Speech by President Halimah Yacob at the UNLEASH Award Show

 Mr Jose Ramos-Horta,

Former President of Timor-Leste 

Mr Flemming Besenbacher

Chairman of UNLEASH  

Distinguished guests

Talents of UNLEASH Innovation Lab 2018

Good afternoon,

            I can feel the energy radiating throughout the conference room. I am very glad because it is with energy that we can generate new ideas and innovations. I am delighted to join you today for the UNLEASH Innovation Lab 2018 Award Show. I understand that the teams have been working hard to brainstorm innovative ideas to tackle the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) this past week. Your discussions have added significance to the World Environment Day yesterday, as you pitched your ideas and interacted with business leaders from Temasek’s Ecosperity Conference. In between the discussion sessions, I hope you found time to experience Singapore and see for yourself how Singapore is also trying to build a sustainable and liveable city for all.

 Singapore’s Sustainable Development Journey

            Singapore’s journey towards sustainable development began long before the adoption of the 2030 Agenda. When Singapore gained independence in 1965, the country faced many challenges. We lacked housing, water resources and proper sanitation. I used to live in a place where we did not have water nor proper sanitation. We had to collect water from a communal tap and had to walk a distance to get it. We also had communal bathrooms and there was also a pecking order when it came to queuing for them. Usually the men get to use them first because they had to go to work in the morning. This was followed by the children and then the women. Our toilets came in the form of the bucket system where the buckets are cleared by workers. People lived in overcrowded conditions and our waterways were choked with sewage and litter. Given Singapore’s limited land area, our pioneer generation of leaders understood the importance of implementing policies to support sustainable development even before the term was coined. I am proud to say that their vision and determination has made Singapore the most sustainable Asian city and second most sustainable city globally, according to the 2016 Sustainable Cities Index.

            Singapore has all along recognised the need to preserve our natural environment even as the country pursued economic development. Singapore’s founding Prime Minister, the late-Mr Lee Kuan Yew, instituted the policy of making Singapore a garden city. He believed that (and I quote) “a blighted urban jungle of concrete destroys the human spirit” (unquote). So we set about planting trees along our roads, adorning infrastructure with greenery, developing parks and conserving nature. Today, Singapore is widely-recognised as a biophilic City in a Garden where nature is accessible to the public and where island-wide nature ways and other green linkages ensure ecological resilience. What I liked about the green linkages is their ability to connect the gardens throughout the Singapore. The Park Connector initiative has not complete but I believe anyone would soon be able to connect to different paths of the island through garden paths.

            Singapore also continues to contribute to global efforts in charting a sustainable development pathway for the world. Under the Singapore Cooperation Programme, we share our experiences in addressing the challenges of sustainable development with fellow developing countries. We do so through training and capacity building in areas including sustainable urban management, water management, health and education. We are committed to addressing climate change, which has a big impact on our sustainable development efforts. That is why Singapore has designated 2018 as the Year of Climate Action to rally ground efforts to take climate action. 

Importance of Innovation

            The road to sustainability starts with innovation. Without innovation, Singapore would not be where we are today. Let me cite the example of our water story. Singapore started off with imported water, because of our limited natural water resources. But we did not simply live with that limitation.  We relentlessly push for research and development in water technology, and eventually managed to diversify our water supply.  Today, we draw our water from “Four National Taps”: namely, our local reservoirs which collect rainwater, imported water from Malaysia, NEWater or high-grade reclaimed water, and desalinated water. Though our journey towards water sustainability was prompted by necessity, we have since turned a disadvantage into a strength. We are now looking ahead to advance water technology to bring down the cost of water and leverage technology to better manage our resources. 

            Another area where innovation is critical is energy. Generating energy can be highly pollutive. We are now an urban city state so we use a lot of energy. Singapore made an early decision to switch our electricity generation to natural gas. Today, 95% of our electricity is generated using natural gas, allowing Singapore to be among the 20 most carbon-efficient countries. Even though Singapore is an alternative energy disadvantaged country, we are ramping up our efforts to invest and harness renewables, particularly solar energy. As you can see, we have the sun all year round so we should harness its energy. One example is the Solar Energy Research Institute of Singapore which has made breakthroughs in boosting the efficiency of photovoltaic or PV cells. We are now developing PV panels that can be integrated into building façades and used as a floating solar PV system on unused reservoir space. Such initiatives allow greater solar energy use in land scarce Singapore. Singapore will continue to harness renewable energy in line with our commitments under the Paris Agreement to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions further.

Voluntary National Review

            These solutions are the result of early decisions to adopt innovative approaches and to adapt solutions from other countries’ experiences to our own context. Singapore is fortunate as we are able to learn and adapt those experiences to Singapore’s context.

Singapore will continue to learn from these experiences as we undertake the Voluntary National Review at the High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development next month in New York. This presents an opportunity for us to share our story on sustainable development, to communicate our aspirations on the 17 SDGs and learn about others’ experiences in implementing them.


            The diversity of backgrounds and perspectives from the pool of talents gathered at UNLEASH 2018 has no doubt inspired the cross-fertilisation of new and innovative solutions. I am confident that the networks and friendships you have built at UNLEASH 2018 will better equip our young innovators around the world to collectively tackle the sustainable development challenges we face. I hope you will also take back the friendships and networks that you have made. All of you will be embarking on different paths in life. Regardless of which path you take, it is always important to build bridges. I extend my heartiest congratulations to all talents of UNLEASH 2018, and those who will win awards today. Together we will succeed in making the world a better place to live.

            While this Award Show marks the end of UNLEASH 2018, I hope it does not mark the end of your efforts at conquering new frontiers in innovation. I would like to leave you with a quote from Thomas Edison: “When you have exhausted all possibilities, remember this – You Haven’t”. Never stop innovating.

Thank you.