From The Gallery

A small nation needs to think big

Yesterday's debate was telling in showing how a small nation like Singapore cannot afford to be consumed by petty matters, such as some commuters' bizarre complaint about MRT stations' lack of shade from the morning sun, which one MP saw it fit to raise during Parliament's scrutiny of the Transport Ministry's budget.

Far bigger challenges loom.

These include the global one of climate change, as well as regional sources of stress over the management of airspace, water scarcity and the haze.

For a sense of what is at stake, consider Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli's reply to MPs' questions on climate change.

He said Singapore is so small that global models of tropical weather do not produce meaningful results that its scientists can use to map out future scenarios.

So the team at the Centre for Climate Research Singapore did their own studies.

They worked for two years to simulate a hundred years of temperature, rainfall, wind and sea-level projections for the city state and the region. Their findings are that by the last few decades of this century, sea levels are projected to rise by between 0.25m and 0.76m; temperatures may increase by 1.4 to 4.6 deg C; and Singapore will experience more intense rainfall.

The Government is acting now to mitigate these effects.

It has invited researchers to propose ways to reduce ambient temperature in housing estates by 4 deg C.

It is building structures to protect the coastline and raising coastal roads to guard against sea-level rises.

And it is setting aside funds for these and other efforts to deal with the effects of climate change.

Mr Masagos' own worry centres on the impact of extreme weather patterns on the sustainability of Singapore's water supply.

He told Parliament: "The drier weather this couple of years saw the water level in Linggiu Reservoir drop to historic lows, from about 80 per cent at the start of 2015 to 36.9 per cent as we speak. This has impacted the reliability of imported water that supplies half our current needs.

"Fortunately, because we have diversified our water sources, we have been able to mitigate the impact of the drier weather."

The Linggiu Reservoir in Johor is, as Ms Cheng Li Hui (Tampines GRC) observed, five times larger than all of Singapore's 17 freshwater reservoirs combined.

Singapore is now building its fifth Newater factory to treat and reclaim used water, and is exploring the development of a fifth desalination plant on Jurong Island.

Still, it cannot afford to be complacent, Mr Masagos said.

He cited a study published last month by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology which predicted that one billion more people in Asia may experience severe water stress by 2050 due to a confluence of factors that include economic and population growth as well as climate change.

Elsewhere, such shortages have led to tense competition between neighbour states.

Unlike Mr Masagos, though, Singaporeans do not seem overly worried about their future water supply. In a recent survey, air pollution emerged as their top environmental concern, followed by cleanliness of public areas and vector-borne diseases.

Four MPs spoke on the haze, expressing outrage and seeking updates on actions taken against companies that profit commercially from the forest fires in Indonesia.

In transboundary pollution, the lack of physical space is a drawback, and it also weighs heavy on Singapore's ambition to keep flying high as an aviation hub, despite being circumscribed by larger neighbours.

Since 1946, Singapore's air traffic controllers have handled flights that pass through its Flight Information Region(FIR) - assigned to it by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO).

Singapore's FIR crosses state boundaries because, as Senior Minister of State (Transport) Josephine Teo explained, the ICAO assigns FIRs based on technical and operational considerations, to ensure air traffic safety and efficiency.

Some 650,000 flights pass through Singapore's FIR annually and that figure is set to rise to more than a million by 2025.

Singapore has invested heavily in training air traffic controllers and in state-of-the-art equipment, Mrs Teo said.

And yet, if Indonesia were one day to address ICAO's concerns on safety and technical issues, what impact would that have on Singapore's status as an air hub, Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC) asked.

That is a challenge Singapore will have to deal with. Should it arise, the little red dot must show it can take the heat and that its people will not wilt in the glare of a little morning sun.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 13, 2016, with the headline 'FromTheGallery A small nation needs to think big'. Print Edition | Subscribe