Lessons to Learn From Singapore’s Sustainable Economy

Updated: Nov 14

Singapore is one of the world’s most sustainable nations. Consequently, I believe it can serve as a basis or prototype for a future global environmentally-sound economy. This publication is a continuation of my recent article, which addressed how ‘green’ technologies and job creation can help us build a future global economy that will be based on sustainable production and infrastructure. Today, my aim is to examine the unique aspects to Singapore’s sustainability and present lessons that we can learn from this prosperous country to, hopefully, implement them to help build an environmentally-benefiting economy in the future.

Bordering Malaysia on one side and the junction of the Indian Ocean and South China Sea on the other, the city-nation of Singapore is a truly unique state. Despite being unusually small, its economic and technological success has been impressing the world for a significant number of years. Not only was Singapore ranked first globally for both the highest IQ rankings among its citizens and highest secondary-school test scores (1), but also as the most sustainable city in Asia and the fourth most sustainable city in the world (according to the 2018 Sustainable Cities Index). What surprised me the most, however, was Singapore’s ranking as the second nation on the WHO’s 2018 Global Competitiveness Report, which suggests that economic growth and sustainability can occur in one nation at the same time. (2) As a result, it is possible after all to combine both without the need to sacrifice economic growth for sustainability or the other way round. Therefore, if we hope to build a future economy that will both benefit our standards of living and the environment, then we should definitely keep a curious eye open on Singapore.

Let’s examine some aspects that make Singapore unique in regards to sustainability.

Innovative Waste Management

Singapore’s waste management might be unparalleled in the world. With litter and non-biodegradable waste becoming a separate ‘organ’ in the global ecosystem (due to its extremely high and growing prevalence in nature), why not re-produce this waste and use it to our advantage? While this statement may seem overly idealistic, this is exactly what Singapore is trying to do.

Instead of disposing waste into a landfill, Singapore burns virtually all of its waste and the heat this process produces is sent to an electricity plant, helping meet 2-3% of the country’s total electricity need. This also reduces the total volume of waste by a whopping 90%. Plastic is one of the materials that is being successfully burnt during this process, but the toxins released as a result are cleverly neutralized chemically, thus preventing air pollution. (3) The resulting ashes of the burnt waste are, subsequently, sent to Semakau Island’s landfill, where they are poured into the water to create land to expand the island’s area. In other words, Singapore uses the ashes of its burnt waste to generate electricity and physically build an island. Semakau Island, despite being the nation’s only official ‘landfill,” is actually home to generous amounts of vegetation, “blooming coral reefs” and “clean waters.” It also attracts a significant number of rare animals and birds, thus supporting animal life as well. (4)

Lesson we can learn: It is possible to use waste to our advantage and dispose of it by ‘neutralizing’ it. Perhaps in the future, we’ll be able to use burnt waste to produce raw materials to build civil infrastructure, houses, roads, furniture, and consumer goods. This idea, though too idealistic given the present circumstances, can reduce our reliance on materials like metals, crude oil, and timber (whose acquisition and production can be harmful for the environment), since we may begin replacing them with materials manufactured from the ashes of burned waste. This may not be possible from a chemical and engineering perspective at the moment, but I am not excluding the possibility that future technologies can make this happen.

The New Sustainable Energy Hot-spot

Jurong Island is a man-made industrial island and serves as “the heart of Singapore’s chemical and energy industry.” (5) It was recently announced that Jurong Island will be converted into an “energy and chemicals park” that will export sustainable products - such as “bio-based fuels” - to the world (6). This initiative contributes to Singapore’s plan of increasing sustainable products output by 4 times from 2019 levels, as well as reaching at least 6 million tonnes of “carbon abatement” per year by 2050. (6) Jurong Island is also sought to produce pyrolysis oil, which is a chemically produced substance made from plastic waste. (7) Additionally, the island will develop carbon capture, storage and utilization methods with the aim of reusing or storing carbon dioxide emissions. It aims to realize more than 2 million tonnes of “carbon capture potential.” (7) Since this very island employs 27,000 people and supports Singapore’s exports, its contribution to the country’s economic prosperity is undeniable, thus reinforcing my argument that sustainability and economic growth can occur simultaneously, without a need to sacrifice one for the other.

Lessons we can learn: Sustainability can (and, I believe, should) be paired with economic production, exports, and job creation, thus countries should aim to develop, produce, distribute, and export sustainable products and/or technologies to improve the environment and the economy at the same time.

The ‘Utopic’ Airport

You’ve likely already seen Singapore’s Changi International Airport and its lush, rainforest-like terminal with a refreshing waterfall and juicy tropical plants. Thankfully, this visual aesthetic holds value from a sustainable point of view, too. The indoor waterfall is powered by water that has been collected from rainfall and its vapor is being used to cool and ventilate the airport’s interior. (8)

Additionally, Changi’s third terminal uses a “smart lighting system” (9) based on pure, natural sunlight that regulates the amount of sunlight entering the building to accommodate the optimal amount during both sunny and overcast days. The windows of the terminal are “double-glazed,” thus reducing the amount of heat entering the airport, ridding of the need to use energy-consuming cooling systems like air-conditioners. (9) And most surprisingly, Changi produces clean water from food waste by utilizing digesters and microbes that break the food down and produce water in the process. (9) It does seem that Singapore uses almost every resource it has to its full environmental advantage!

Singapore is currently working on developing sustainable aviation after the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Airbus (10). Perhaps, we’ll be able to fly to Singapore in a sustainable way in the future, too.

Lessons we can learn: It is wise to tackle the most polluted places and areas first. Airports may be some of society’s most polluted places (not only due to aviation, but also due to the lack of proper ventilation and large numbers of people crowding the interiors). Singapore solves this problem by enabling clean air thanks to plants, sustainable lighting through natural sunlight-utilization systems, and water production through food waste processing. These actions serve to (at least partially) counteract the environment-harming activities that take place inside the airport.

The City of Nature

Singapore is quite literally one of the world’s greenest nations. With trees generously lining urban streets and living spaces, Singapore’s air is much cleaner than in other equally-populated cities. Instead of cutting down trees and annihilating nature in favor of modern infrastructure and construction, Singapore assimilates nature and trees into its construction projects instead. Singapore is planning to not only conserve its nature reserves, but actually increase them by an additional 200 hectares by 2030 (11). Additionally, Singapore is aiming to increase parks and gardens within the urban setting by 300 hectares by 2026.

Lessons we can learn: There doesn’t have to be a trade-off between building a large, high-tech city and conserving nature. Singapore shows that a city can accommodate a multi-million population without needing to sacrifice flora and fauna. This is crucial to our understanding of sustainability because the Industrial Revolution has long created an illusion that industrial progress and economic growth equate with environmental collapse and air pollution. While humanity did live with this belief for decades (thus nature was replaced by factories), Singapore once again proves that it is possible to combine both sustainability and industrial prosperity simultaneously. Hopefully, our understanding of economics will change and more people will start to examine industrial growth and the environment as things that come hand-in-hand and that are mutually beneficial and interconnected.

While Singapore is achieving remarkable milestones in regards to sustainability, building a similar economy in a larger and more diverse country may be much more difficult. In countries like the United States, there are many obstacles to making any major economic changes; not only is the political field very different there, but much more time is needed to design and implement sustainable policies. As a country that is a key player in the global economy, the US’s industries will require much more time to be transformed due to their diversity, complexity, and importance at a worldwide scale.

First and foremost, different nations have different political and economic institutions: for example, in the United States, private corporations and businesses have more influence over the government than, for example, in China, where the government controls almost all industries to a very significant extent. Therefore, in countries like China, sustainable development and environment-oriented policies may develop more rapidly at a legislative level if the government decides to pursue them. In the US, on the other hand, the ‘society-ruling’ corporations will continue to produce environment-harming goods and pollution if they are not controlled by the government, thus making a Singapore-like approach to sustainability even more unattainable.

Financing - the availability of investments within a country and its national budget - also plays a key role in whether or not Singapore’s sustainability protocols can be implemented by other countries. If a country has a relatively prosperous economy with a high GDP per capita, then the national budget will be higher (partially due to tax collecting), thus enabling the government to invest into the development of sustainable technologies, projects, and infrastructure. This may also include the ability to give out subsidies to companies aimed at developing sustainable technologies. Generally, the more money a country is able to invest, the more likely it is to develop sustainable infrastructure like Singapore’s. After all, there has to be a solid national dedication to environment-oriented technologies and engineering; for example, Singapore’s waste-collection and the chemical neutralization of its by-products after burning requires high-tech industrial mechanisms and a country, obviously, needs to have the financial resources to construct and accommodate them. However, this does not necessarily mean that ‘poorer’ countries with lower GDPs will not be able to develop sustainable systems like Singapore’s. They may indeed not have enough financial resources initially, but investing into sustainability technologies and providing subsidies to companies aimed at developing them may actually, theoretically, be the source of the country’s future economic growth. In a market economy, government spending is one of the determinants of Aggregate Demand (which is arguably one of the indicators of economic ‘health’), so the more government spending, the more the economy expands. Therefore, if a less prosperous country begins to invest into the development and production of sustainable technologies, its economy may begin to expand as a result of these government expenditures. This may be even more beneficial if these sustainable technologies will be exported, since an increase in exports accommodates an increase in Aggregate Demand as well.

Labor is equally important. In fact, labor - aka ‘human capital’ in economic terms - is the main reason for Singapore’s economic prosperity. Singapore is unusually small, thus it lacks land for economic development - in other words, Singapore does not rely on land-related economic resources like agriculture, crude oil, gold / diamonds, gas, metal, mining, etc. to accommodate economic prosperity, unlike some other larger countries. Singapore’s success lies in its human capital - its educated, well-trained citizens who are able to run organizations, develop technologies, and benefit society as a result. Singapore has, inarguably, one of the best education systems in the world, which enables virtually all of its citizens to be extremely well-trained for a wide variety of jobs. Thanks to Singapore’s highly educated and well-trained population, the country is able to generate sustainable ideas, realize them at a legislative level, and implement them by developing the analogous mechanical and chemical technologies (such as the water-generating system at the Changi airport) and infrastructures (such as the island landfill). Countries with less accessible education will, therefore, find it much more difficult to adopt Singapore's sustainability protocols: they may simply not have enough available labor (for tasks like scientific development or the actual construction) to realize them.

Therefore, Singapore’s ideas can work in other countries, but it may take more time for them to be realized due to economic, logistic, and political obstacles. Nevertheless, every single one of us can learn some lessons from Singapore’s quest for sustainability and be inspired to make a contribution - whether big or small - to the wellbeing of our planet and global society.

Works Cited:

  1. Madden, Duncan. “Ranked: The 25 Smartest Countries in the World.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 10 Dec. 2021, https://www.forbes.com/sites/duncanmadden/2019/01/11/ranked-the-25-smartest-countries-in-the-world/?sh=28c167c9163f.

  2. “Towards Singapore's Sustainability - Key Tenets of Our Approach to Sustainable Development.” CIRSD, https://www.cirsd.org/en/horizons/horizons-summer-2019-issue-no-14/towards-singapores-sustainability-key-tenets-of-our-approach-to-sustainable-development#:~:text=Today%2C%20Singapore%20is%20a%20liveable,the%202018%20Sustainable%20Cities%20Index.

  3. How Singapore Fixed Its Big Trash Problem | CNBC Reports. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r-q5V6LDxEY.

  4. Dharni, Aishwarya. “What Singapore Does with Its Garbage Is a Lesson for the World in How to Save the Planet.” ScoopWhoop, ScoopWhoop, 22 Sept. 2018, https://www.scoopwhoop.com/singapore-trash-island/#:~:text=Singapore's%20Pulau%20Semakau%20disposes%20off,world's%20first%20ecological%20offshore%20landfill.&text=This%20landfill%20is%20specially%20designed,National%20Environment%20Agency%20(NEA).

  5. Lim, Irene. “Arts.” Infopedia, https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/infopedia/articles/SIP_505_2004-12-17.html.

  6. Subhani, Ovais. “Singapore to Transform Jurong Island into a Sustainable Energy and Chemicals Park.” The Straits Times, 23 Nov. 2021, https://www.straitstimes.com/business/economy/singapore-to-transform-jurong-island-into-sustainable-energy-and-chemicals-park.

  7. Edb.gov.sg, https://www.edb.gov.sg/en/about-edb/media-releases-publications/sustainable-jurong-island-edb-outlines-plans-to-transform-jurong-island-into-a-sustainability-showcase-for-energy-and-chemicals.html.

  8. Esther Rico. “Jewel Changi-Green Airport.” Esther Rico, Esther Rico, 10 Mar. 2020, https://www.estherrico.com/blog/changi-green-airport.

  9. “5 Eco-Friendly Features You Never Knew Existed at Changi Airport.” 5 Eco-Friendly Features at Changi Airport, https://nowboarding.changiairport.com/discover-changi/5-eco-friendly-features-you-never-knew-existed-at-changi-airport0.html.

  10. Co-ordination between five major airports in t... 27-04-2022, et al. “Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) and Airbus Push to Create Hydrogen Fuel Hub in Changi Airport to Boost Sustainable Aviation !” FL360aero, https://fl360aero.com/detail/civil-aviation-authority-of-singapore-caas-and-airbus-push-to-create-hydrogen-fuel-hub-in-changi-airport-to-boost-sustainable-aviation/774.

  11. “City in Nature.” National Parks Board, 22 Mar. 2022, https://www.nparks.gov.sg/about-us/city-in-nature.

About the author:

I am a 19-year old girl living on the sunny island of Cyprus! I am currently on a gap year and work in digital marketing. I love everything that has to do with the social sciences and the environment; I organize community clean ups each week and will be studying economics and/or psychology in college!


  • drawing by pius

#production #infrastructure #sustainableliving #gogreen

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