Speech by Mr Masagos Zulkifli, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, at the Committee of Supply Debate 2019, on 7 March 2019


A MEWR Trilogy:  Our Food and Environmental Stories Develop from Our Water Story


As a small island state, Singapore’s survival and success is a miracle. We have too little land to cultivate food meaningfully, no natural resources to enrich ourselves and remain, one of the most water-stressed countries in the world. We must never forget that the 1961 and 1962 Water Agreements ensured a supply of water from Johor to meet Singapore’s needs, and were so sacrosanct that they were guaranteed by both Singapore and Malaysia in the Separation Agreement. Sacrosant, to this day.

2.         Yet we were determined to build a successful, thriving and liveable home and by pursuing sustainable development from the word go. We overcame our challenges through two key approaches.

3.         First, long-term planning. Even as the Government tackled current problems, it scanned the horizon for threats and opportunities and planned decades ahead. Decades, not years.

4.         Second, the ability to implement policies and plans effectively. Faced with a challenge, we start small; learn from others; harness technology; invest in R&D. Keep on trying, until we get it right. Then, we take our solutions and scale up to benefit the whole nation.

5.         In doing so, we also grow our enterprises and create good jobs for Singaporeans.

6.         This is the essence of our Water Story. We now welcome the Singapore Food Agency into our MEWR family It is with the same understanding that food security is an existential issue, just like water, that we are writing our Singapore Food Story.

Water Story – From Survival to Success

7.         But first, Mr Deputy Chairman, let me dwell on our Water Story. Since independence, there has been the perception that water could be used as leverage against Singapore. Indeed, there have been threats to cut off our water supply.

8.         It was against this backdrop of needing to ensure the security and resilience of Singapore’s water supply that we set out to create drinking water from used water. We started pilot testing in the 70s, but it took us more than two decades before we were ready to scale up production of NEWater. We built a demonstration plant, started water quality measurement programmes, and rallied the entire nation’s support. 

9.        It is a feat to be proud of – that we have integrated our used water into the water system in a closed loop, safely and reliably. Drugs disposed of, in sinks or toilets will be substantially removed through the water reclamation process. Our NEWater technology is so reliable that the Reverse Osmosis process will effectively remove any remaining pharmaceutical compounds, when treated used water is channelled into the NEWater production.

10.       PUB’s constant monitoring showed that pharmaceutical compounds were not detected in our drinking water. I hope that will put to rest Ms Irene Quay’s concerns about PUB’s treatment capabilities in removing drugs from used water.

11.       Every time I describe to an international audience how we as a nation drink and use water from this system with full confidence of its safety and hygiene, I cannot help but beam with pride.  Today, NEWater is a national tap that is recognised internationally for its high quality and sustainability.

12.       Er Dr Lee Bee Wah asked about new developments in the water sector.  PUB is not done with R&D. We are pushing on. The Research, Innovation and Enterprise Council (RIEC) allocated PUB $200 million for R&D, which includes pursuing breakthrough technologies. We will pose what we call ‘Big Hairy and Audacious Goals’ to the scientists, such as producing desalinated water with energy use of 1 kWh/m3 (kilo Watt hour per metre cube) at the system level.

13.       We already have the electro-deionisation technology that can potentially halve the energy required today in conventional reverse osmosis desalination. We are ready to scale up and deploy this technology at one of the process trains in PUB’s Tuas Desalination Plant from 2020.

14.       The gains from R&D go beyond solving our water problems. Over the years, we have developed a thriving water industry, with over 200 companies and more than 25 R&D centres. Our investments in the past decade have created some 14,400 good jobs and economic value-add of over $2.2 billion annually, far more than our 2006 target of 11,000 jobs and $1.5 billion value-add. Singapore is now one of the best and busiest hydrohubs, where companies come to prove their patents and scalability in a live water system.

15.       Our R&D efforts also allow PUB to grow our local enterprises when it partners the industry to develop innovative solutions. One example is EnvironSens. PUB worked with them to develop an early warning system that detects illegal discharge of heavy metals into the sewerage system. EnvironSens has already attracted investments to manufacture and market their products in countries such as the US, China, and India.

Climate Change Brings New Existential Threats

16.       We have come a long way in our Water Story, but we cannot rest on our laurels. Climate change is bringing new and wicked problems. It is no coincidence that we are building more desalination and NEWater plants – we need to produce water almost at will, regardless of whether the rains will come. 

17.       On the other hand, climate change also brings more frequent intense storms, which could mean more floods, as noted by Dr Chia Shi-Lu. As a low-lying island, Singapore is particularly vulnerable to sea level rise that can exacerbate flooding problems. You may have seen the Straits Times’ interactive graphic that shows “Singapore Underwater”. This is already a reality in the Pacific Ocean where at least eight islands have disappeared under the sea.

18.       To enhance our flood resilience, we completed the Stamford Diversion Canal and Stamford Detention Tank last year. Upgrading works at two major waterways, the Bukit Timah First Diversion Canal and Sungei Pandan Kechil, will be completed this year. We will commence drainage upgrading works at another 16 locations this year.

19.       As Er Dr Lee Bee Wah noted, climate change must be tackled at regional and global platforms. In the meantime, we must press on to transform our economy towards a low carbon future and do our part for the planet. This year, the carbon tax takes effect. The Government is prepared to spend more than the $1 billion to be collected over the next five years in tax revenues, to help companies become more energy-efficient.

20.       We will step up solar adoption as highlighted by Ms Cheng Li Hui. PUB is studying the deployment of floating solar photovoltaic systems at four reservoirs – Bedok, Lower Seletar, Upper Peirce and Tengeh. EDB is also exploring the possibility of a commercial floating solar system at Kranji Reservoir. 

21.       Together, these systems potentially have a capacity to power 40,000 four-room HDB households a year –about half the size of Tampines. It gets more exciting: we are also exploring such floating PV systems off Singapore’s coast, as well as integrating solar PV into our building facades to maximise solar energy generation.

22        Promoting sustainable transport and managing vehicular emissions are also key. Professor Walter Theseira asked about our plans to manage transport emissions. We promote cleaner vehicles through emissions standards and encourage the early replacement of older and more pollutive vehicles, such as through the Early Turnover Scheme. More than 40,000 commercial diesel vehicles have switched to cleaner vehicles under this scheme. 

23.       We also work with MOT to encourage adoption of cleaner vehicles, and regularly engage the industry, such as commercial electric vehicle fleet owners like HDT and BlueSG, on their plans. As my one of my colleagues, a Minister of Environment quipped, “There is a link between carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. You aim for cleaner vehicles to reduce pollution, you will also solve greenhouse gases that will help with climate change.”

24.       The preceding examples are what we call climate mitigation. But that is not enough. The Government is also planning ahead to protect Singapore against climate change impacts.

25.       Er Dr Lee Bee Wah asked about our initiatives to build climate resilience. My colleagues in MND spoke at length on this. To guide our policies, though, in fortifying Singapore against climate change, we must build up our knowledge of climate science. Indeed, because there is limited literature on climate change effects in the tropics. We can lead. This is why we set up the Centre for Climate Research Singapore, or CCRS, in 2013. We are stepping up investment to build capability in CCRS and the local scientific community. This year, CCRS will embark on the National Sea Level Programme to better understand sea levels around Singapore, so that we can develop robust projections and plans for the long term.

Ensuring Our Water Security

26.       Mr Deputy Chairman, we will also press on to ensure water security. When Marina East and Jurong Island Desalination Plants are completed next year, we will have a total of five desalination plants. Works on the Deep Tunnel Sewerage System Phase 2 are on track. We will continue to build up our desalination and NEWater capacities, to ensure that our water supply is secure and resilient in the long-term.

27.       Water security is an existential issue for Singapore. We will continue to do what it takes to ensure it. Members would be aware that earlier this week, PUB issued a Default Notice to Tuaspring Pte Ltd, or TPL, the Hyflux subsidiary that owns and operates the Tuaspring Integrated Water and Power Plant. 

28.       As updated previously in this House, we have been closely monitoring developments and will not allow our water security to be compromised. We are concerned that TPL has been unable to fulfil various contractual obligations, in particular by failing to keep the plant reliably operational as required. In addition, TPL has not been able to produce financial evidence to demonstrate its ability to keep the plant running for the next 6 months. Hence, PUB has decided to exercise its rights under its contract with TPL, and initiate the necessary proceedings to safeguard the continued operations of the plant. This action is to safeguard our water security.

29.       Over the past five decades, we have worked hard to diversify our water resources and build up our four national taps.  We saw how the Linggiu Reservoir stock level plummeted to 20 per cent in 2016.  It has yet to recover fully even after more than two years While stock levels had gradually increased to 72 per cent by end 2018; after just two months this year, it has dropped again to 64 per cent. That is why our weather resilient NEWater and desalination taps are integral to our water security.  

Water Conservation

30.       Mr Deputy Chairman, even as we secure our water supply, we cannot ignore water conservation. Over-consumption is a challenge in many countries. In Qatar, where water is provided for free, daily consumption is around 500 litres per person.

31.       In Singapore, we have worked hard to embed water conservation in our national DNA.  Our domestic water consumption decreased from 148 litres per capita per day in 2016, to 141 litres in 2018. But we agree with Mr Amrin Amin that we must do more, to reach our goal of 130 litres by 2030. 

32.       To this end, we help consumers make more informed purchasing decisions, such as through the Mandatory Water Efficiency Labelling Scheme.

33.       Similarly, for the non-domestic sector, PUB is working with the Singapore Environment Council to develop a Green Labelling Scheme for commercial equipment such as commercial dishwashers.  PUB also supports businesses through its Water Efficiency Fund. One beneficiary is Hoya Electronics Singapore, which reduced its NEWater consumption by 75 per cent!

34.       Last weekend, President Halimah officiated Singapore World Water Day, marking the start of a year-long conservation campaign. PUB is launching the inaugural #GoBlue4SG movement, to rally the community and celebrate our collective actions to conserve water. One of the highlights – City Turns Blue – will see more than 20 buildings light up Singapore’s skyline on 22nd March. I am heartened that over 150 schools will undertake water rationing exercises to drive home the value of water. I encourage all of us to ‘Make Every Drop Count’.

Safeguarding Singapore’s Essential Resources, Beyond Water

35.       The impact of climate change goes beyond water. Indeed, the destinies of two other agencies under my Ministry – environment and food – are also tied to the impacts of climate change, like water.

36.       Resource scarcity is set to become the new normal.  And with it, cascading impacts such as disruptions to supply chains that fuel our economies, and increased risk of global conflict.

37.       We must therefore apply a strategic lens to Singapore’s resource resilience. As I mentioned in my opening remarks, to meet this new challenge of securing our food and other resources, we can apply the lessons from our Water Story.

Year Towards Zero Waste – Shift Towards Circular Economy Approaches

38.       Singapore designated 2019 as the Year Towards Zero Waste. We want to break away from the linear economy, where we take, make, use and toss without a second thought, because this is not sustainable. Therefore, we must make a paradigm shift towards circular economy approaches.

39.       Beyond protecting the planet, circular economy approaches can enable Singapore to overcome resource constraints and strengthen overall resilience.  Many may not realise this, but NEWater embodies the circular economy. We use a resource, in this case water, for as long as possible, and ensure that what can be reused is put back into the system. 

40.       This shirt I received recently at the Special ASEAN Ministerial Meeting on Marine Debris is another good example of the circular economy. This polo shirt is made with 12 PET bottles, but I encourage us to use reusable bottles. This upcycling lets us keep using what we have within our systems. In essence, we keep using what we have within our systems.

41.       This same thinking applies to every other resources. For example, lithium ion batteries found in almost all our electronics:  handphones, laptops and even electric vehicles. Global demand is soaring, but mineral sources for lithium, cobalt and coltan are finite and costly to mine. And continuously exploiting these minerals may harm the gorillas that Mr Louis Ng spoke about.

42.       But we can collect these used uncontaminated, electronic wastes in meaningful amounts, and apply R&D and new technologies to extract the precious minerals. This will increase our resource resiliency, and avoid harming the environment.

43.       Businesses are alive to the opportunities of the circular economy. Among them is our home-grown e-waste recycling company, TES. TES recovers treasure from trash, extracting gold, silver and palladium from e-waste. TES has plans to expand its lithium ion battery treatment process facility. Recyclers like TES are important as they ensure that heavy metals from e-waste do not contaminate our environment, but are instead recovered as valuable resources to power our economy.

Turning Trash into Treasure – R&D to Power Enterprises and Create Jobs

44.       Let me focus on how we will recreate our Water Story in the environmental sector. Our vision is to close the waste loop through circular economy approaches and turn trash into treasure. This will also help to extend the lifespan of Semakau Landfill as Ms Cheng Li Hui highlighted.

45.       To do so, we need to invest in R&D in close partnership with industry and research institutions. Just like how we have grown our water industry and research eco-system to tackle our water challenge.  This will allow us to overcome technological barriers in our drive towards a zero waste nation.

46.       NEA set aside $45 million under the “Closing the Waste Loop” R&D Initiative to fund projects adopting circular economy approaches. Promising projects include Singapore Polytechnic’s development of green chemistry technology to recover precious metals in e-waste, and Nanyang Technological University’s method to rapidly convert food waste into high grade bio-fertilisers.

47.       The result of such R&D means more opportunities for our enterprises, and consequently, more jobs for Singaporeans. Take Singapore Polytechnic, which after developing a recycling process for solar panels that can potentially recover up to 90 percent of useful materials, signed a memorandum of collaboration with Sembcorp Industries to develop a pilot recycling plant for used PV panels.

48.       Another company that has seized such opportunities is Westcom Solutions. Westcom got its researchers to help improve processes, to scale up and transition from being a company that distributes food waste digesters to one that manufactures them. 

49.       I look forward to the day when our stores carry home food digesters that are compact, economical and easy to use, something we can put in our own homes, to convert our food waste into compost to grow plants and even food at home. This also reduces the need to transport food waste across the island, and keeps our waste system free from pests!

50.       As R&D powers our enterprises and creates new opportunities for them, it will also create new jobs for Singaporeans. 

51.      We need engineers to develop standards for waste management and recycling operations; scientists to study microorganisms for efficient food waste processing; and analysts to study the data created and create strategies for scaling up.

52.       We will also partner with other agencies and the industry, to turn trash into treasure through circular economy strategies.

53.       JTC, in consultation with NEA, is developing the Multi-Storey Recycling Facility, or MSRF which is expected to be ready in 2021. The facilities will house multiple recyclers, and be located close to other industries. This will present opportunities to reuse waste materials and other industrial by-products, thereby closing resource loops at the local level.

54.       Today, we already have NEWater. We are working on creating NEWSand! We are studying how we can turn incineration ash into construction material, instead of landfilling it. 

55.       NEA is leading this effort and has developed draft standards for the use of treated ash, such as for building roads. NEA has appointed industry players to demonstrate their technologies, with plans to start field trials next year. We will take careful steps though, as two-thirds of Singapore is water catchment that must remain free from pollution.

56.       Building a circular economy also requires international cooperation, as value chains are interconnected. Singapore will play a constructive role in this process.

57.       We supported the Special ASEAN Ministerial Meeting on Marine Debris two days ago, where ASEAN countries agreed to advance concrete actions on the circular economy. The same conference where Thailand gave delegates this T-shirt to demonstrate the potential of the circular economy. We will continue cooperating with our partners in the region to work towards zero waste.

Our Singapore Food Story: Enhancing Food Security

58.       Mr Deputy Chairman, let me now turn to food, another essential resource.  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates widespread declines in crop yields of up to 25 per cent by 2050 due to climate change impacts. 

59.       Singapore is also exposed to the volatilities of the global food market, because we import over 90 per cent of our food supply. Just last year, Malaysia announced that it was considering limiting exports of eggs.

60.       Dr Chia Shi-Lu asked how the SFA’s formation will benefit Singaporeans and companies. SFA’s mission is to ensure and secure a supply of safe food for Singaporeans. 

61.       As the lead agency to strengthen food safety and security, SFA will have regulatory oversight across the entire food chain, from farm-to-fork. It will also partner businesses to transform our agri-food industry, and create, again, good jobs for Singapore.

62.       Desmond Choo asked about SFA’s plans to strengthen our food security. SFA will pursue three broad strategies, called the 3 food baskets – “Diversify Import Sources”; Grow Local’ and “Grow Overseas” – which I talked about during the second reading of the SFA Bill. 

Grow Local – Achieving “30 By 30”

63.       Today, I would like to focus on our “Grow Local” strategy. Local production will reduce our reliance on imports, and buffer the impact of overseas supply disruptions.

64.       SFA has set the target of achieving “30 by 30” - that is, to locally produce 30 per cent of Singapore’s nutritional needs by 2030. This is an ambitious multi-fold increase to our current production. Remember, we import over 90 per cent of our food. To get to the “30 by 30" vision, will require our agri-food industry to adopt new solutions to raise productivity, apply R&D, strengthen climate resilience, and overcome our resource constraints. We need new paradigms in the agri-food industry.

65.       Supporting our existing farms to innovate and increase productivity is a key pillar of the “Grow Local” strategy. Many of these farms are household names which produce eggs, vegetables and fish. For example, vegetable farms Kok Fah and Ho Ka Clean have been feeding Singapore for over 20 years. The Agriculture Productivity Fund (APF) has supported them to integrate climate control and automation into their operations, thereby raising their capacity and productivity.

66.       We will similarly work with our existing coastal fish farms. Singapore Aquaculture Technologies was one of the first coastal fish farms to adopt closed containment aquaculture systems. This protects fish production from sea-borne threats such as algae blooms or oil spills. More than 90 farms have benefitted from the APF, and I encourage all our farms to tap on it.

67.       We will also expand production in state-of-the-art indoor farms. Farms such as Sustenir and Panasonic optimise plant growth and increase yield exponentially through high-tech solutions like LED lighting and climate control.  By controlling growing variables, these farms are climate resilient, and can maintain high quality.  We expect to see more of such farms as successful tenderers in the recent agricultural land tender exercises begin production, and scale up. Farmers of the future will operate computerised control systems in a pleasant environment.

68.       SFA will also support the growing interest in urban farming, such as on rooftops. This brings the community together, and attunes Singapore to food security, by involving them directly in food production. Such farms can also be used to test-bed innovative technologies for growing food. 

69.       We are working with SLA, MOH and ECDA to pilot this concept, re-purposing the former Henderson Secondary School into an integrated space comprising an urban farm, a child care centre, a nursing home and a dialysis centre.

70.       Our plans to “Grow Local” also extend to productive and sustainable fish farming.  Our vision is to develop Singapore into a tropical aquaculture hub, much like how we are a hydrohub.

71.       One area we are studying is deep sea fish farming, which can contribute significantly to local production.  A local first mover is Barramundi Asia, which uses large sea cages to culture Asian seabass in the deep waters off Pulau Semakau, our landfill.  I recently visited them, and was impressed by their fish vaccination process. Using technology, Barramundi Asia can vaccinate 9000 fish in one hour, compared to just 600 manually. SFA will work with agencies and industry to open up more sites for deep sea farming with technology.

72.       Thus R&D will be the key driver, again, to help us achieve our “30 by 30” vision, grow our enterprises and consequently create good jobs. We will grow an ecosystem of R&D players to support agri- and aquaculture industry development.

73.      SFA’s Marine Aquaculture Centre will contribute to this effort by sharing its expertise and providing facilities for R&D. The RIEC has also set aside $144 million for us to write the Singapore Food Story.

74.       Mr Desmond Choo asked about how we will prepare Singaporeans for the growing opportunities in the agri-food sector. The agri-food industry will require a workforce with good understanding of urban food production processes and business models, and multi-disciplinary expertise in science, engineering, info-communications, and more.

75.       To this end, we have worked with Republic Polytechnic and Temasek Polytechnic to launch SkillsFuture Earn & Learn programmes or ELP for fresh ITE graduates, leading to diplomas in Urban Agricultural Technology, and Aquaculture. 

76.       The ELP will emplace ITE graduates in industry and equip them with the knowledge and skills to become agriculture and aquaculture technicians. We will also partner universities to groom Agri- and Aqua- technologists and culturists, urban farming specialists, and researchers to meet future needs.

Realising Synergies in the Circular Economy: Food – Water – Energy – Waste Nexus

77.       Like every other sector in Singapore, the agri-food sector must embrace sustainability. Some of our farms are already employing circular economy principles.  Indoor farm Sustenir is using carbon dioxide, a by-product from the petrochemical industry to enhance vegetable yields. N&N, a layer egg farm, carries out biodigestion using poultry waste to produce energy. This is then used to dry by-products from the food manufacturing industry to produce chicken feed.

78.       These examples show that what we see as waste in one sector can be feedstock for another. We will do more to find synergies across different sectors such as food, water, energy and waste, and then scale them up to commercial viability. We will apply the circular economy approach across systems to achieve zero waste and the lowest use of resources. This requires an ambitious R&D programme, integrated upfront planning and design and close collaboration with our industry. This is the future economy, and the Government will invest significant resources to enable Singaporeans to thrive in it.

79.       In total, the Government will spend almost $400 million under RIE 2020 towards research and innovation in water, circular economy and climate change and food. These significant investments will help us to explore greater possibilities across the food-water-energy-waste nexus, achieve new results, and scale up.

80.       One early success is NEA and PUB’s successful trial at Ulu Pandan Water Reclamation Plant. It has proven that co-digesting food waste and used water sludge can triple biogas yield compared to treating the used water sludge alone.  The biogas is used to generate energy for the facility.  This co-digestion technology illustrates the potential in exploiting synergies in the food-water-energy-waste nexus. We are preparing to scale this technology up and adopt it at the new Tuas Nexus, which will be operational by 2025.


81.       The plans we have for the water, food and environmental sectors will open up a variety of exciting opportunities for our enterprises and jobs in our industries. We hope to produce more of the likes of EnvironSens, TES, Sustenir, and Barramundi Asia. We will also need many people with diverse interests and skills to help us tackle our challenges. 

82.       Let me introduce some of the young Singaporeans who have stepped up in our water, food and environmental sectors. 

83.       Mr Ahmad Zaki Bin Salleh and Ms Rajakumar Amritha are at the forefront of our efforts to enhance flood resilience and ensure water security. Ahmad Zaki, a senior engineer with PUB, oversaw the planning and construction of the Stamford Detention Tank, while Amritha contributes to the smooth operations at Woodleigh Waterworks.  

84.       Ms Marie Tan and Mr Lee Yuan Hao are part of our growing agri-food sector to strengthen food security. Marie oversees fish health at Barramundi Asia’s nursery while Yuan Hao founded Ding He Agriculture, a vertical indoor vegetable farm.  

85.       Ms Jade Loh and Mr Heng Kim Soon are contributing to our Zero Waste Cause. Jade and her team at Plaspulp Union Pte Ltd explore recycling solutions for complex waste materials, while Kim Soon conducts R&D on uses for incineration ash. Together with their colleagues in the water, food and environmental sectors, these young people will see our plans through in the decades to come. 

86.       Mr Deputy Chairman, climate change will bring new existential threats, but also exciting opportunities. We must do as our forefathers did; stay alert and nimble, and continue to plan and prepare for the long term. It took us more than two decades to create NEWater. Likewise, the vision of a reservoir in the heart of the city was only realised many years after our Founding Prime Minister mooted the idea. We have ambitious plans for our water, waste and food sectors, but the road ahead is long and winding. We will persevere, for we are not done building a sustainable Singapore.

87.       I now hand over to SMS Dr Amy Khor.

Filter / Show By Category