16 Dec 2019




Mr Frank Cao, The Secretary General of the Global Alliance of Small and Medium Enterprises (GASME)

Distinguished Guests,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

A very good afternoon!

1. It’s an honour for me to join you at the “Obama Sustainable Development Lecture 2019”. I would also like to add my warmest welcome to all of you who are from overseas, and a very special welcome to President Barack Obama, who as we know, has been a global statesman and passionate champion for sustainable development during and after his presidency. 

2. Recently, it was reported that Singaporeans now have the world’s longest life expectancy at 84.8 years[1]. I don’t know about you. But I was a little surprised and just didn’t realise how far we have come. But perhaps we shouldn’t be. After all, the government has been consistently investing in affordable healthcare and universal coverage for decades. In fact, Singapore incurs only about 4.9% of the GDP to provide a world-class healthcare system[2], at the envy of many countries.

3. If we look at the 17 Sustainable Development Goals[3] adopted by UN in September 2015, Singapore has done well in many of them. For instance, in May this year, Singapore has become “the best place for children to grow up in”. This is a ranking amongst 176 countries according to the third annual Global Childhood report by the non-profit organisation called Save the Children[4]. More recently, Singapore students were ranked 2nd in the PISA scores (Programme for International Student Assessment rankings[5]), which was a global benchmarking of how well students applied their knowledge and skills to solve problems. 

4. In the area of housing, 83% of Singaporeans live in affordable and high-quality public housing. Water from our taps is immediately drinkable. Our unemployment rate is below 3%[6] while the economy is growing and creating jobs. To prepare our workers for the future, the government has launched a National Skills-future Program, one of its kind in the world, to promote lifelong learning for life-long employability.

5. Singapore is often times being described as a Garden City. Yet it was our former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew who first started the “Tree Planting campaign” in 1963 with the simple objective of making Singapore less concrete and more green. Every year a minimum of 10,000 saplings are planted as part of this campaign[7]. In 1963, there weren’t such buzz words as “sustainable development”, “eco-city” and “green economy” but we went ahead to minimise air and water pollution anyway.

6. Achieving Sustainable Development Goals means improving the overall well-being of the people. The 17 SDG goals are interrelated—that is, action in one area will affect the outcomes in others, and that development must balance social, economic and environmental sustainability. While achieving the SDGs is not a rocket science, the reality is that many countries especially the developing ones, face huge challenges in attaining them. Why? 

People-Centred Policy & Effective Governance

7. If I were to over-simplify to just two simple reasons: they have to be the presence or the lack of (a) people-centred policy and (b) effective governance.

8. Singapore’s journey from a third world to a first, to a very large extent reflects our value that we put Singaporeans at the heart of our policy planning. Every policy and program we devised, we did so asking how it would benefit Singaporeans in terms of their housing, education, health, employment and children. Doing the right thing is much better than doing the popular things.

9. Having good intents alone of course is insufficient. After world war II, leaders of many newly-independent countries were ready to lead their people out of poverty for better live. However, few have succeeded. Why? Simply put, corruption was in the way. Resources got siphoned off. Roads didn’t get built. Schools had no budget. Hospitals could not be upgraded. Economy could not grow because of poor infrastructure.

10. Singapore was most determined to avoid the scourge of corruption. The Prevention of Corruption Act (PCA) is powerful and effective. The Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB)[8] is independent and well resourced. Over time, our society has also engendered a culture which eschews corruption. These, and years of discipline have made Singapore as the “Top 3 least corrupt country[9]” amongst 180 countries surveyed. Being clean physically makes our environment pleasant. Being clean in our dealings helps us focus 100% our resources on our people and society. It is now an invaluable attribute of the “Singapore brand”.

Climate Action

11. Recently, climate change poses existential challenges for Singapore, including rising sea levels, extreme weather, and potential threats to our water and food supply.  Extreme weather patterns are becoming more common now than before. We have to take climate change seriously.

12. In September this year, our parliament passed the Resource Sustainability Bill[10]. It is now mandatory for large producers of e- and plastic-waste to re-use and recycle more. Our newspaper The Straits Times says: “This will allow Singapore to treat waste the way it treats water - by wringing value from every last drop”. As a society, we have to do more to cultivate the habit to Reduce, Reuse and Recycle[11].

13. Another area which we have taken decisive step forward is to cut down greenhouse gas emissions. For instance, our transport ministry aims to have 90% of the peak-period commuter journeys made via walking, cycling or rides on public and shared transport by 2040[12]. Meanwhile, the government is building 1000 charging stations by the end of 2020 to encourage the use of electric vehicles.[13] 

14. Singapore is also committed to ramp up our use of renewables such as solar energy. Solar installations have increased from 30 to over 3,000 over the last decade. Singapore’s new target for solar energy is to produce enough power by 2030 to meet the annual needs of about 350,000 households, or about 4 per cent of Singapore’s total electricity demand[14]

SMEs’ roles in Sustainable Development Goals

15. Whether it is in the broader objectives of SDG, or specifically for Climate Actions, large and small businesses have huge roles to play. Businesses do not exist alone. We are part of the community we operate in. We have to do our part for our common earth.

16. To help us learn from the best practices, Business China which I chair, designated “Sustainable Development in a Dynamic World Order” as the theme for our flagship 2019 FutureChina Global Forum. Mr Ban Ki-moon, former UN Secretary General gave a keynote speech. He explained how private and public institutions could come together, to develop effective policies and action plans for green growth to support sustainable development.

17. In addition, Business China also partnered with the National Environment Agency (NEA), World Bank and Public Utilities Board (PUB) at the Eco-sperity Week (Sep 2019) to help SMEs understand business opportunities in the green economy. We also went out to our young business leaders and students, as we took them to visit with clean energy application providers such BYD and Xiaopeng Motors in southern China.


18. Ladies and gentlemen, the challenge before us is an enormous one. Whether it is climate action or Sustainable Development Goals, we, as leaders in our respective fields, have the responsibility to mobilise our stakeholders’ support for concerted actions. Let us re-double our efforts, to convince and educate our people or employees that these actions are critical in safeguarding our future, and the futures of their children and grandchildren. Thank you very much.














[14] Presently, solar energy makes up less than 1 per cent of Singapore’s energy demand.