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Times 3 Oct 07
We all have a stake in the world
Foreign Minister George Yeo spoke to Straits Times US Bureau Chief DERWIN PEREIRA in New York on Sunday. These are excerpts from the wide-ranging interview
Q. What is Asean doing on climate change considering that South-east Asia, particularly, Indonesia, provides the world's second-largest forest cover? Should the developed countries help to pay for the preservation of these forests as Indonesia has suggested? Are you hopeful of a successor to the Kyoto accord being announced at this year's UN climate change conference in Bali in December?
A. This is now right at the top of our agenda for the coming Asean Summit, the Asean-plus meetings, the East Asia Summit and the Asean-EU Summit. The world needs a good outcome at the Bali conference. When I was in Brazil recently, I visited the Amazon and received good briefings. The Amazon is the largest expanse of tropical forest in the world.
The second is in South-east Asia. We are similar but different because South-east Asia consists of islands and peninsulas, the greatest archipelago in the world. Here we also have mangrove swamps and coral reefs, all of which are important in the global climate equation.
Last year, which was a minor El Nino year, an enormous area of forests was burnt in Indonesia, and a great amount of carbon sent into the atmosphere. When I was in Brazil, they explained to me the intimate connection between the health of the Amazon and El Nino. Big forces are at play when warm-water bodies move north and south, east and west, in the Pacific, affecting the behaviour of winds and hurricanes.
To meet the challenge of climate change, it is crucial first to bring in the United States because it is the world's biggest economy and the world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gases. That is fundamental. The US must not only come in, it must also take the lead. The recent meeting in Washington was a plus but it should only begin a process. It can't be a one-off event. Then we need to bring in the developing countries which feel that it is not possible for them to cut down carbon emissions when they need the energy to grow.
When I discussed India's policy with (its external affairs minister) Pranab Mukherjee, he explained India's position, which I found quite persuasive. He called on the developed world to bring down the energy consumed per dollar of GDP. Then let that be a ceiling on developing countries. The more developed countries are able to save energy and bring down the ceiling, the more restrained developing countries would have to be. That's fair for everybody. That is the Indian position.
The Chinese have also been very concerned about this issue. They issued a White Paper in China recently and have become quite preoccupied with the whole issue of environmental protection and sustainable development. India, China and many developing countries are worried that the restraints the developed countries are proposing will affect their ability to develop and stifle their growth. This is a legitimate concern.
What we need are counterpoints of leadership in the developing world to match those of the US, Europe and Japan. I see four major players in the developing world: China, India, Brazil and Indonesia. These countries occupy large surfaces of the planet, either land or sea. And I was very impressed by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's recent speech where he said that Indonesia strives to be, among the developing countries, the most efficient in the use of energy. It is important for Indonesia to take a leadership position on this issue among the developing countries. It was good that Indonesia at the UN convened a meeting of countries with big forests. They take a position which I consider reasonable. The forests that they protect in their countries serve not only themselves but also the larger world. They need assistance to protect these forests.
The coming UNFCCC meeting in Bali under Indonesia's chairmanship is very important to the whole world. Singapore has a vested interest because the environment of South-east Asia envelops us. When the forests burn, we get the haze. If the waters are polluted, they wash onto our shores. If the sea level rises too much, we are sunk. We will work with Indonesia and other countries to ensure good outcomes at the coming meetings in November and in Bali. We will give the meeting in Bali our fullest support. " Singapore's outlook "
What is your biggest fear for Singapore?
My biggest fear for Singapore is the effect of globalisation on our social cohesion. It is clear that the majority of Singaporeans are benefiting greatly from the success of our policies. We are now becoming an international city with multiple links to all the centres of growth and development in the world. So Singaporeans are finding opportunities everywhere. Some have become very wealthy. We have many Singaporeans now doing well in New York, London, Shanghai and elsewhere. Our standing as a country has gone up. Many developing countries now hold Singapore up as a model.
But there is a group of Singaporeans, and they are not an insignificant number, who are not able to take advantage of all these opportunities either because they lack the education or are in poor health or suffer bad luck. We must make sure we don't become two Singapores. If we become two Singapores, there will be resentment, there will be opposition to doing the right things and we would not be able to seize the new opportunities before us. For this reason, many of our policies are now directed towards making sure we do not become two Singapores.
Asset enhancement, CPF reform, the subsidising of work especially for older Singaporeans, educating the young to the maximum of their potential, job retraining are all part of this. Our subsidy of health, education and housing enables every new generation to be brought to the starting line of global competition. We must make sure of this. Government alone cannot solve this problem. It has to be a part of our instinct and value system to stay one family.
We can't allow a second Singapore to emerge by neglect or by insensitivity. That to me is the single most important challenge before us. It is a political, economic and cultural challenge.
In MFA, we have a tradition of recruiting a small number of disabled people. I inherited this policy. It showed that senior foreign service officers and HR managers in the past had the sensitivity to help the disabled. And if each one does his bit, then there is no problem. But if everyone says it is not his problem, then a small problem becomes a big problem for society. Private philanthropy is critical. I am not only talking of big acts of giving such as those of Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, but of everyone doing his part, making social action a part of his daily life.
Everyone can be a volunteer. If we can make this sensitivity to others a part of our culture, we will stay one and react to challenges as one. Then our future will be very bright indeed.
Related articles on Singapore: general environmental issues
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