to Minister Kambuaya on 19 June 2013 to reiterate our grave concerns and to re-offer assistance.

13 In response to our calls, the Indonesian Foreign Ministry called for an emergency meeting with Singapore on 20 June 2013 in Jakarta. Despite the short notice, our delegation led by CEO(NEA) and comprising staff of MEWR, NEA and MFA, attended the meeting where we reiterated our concerns, offered assistance and called on Indonesia to take further actions to address the haze. The Indonesian officials conveyed that they were taking action at the provincial level in tackling the on-going fires.

14 To further underscore the seriousness of the situation, Prime Minister Lee sent me to Jakarta as his Special Envoy on 21 June 2013 to convey his personal letter to the Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. The letter stressed the following: (i) this is a recurring problem with regional implications; (ii) strong and effective action is needed to be taken against the companies involved in illegal land clearing practices; (iii) if any Singapore-linked companies were involved, Indonesia should share with us the evidence so that we could pursue the matter; (iv) the countries in the region have to work together to overcome the problem; and (v) Singapore stood ready to cooperate fully with Indonesia. This included renewing the environmental collaboration between Singapore and Jambi province or indeed, expanding that cooperation to other provinces as well. As with previous years, we offered a haze assistance package that included aircraft for cloud seeding, satellite imagery and hotspot coordinates. The Environment Minister of Indonesia received the letter on President Yudhoyono’s behalf.

15 President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono replied formally to PM Lee on 3 July 2013. He acknowledged the seriousness of the situation this year, and he informed PM Lee that the Indonesian authorities would undertake comprehensive investigations so that “those responsible are firmly held to account”. He highlighted Indonesia’s fire-fighting efforts to reduce the number of hot spots. The President also stated that the Government of Indonesia has been in the final stages of resubmitting the ASEAN Agreement on Trans-Boundary Haze Pollution to Indonesia’s House of Representatives (DPR) for ratification by the House. The President also very graciously reiterated his apologies and reassured us that they would spare no effort to address this problem.

16 On the domestic front, my colleague, the Minister for Defence has explained the convening and the actions of the Crisis Management Group. And as you are also aware, PM Lee appointed the Haze Inter-Ministerial Committee led by Minister Ng Eng Hen on 20 June 2013 to coordinate a Whole-of-Government response.

17 From this chronology of events, you will see that the Government has been monitoring the haze situation closely over many years and more closely over the last one month and we did our best to get the Indonesian authorities to deal with the source of the problem, even as we geared up to take protective action locally.

18 I said earlier that we have been working with the Indonesian Government to try to improve the situation on the ground. Let me give you some idea of the current state of play at the ground.

Regional Cooperation
19 First, at the Government-to-Government level, we need Indonesia and other like-minded countries to commit more seriously to work together to tackle transboundary haze. Mr Muhamad Faisal and Mr Yee asked about the progress of the regional agreements and platforms established to address transboundary haze. The ASEAN Regional Haze Action Plan (RHAP) was endorsed by the ASEAN Environment Ministers in December 1997 – a long time ago – arising from the period of intense fire and transboundary haze pollution that year. This has since been superseded by the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution formulated in 2002. The latter built on the ideas from the RHAP such as monitoring, assessment and prevention, technical cooperation and scientific research, and mechanisms for coordination.

20 Under this framework, Singapore hosts the ASEAN Specialised Meteorological Centre (ASMC) that monitors the regional hotspot situation and provides early warning to all affected countries – meaning not just Singapore, this is a regional centre – when the ASMC observes a significant rise in hotspot counts. Meanwhile, an ASEAN Coordinating Centre (ACC) facilitates the channeling of regional resources to countries requesting for assistance to combat fires. However, the 2002 ASEAN Agreement has yet to be ratified by Indonesia. I hope this agreement will be ratified by the time the ASEAN Environment Ministers meet in October this year. The credibility of ASEAN depends very much on the willingness of its individual members to live up to our international obligations. However, while Indonesia’s ratification of the treaty will send a strong signal of high-level political commitment, this in itself may not be sufficient to prevent the haze if the measures taken on the ground – investigations and enforcement – remain weak.

21 Mr Zaqy Mohamad asked whether there had been any progress in tackling the haze issue since October 2012. In 2006, Singapore initiated a sub-regional grouping – the Sub-Regional Ministerial Steering Committee (MSC) on Transboundary Haze Pollution – this comprises Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. The MSC has met 14 times since then, focusing on assisting Indonesia in implementing its Plan of Action to combat haze. At the last (14th) meeting of the MSC in Oct 2012, the MSC Ministers agreed to explore sharing concession maps and using satellite and mapping technologies to monitor hotspots in order to hold plantation companies and land owners accountable for their land-clearing practices. A technical task force currently led by Singapore and comprising experts from other MSC countries is now studying the implementation details. The technology platform will be ready soon. What we need now is for all the countries to provide official, accurate concession maps and we will push urgently for this at the upcoming MSC meeting next week (15 to 17 Jul 2013).

22 To make a stronger push for concrete actions, I will be seeking clear deliverables from next week’s MSC meeting. To Singapore, the key outcomes that we want from next week are the following:

(i) MSC countries submit their concession maps and agree to a date for the public launch of the ASEAN Sub-Regional Haze Monitoring System platform that will enable the identification of errant companies;

(ii) MSC countries involve high-level officials from all relevant ministries and agencies from each country. The reason for this is because this is not a pure environmental problem. We need, in the case of Indonesia, to have the cooperation and full support of other ministries like the Ministry of Forestry, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Natural Resources, and this requires a Whole-of-Government approach and commitment – not just confined to the Ministries of Environment;

(iii) We hope that Indonesia will agree to renew the collaboration that we have successfully had in Jambi and in other provinces, if possible; and

(iv) Indonesia commits to ratify the ASEAN Transboundary Haze Pollution Agreement as soon as possible.

Bilateral Collaboration
[SLIDE 4 – Picture of Air Monitoring Station at Jambi]

23 Let me now move on to bilateral collaborations, which Mr Ang has asked about. I have mentioned briefly our collaboration with the province of Jambi. I would characterise this as one of our more successful efforts and indeed we did observe a greater reduction in the number of hotspots in Jambi Province during our years of collaboration compared to other fire-prone provinces in Sumatra. The action programmes benefited the local authorities and communities by enhancing their capabilities and knowledge in the areas of fire prevention, fire suppression and alternative livelihoods. A major success factor was the strong support given by the then Governor of Jambi, Pak Zulkifli Nurdin. This illustrates the necessity for political buy-in and commitment at the provincial level and on the ground. Unfortunately, this collaboration was not renewed after 2011.

24 The picture shows – if you look very carefully, you will see a tall pole, that is a meteorological pole which helps gather meteorological data: wind direction, moisture, rain, etc. If you look even more closely you will see a little small box in which are analysers for air quality. These were provided to our colleagues in Jambi by the Singapore government but all technology requires maintenance and repair. Unfortunately this is now not working and we have not been able to gain access to fix it but we hope that the Indonesian government will renew these agreements and allow us to do more work at the local level on a mutually beneficial basis.

25 We have conveyed to Indonesia that we want to renew this collaboration and we also want to undertake projects which promote sustainable agricultural practices. In fact, President Yudhoyono had already agreed to support this when he met PM Lee in April 2013 and we have been awaiting confirmation from our Indonesian counterparts. We stand ready to replicate this project with Jambi in other fire-prone provinces such as Riau – which was the source of most of the haze that hit us this time round.

Engaging All Stakeholders

26 Secondly, beyond Government-to-Government engagement, my Ministry has also been engaging stakeholders and interest groups ranging from Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and think-tanks to companies. We believe this is a useful and essential complement to the inter-Governmental processes. For this reason, at the sub-regional level, we have initiated a forum that will enable the MSC countries to reach out to existing and potential stakeholders, to exchange best practices, and to form new partnerships. My Ministry organised and hosted the first MSC forum in 2009. In 2012, the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA) supported Brunei in hosting the second MSC forum. This forum involves NGOs, academics, companies, and other relevant stakeholders. It is a process that exists in parallel to inter-Government processes.

27 My Ministry has also been identifying and will be approaching companies to encourage them to establish a positive model in the operation and management of plantations. We want to show that such responsible practices are workable, practical, sustainable, and viable; and we hope that this will become the accepted way of doing business and will be replicated across the industry.

28 Third, I would like to respond to Mr Nicholas Fang and Ms Irene Ng who asked about the steps other stakeholders, including Singaporeans, can take to ensure a long-term solution. Every one of us as a consumer has the power to influence the behaviour of a company. A key cause of the haze is the clearance of plantation land by burning because this is the cheapest way to do so. Let me give an idea of the scale. To pay someone and give that person a jerry-can of kerosene to burn one hectare of forest costs about SGD6. If you pay a team of contractors to use chainsaws to cut forest, tractors and bulldozers to clear the logs, and then plough the ground, it will cost you thousands of dollars more. Between SGD6 and thousands of dollars, that is the profit motive; that is where the source of the haze lies. And that is why we need not only legislation but also consumer pressure to be applied – otherwise the temptation to go for the cheapest way or the most unsustainable, irresponsible way; that temptation would be too great. Through our purchasing decisions, we can punish businesses that undertake illegal burning and reward those which adopt sustainable practices. The supply chain also has a role here. I was very encouraged to learn that the Singapore Manufacturers’ Federation (SMa) urged its members not to have any business dealings with errant organisations and their subsidiaries involved in these illegal fires. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) has also called on five of its member companies alleged to be involved in illegal land clearing in Indonesia to submit digital maps of their plantations and aid its investigations. I encourage more of such ground-up, non-governmental approaches to hold people accountable and to ensure that transparency and data is available.

[SLIDE 5 – Graphics on MSS Capabilities]

29 Let me conclude by saying that my Ministry’s core mission in the haze episode has been to detect, to warn and to mitigate. In the areas of detection and warning, the Meteorological Service Singapore (MSS) of the NEA is looking to enhance its capabilities for the early warning of haze. This includes making use of more meteorological data, finer resolution satellite imagery, enhanced dispersion modeling capabilities and installation of more sensors. Let me try to explain what all that means. For instance, by next year, and certainly by 2015, we will be gaining feeds from new satellites which have greater resolution – we need resolution down to about a 1-2 kilometre range to be able to identify a hotspot. The new satellites will also have greater spectral sensitivity which means you can also see fires in an early stage, maybe even at the underground level. Third, we need more wind sensors – not only in Singapore, but indeed in the Straits and in the shores beyond as well. These wind sensors will input into the more complicated computer models which predict weather patterns, whether there will be rain or drought; winds, speed of the wind, which determines how fast the haze reaches us; direction of the wind, which is the difference between why we had a clear Saturday on the 22nd and Muar in Johor was completely overcome by haze. These sophisticated computer models are still in the state of development but as Dr Ng said just now, what we need is to be able to predict the haze, the density, not one hour from now or not 24 hours ago, but for the next 24 hours. So in the same way people have gotten used to weather forecasts, we will have to upgrade out capability to be able to give you haze forecasts because these forecasts are how you will plan your day: what activities businesses need to take, schools, hospitals. Everything depends on a forward-looking prediction. I cannot give you the assurance that we can be a hundred percent accurate – it’s not possible; everyone who engages in weather forecasting knows that – but we can improve the precision of our forecasts. That is something which we are going to have to work very hard on over the next 1-2 years.

30 I also cannot emphasise enough that, for a lasting and permanent solution, we need the firm commitment and resolute action by the Indonesian Government at all levels. We appreciate that the President of Indonesia has acknowledged the severity of the situation and has given his commitment to tackle the issue. Quite frankly, I think that it was his apology and his commitment that made a difference on the ground and helped to reduce or at least prevented people from starting more fires without having to worry about consequences. Of course, we were helped by the rains which have now fallen over Sumatra over the last one week. We will stand ready to work and to do our best with Indonesia as a close neighbour and as a partner in ASEAN.

31 The haze situation today has improved a lot compared to what we faced three weeks ago. But I also want to be honest with Singaporeans, to tell you that this beautiful day which we have now could be only a temporary respite. The dry season is not over yet. We need continued vigilance and we need decisive action by Indonesian authorities to prevent another recurrence of the haze over the next 2-3 months. MEWR and NEA will do our part to detect and give warning of the haze and to mitigate its impact but we need the support and cooperation of all stakeholders.

32 I also want to end by thanking Singaporeans for their calmness, their patience, and the fact that they refused to get rattled by the situation. It is that ability to respond sensibly, rationally, cohesively and collectively as a people that makes the difference and makes me confident that we will get through this together, whatever happens. Thank you, Madam Speaker.

Sustainable development makes good business sense, especially in Singapore


The world is currently at several inflexion points. There are now more than seven billion human beings on the planet, and more than half of us live in cities. Indeed, the most essential elements of life – food, water – are now interlinked with energy, and with fossil fuels. And this portends therefore, either a potential crisis or enormous opportunities for businesses in the years ahead.

In the past, great fortunes were made by simply extracting resources, mining materials – iron ore and energy – from the ground. And manufacturing grew enormously, on the back of the availability of cheap resources and cheap energy. But this era of cheap natural resources is coming to a close.  And we can now no longer afford to ignore the externalities of industrialisation and of human activities.  Pollution and global warming are real phenomena,  which affect not just the quality of the environment, but also involves huge economic costs for all of us. In other words, the old ways of getting rich are not going to be viable in the future.

That is why we need to find new ways of making living, and living in harmony with nature. And this is not just ideology – this actually makes good business sense. The societies that can adapt successfully to this new reality, the fastest, will have an enormous competitive advantage by being ready for that future. And therefore, what I am saying, is it is not a trade-off between the environment on one hand and business viability on the other hand. In fact it is a virtuous cycle.

And we hold Singapore as a good working example of this concept. In Singapore, we have never had natural resources, we have never had large land mass and we could never afford to spoil our environment, precisely because we are so small. My backyard is your front yard.  I cannot afford to dump or to degrade your front yard.

Because of this, in a way, in the last 50 years, we have always been extremely conscious about pollution – we could not afford to have our air and our water poisoned. Therefore, we did not take the easy road to development by being prepared to sacrifice our environment. Instead, we made a deliberate choice to put sustainability at the forefront of our planning process, on the top of our development agenda, even before it became fashionable to be green 50 years ago.

So for example, we have built a Garden City even as we built a Global City. We pride ourselves on Singapore being a city in a garden. This is not just a tourist slogan, but indeed, this is a key reason why companies and families will choose to base themselves or their regional headquarters in Singapore.

Another example – water has always been an existential issue for Singapore. Through political will, the use of innovative technology, assiduous long-term planning and the ability to also charge full long-run marginal cost for water, we have been able to turn a strategic vulnerability into a business opportunity. And today we have Singaporean water companies growing and pursuing opportunities all over the world. Their calling card is their success in Singapore.

There is another paradox that is not appreciated. Mr. Peter Calthorpe wrote in 1985, some 28 years ago, that: “The city is the most environmentally benign form of human settlement.” It is a statement which is worth stopping for a moment to ponder, and I believe he is right. Because if you stop to think about it, the per capita cost of providing the essentials of life for human beings – the unit cost of providing shelter, food, water, electricity, education, healthcare, transportation and jobs – the cost of providing all these essentials are much lower in a dense city than in a suburban sprawl or even in the rural countryside.

And hence, I believe that living in a well-planned dense city is in fact a more sustainable way of life for human beings in the decades to come. Being green actually means living and thriving in a dense city. The key then, is how we plan and how we organise ourselves. And therefore, we are trying to use Singapore as a working, living, breathing model of the future, of the future in which the vast majority of human beings of this planet will live in.

We will be revising our Singapore Sustainability Blueprint as we prepare to harvest these opportunities, and as we prepare to confront the challenges in the decades to come. The point I am making is that governments have a crucial role to play. Governments have to devise policies that will lead businesses to make the right choices. Governments will also have to make investments in research and development because it is from such technological breakthroughs that we will also get new ways of life, and a more sustainable way of life for human beings.

But governments cannot do this alone. We need the non-government sector, and we also need empowered consumers who have access to information – in other words, a regime of complete transparency, so that people can understand the issues, make informed choices and can decide what causes to support, and what products or services to purchase. Businesses need to seek value in new business models and in sustainable responsible practices, in a world that demands greater sustainability, transparency and fairness.

Political suicide vs Demographic extinction


Like many Singaporeans, I would also prefer to have a smaller population of foreigners in our Singapore but ……

We are facing the crisis of our lifetime. Our citizen population will halve every two generations. This is a serious ‘long’ term problem and the only cure is more babies. But the real emergency is not babies, but ageing. That is why the population will increase in the short term before the inevitable decrease in the long term.

We are one of the fastest ageing nations in the world. By 2030, the number of senior citizens older than 65 years will triple to 900,000. Who will look after us? Today, we have almost six working-age citizens for every senior. In 2030, we will only have two. Even if we suddenly have an epidemic of babies now, they will only be 17 years old in 2030. Hence, we will need some kind of temporary ‘top up’ over the next two decades – foreigners to work with us, care for us, pay taxes and to help create opportunities. Actually even 1M extra foreigners will still mean far less young people supporting seniors than today. However, I believe we must learn to do more with less. Actually, I hope we will need fewer foreigners. In fact, our new policies will reduce immigration significantly. The question is by how much. Only time will tell, and we must be prepared to review this number regularly.

In the meantime, it is essential that we start building ahead of demand and re-organise ourselves to ensure that our quality of life is enhanced and our children continue to have even more opportunities in a vibrant Singapore. MND has just published a long term land use plan at

As far as water in concerned, we have the technology and plans to ensure that water will not be the limiting factor either.

Our main focus must be the hopes, dreams and fears of our current 3.2 M Singapore citizens and our future children. Everyone and everything else is secondary.

The headline numbers and the speed of change are scary – but we must keep our cool and decide confidently as one people on our future destiny regardless of politics. That is why the government is taking such a big political risk in publishing

BTW, I found this lecture on population dynamics by Prof Hans Rosling fascinating.