Why the icy Arctic matters to Singapore

JASON TAN Today Online 10 Jun 16;

SINGAPORE — The Arctic may be remote, but melting ice caps caused by climate change will have far-reaching effects, submerging coastal areas in places such as Singapore and altering global shipping routes.

This has driven Singapore’s participation as a permanent observer in the Arctic Council in the last three years, and prompted preparations to adapt, said Minister of State (Prime Minister’s Office and Manpower) Sam Tan in an interview with TODAY.

“We have been given first-hand information by scientists that if the current trend continues, sea levels may rise by half a metre within the next 50 years, and by a metre within a century,” said Mr Tan, who has been the political office-holder representing Singapore in Arctic Council meetings.

“If this really happens, many nations around the world, including Singapore, would be at risk from having parts of their country submerged under the water.”

What is more, global warming could open new shipping routes in the Arctic, affecting Singapore’s position as a shipping hub and one of the world’s busiest ports.

“The possibility of the Arctic sea routes becoming a seasonal complement to traditional trade routes presents Singapore with both challenges as well as opportunities,” he said.

While the new routes are likely to change maritime transportation patterns, Singapore’s marine industry has built up capabilities over the years in sectors such as shipbuilding and repair, offshore engineering, and marine support services, and is well-placed to provide enabling technology for Arctic development, he added.

“Some of our companies are developing Arctic capabilities to leverage on the economic potential of the region,” said Mr Tan.

Keppel Corporation, for one, has constructed a number of ice-class vessels, including the first icebreakers built in Asia in 2008, and is now working with oil majors and drilling contractors to develop the world’s first Arctic-grade, environmentally friendly “green” rig.

“Singapore has real and substantive interests in the Arctic, and we believe that in the past three years, we have made positive contributions to the Arctic Council’s work,” he said.

For instance, Singapore has shared its experience in oil spill management and as one of 22 countries positioned along the East Asian-Australasian Flyway for migratory birds, is also working on the conservation of migratory shorebird populations threatened by overharvest and habitat alteration outside the Arctic.

Singapore has also supported the council’s work promoting education and public interest in Arctic issues amongst Singaporeans and in the region.

Last year, the Republic hosted the Arctic Circle Singapore Forum which discussed the governance of Arctic sea routes, infrastructure development in the Arctic, and the role of science and research in enabling Arctic shipping.

Two more Arctic-related events are coming up here. The first is a conference in August on issues such as remote access to energy, maritime infrastructure and shipping and the transition to renewable energy.

Then in January next year, Singapore will host the 9th Meeting of Partners of the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership, the main framework to promote dialogue and cooperation on conservation of migratory waterbirds along the flyway.

Below is an extract from the interview with Mr Tan:

It has been three years since Singapore became a permanent observer in the Arctic Council. What are some of the highs and lows so far for Singapore’s participation as an observer? What are some challenges that Singapore has had to overcome?

Our decision in 2011 to apply for observer status in the Arctic Council took many people by surprise, as the connection between Singapore and the Arctic region is not readily apparent.

For example, in February 2013, the Economist published an article which questioned whether the presence of new observers in the Arctic Council might promote stability or disruption in the Arctic.

However, as a small country, we have no interest in any territorial or resource claims in the Arctic region.

Rather, we are driven by our desire to deepen our understanding of the Arctic as global warming and rising sea levels will have a profound and direct impact on low-lying Singapore.

The opening of Arctic shipping routes could also impact Singapore’s position as a shipping hub. In this regard, Singapore has real and substantive interests in the Arctic, and we believe that in the past three years, we have made positive contributions to the Arctic Council’s work.

We are also grateful for the support that Singapore has received from among the Arctic States and Permanent Participants for our observership and our participation in the various meetings and working groups of the Arctic Council.

Apart from our participation in the meetings of the various Senior Arctic Officials’, Working Groups and Task Forces, Singapore has been invited to various Arctic-related events.

I have personally attended the Conference of Parliamentarians of the Arctic Region (CPAR) in 2012 in Akureyri, Iceland and 2014 in Whitehorse, Canada; the Arctic Circle Assembly in Reykjavik, Iceland in 2013 and 2014; the Arctic Frontiers Conference in Tromso, Norway in 2015 and January 2016, and most recently the Arctic Circle Greenland Forum in Nuuk last month.

In addition to demonstrating Singapore’s sustained interest in Arctic affairs, these meetings were useful opportunities to deepen Singapore’s engagement with businessmen, researchers, leaders and officials from the Arctic states and indigenous peoples, as well as non-Arctic stakeholders.

We understand that Singapore’s role as a permanent observer will be assessed after four years. What happens after that?

The assessment of Singapore’s observership is an internal procedure for the Arctic Council. As per usual practice, Singapore will submit a “report card” to the Chairman on our relevant activities and contributions to the Arctic Council ahead of the biannual Arctic Council Ministerial Meetings. Regardless of the assessment, Singapore is committed to working with the Arctic states and PPs to contribute positively and constructively to its sustainable growth and the empowerment of its peoples.

Can you please share with us some of Singapore’s upcoming initiatives and plans in the Council?

We are planning to host two Arctic-related events in Singapore. In August 2016, the National University of Singapore’s Energy Studies Institute will organise a conference on Arctic science, technology and policy in Singapore, entitled “Energy Transitions and a Globalized Arctic: The Role of Science, Technology and Governance”.

This conference will focus on issues such as remote access to energy, maritime infrastructure and shipping, renewable energy transitions and the role of research and development. The conference is envisaged to foster dialogue among relevant expertise from within and outside the Arctic, as science and technological collaboration and the sharing of best practices in energy governance is one way to tackle common challenges.

In January 2017, Singapore will also host the 9th Meeting of Partners (MOP) of the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership, the main framework to promote dialogue and cooperation on conservation of migratory waterbirds along the flyway. The Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna Working Group has expressed interest in holding a workshop back-to-back with the 9th MOP in Singapore, and we welcome them to do so as Singapore strives to develop capacity for the management of wetland and migratory birds in the region.

One area of focus for the council appears to be improving the lives of the Arctic people. Is there a role for a country like Singapore to play there?

Singapore recognises the need to engage the Arctic indigenous peoples, who are most affected by the changing Arctic landscape. Our former Special Envoy for Arctic Affairs Ambassador Tony Siddique visited several Arctic capitals to better understand the concerns and needs of the indigenous peoples. I myself have visited the Sami Parliament in Karasjok, Norway, where I met with President of the Sami Parliament of Norway Aili Keskitalo and personally experienced the Samis’ way of life in bitter cold temperatures of close to minus 50°C. Through these visits, we have gained a deeper appreciation of the Arctic, and hope to use our newfound knowledge to contribute more effectively to the Arctic and to its peoples.

We have since developed the Singapore-Arctic Council Permanent Participants Cooperation Package, where Singapore provides scholarships for representatives from the Permanent Participants to participate in short-term courses on various aspects of public policy and administration, as well as post-graduate scholarships in maritime law and public policy at Singapore institutions. We have also invited representatives of the Permanent Participants to visit Singapore to learn about our experience in governance and development.

How concerned should Singapore be with regards to the melting of polar ice and opening of new Arctic maritime routes which some analysts say could threaten Singapore’s status as a maritime and transshipment hub? How can Singapore position itself in such a scenario?

As a low-lying coastal nation, Singapore is especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Much of Singapore lies only 15m above sea level, while 30 per cent of the island is less than 5m above sea level.

If global temperatures continue to rise, many parts of Singapore could eventually be submerged under the water. Singapore has started making preparations to adapt to the impact of a rise in sea levels. For example, Nicoll Drive, which runs for 1km along Changi Beach, is being raised by up to 0.8m. In 2011, the minimum height for land reclamation projects was raised from 3-4 m above the mean sea level. At the same time, a warmer Arctic will result in the opening of new water channels, which will significantly reduce travel time between Asia and Europe by two or three weeks.

The possibility of the Arctic sea routes becoming a seasonal complement to traditional trade routes therefore presents Singapore with both challenges as well as opportunities.

On the one hand, Singapore has one of the world’s busiest ports and these new routes are likely to change maritime transportation patterns.

At the same time, our marine industry has built up strong credentials in sectors such as shipbuilding and repair, offshore engineering, and marine support services, and we are well-placed to provide enabling technology for Arctic development.

Some of our companies are developing Arctic capabilities to leverage on the economic potential of the region. For example, Keppel Corporation has constructed a number of ice-class vessels, including the first icebreakers built in Asia in 2008, and is now working with oil majors and drilling contractors to develop the world’s first Arctic-grade, environmentally-friendly “green” rig.

You have spoken publicly of some of your personal experiences attending Arctic Council meetings. What are some of the things that strike you?

My take is that if countries do not look at the possible global challenges that may emerge 30 to 50 years down the road, their eventual preparations would be inadequate to deal with these challenges when they do strike.

One of Singapore’s key strengths is our ability to scan the horizon and start preparing solutions to these challenges, sometimes 50 to a hundred years before they surface. If we lose this important survival instinct, we will become history when the challenges strike us in our face.

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