Stories > Keeping It Clean And Green

2023 • Issue 3

Keeping It Clean And Green

As the co-chair of the United Nations’ climate science body, Dr Winston Chow envisages Singapore playing a significant role in addressing the global challenge.




rofessor Winston Chow is a Lee Kong Chian Research Fellow based at the Singapore Management University’s College of Integrative Studies. He has been a principal investigator for the multi-institute Cooling Singapore initiative since 2017, and currently leads interdisciplinary research on how Singapore’s urban climate risks will change as its climate warms. His previous research projects focused on urban heat island science, impacts and mitigation, as well as climate change vulnerability in subtropical cities. He has authored close to 50 peer-reviewed academic journal articles and book chapters on his research to date. Dr Chow is also associate editor for the journal Climate Risk Management, and an editorial board member for Landscape and Urban Planning and PLOS Sustainability and Transformation.

He was recently appointed to the bureau of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to serve as a co-chair for the United Nations’ top climate science body – making him the first Singaporean to take up the role. The IPCC looks into the scientific basis of climate change, its impact and future risk, as well as outlines possible options for countries to cut their greenhouse gas emissions and implement suitable adaptation measures. Its reports help governments to contribute to global climate action.

1. How important is it for Singapore as a small nation to build strong international relations and trust with other countries?

Developing relationships with other countries allows us to gain an understanding of their interests. It is better to have the multiplying virtuous cycle of working together rather than doing things on your own. This is especially relevant in areas such as climate change. By collaborating with other communities, we can gauge whether they share similar concerns and goals as our climate change predicament, and whether there are ways that we can work together.

To develop good relations with other countries, we need to make friends with them. As a scientist or diplomat, we try to connect with representatives of other countries on various socio-cultural aspects, rather than making it purely about climate change. I like to go out for meals or coffee with them. Getting that personal touch requires a lot of investment in terms of time and effort, but it tends to pay off. If a person is from a region that has a predominant local culture, I learn about cultural sensitivities and connect accordingly. If we remember that everyone has their own interests and we can look beyond that and find common ground, that always ends well.

“In the Singapore context, we try to satisfy the most number of people and offend the least. Our socio-cultural context and diversity compel us to be inclusive in finding solutions to problems.”

2. How has your Singaporean identity shaped your perspectives of lives, values and the global community at large?

I have learnt to be patient. Being Singaporean, I like to think we value efficiency, pragmatism and inclusivity - these are Singaporean values that I try to practise in my field of work. Climate change is complex enough. So I need to be a clear communicator and do my homework well. In the context of the IPCC forum, I do not lead but try to bring as many people on board as possible to go on this path of developing a good set of reports that informs governments and policymakers.

In the Singapore context, we try to satisfy the most number of people and offend the least. This approach is ingrained into the way Singapore functions in aspects such as National Service and education. Our government tries to find the most pragmatic solution and build some sort of multi-stakeholder and public consensus along those lines. Our socio-cultural context and diversity compel us to be inclusive in finding solutions to problems.

3. What can we learn from other countries in tackling climate change challenges? Conversely, what can others learn from Singapore?

The minute we start thinking that we are exceptional and we do not need to learn from others, we will fail. There are so many things from different countries that we can learn from. For example, Ahmedabad, a city in western India where they have heatwaves in excess of 45 degrees, thousands of people could die. They do not have as many resources as cities in more developed countries. They developed an early warning system with their regional weather forecasting so that people may be warned of impending heatwaves in advance. Initially, it was five days in advance; now it is given 14 days ahead. They decided to shift more resources to those parts of the city that house vulnerable populace and reduce people’s exposure to heatwave. The obvious lesson here was that you do not need a lot of money, but an open mind, to solve such problems.

In Singapore’s case, we have been water scarce ever since our independence. We overcame this impediment through technology, long-term planning and financing. Other countries can glean relevant lessons from our water management programme.

4. What can future generations of Singaporeans do to preserve and strive for the same, if not better, relations with other nations?

Singaporeans need to be humble. The world is such a huge place that the more countries you visit and the more you see and learn, you realise that Singapore is rather small and a unique outcome of political decisions made almost 60 years ago. Any Singaporean should not think that just because we are book smart, we can go out and tackle the world’s problems.

I have cousins in Malaysia who have fewer means. Speaking with them, I find so much in common as a family but different context to where we grew up with very different outcomes. It is a reminder of how different things can be just across the Causeway. Having these experiences with people who have grown up in a different environment requires you to be humble.

5. How have your international collaborations helped you to tackle the shared global climate challenge?

Having a working relationship with counterparts in other countries allows you to build a network and get things done at an organisational level. Going back to climate change, in Singapore’s case, for instance, we cannot retreat if the sea level rises. Bigger countries with larger land masses are able to do so. Having a shared geological and geomorphological context allows us to build alliances and to negotiate with other small island states with a similar profile in terms of being threatened by climate change. Multilateral discussions in international fora ensure that shared interests of the small states are better represented and argued as an alliance than as individual nations.

“Allowing young citizens to be exposed to our regional neighbourhood is important. You need to understand the local context to be a global citizen.”

6. How can Singaporeans become better global citizens, and develop a greater understanding of international sociocultural issues?

For an individual to be a global citizen, the first step is to have an informed knowledge of what kind of development is taking place across regions, how communities have contributed towards the environment challenge, being aware of variations in growth, and how communities elsewhere have been shaped due to local policies. We can also become more sensitive to global socio-cultural issues by being critically objective about our education.

Although Singapore’s rote learning and rigorous education system has been very useful, there is a bigger world out there. Education has to be combined with an opportunity to travel. We do not need to travel only to the US and Europe; we should start with our own region first. There is a big difference in socio-cultural values and economies even within Southeast Asia. Allowing young citizens to be exposed to our regional neighbourhood is important. We should aim to learn during these trips, not as a conventional tourist but through the lens of cultural, religious or eco-tourism aspects, through talking to local people and engaging with them.

Finally, we cannot assume that what has worked in our country will work for others. You need to be cognisant of what is going on in that part of the world. You need to understand the local context to be a global citizen.

7. What defines the Singapore brand with respect to its heart and soul for you?

My professor, Chua Beng Huat, who taught me sociology at the National University of Singapore [NUS], said that Singapore is best represented by the humble rojak [a spicy salad of fruit and vegetables]. Singapore is a melting pot of different cultures, ideas and cuisines that has worked well for the past 60 years. However, it is fragile and needs to be preserved carefully. On a lighter note, my Japanese associates tell me that they love the Merlion.

8. Singapore’s urban cooling strategies have been lauded. What do your international counterparts think we get right, and which areas do we need to improve upon?

What works here is not that the technology and design elements are applied, but solving the heat issue is the whole-of-society and the whole-of-government approach. It is not silo-ed. For example, if there is a solution that works for the building sector but not for the transportation sector, there is communication to find ways to bridge the gap. It is not as simple as just creating green infrastructure, which also requires maintenance. What international experts have noticed is the integration of cooling strategies into broader urban planning, together with the green roofs and walls.

9. Have you come across any misperceptions of Singapore among your global peers? How can we address them?

I met some international peers who thought Singapore was a grey, dull and concrete jungle like New York City. There was a climate meeting here in 2019 and some of them asked me what to do after the meeting. I told them Singapore is much greener than they think it is and suggested that they explore nature parks such as Sungei Buloh, Labrador Park and the Botanic Gardens. They came away pleasantly surprised at how well integrated these green spaces are into the urban environment. The focus is on the garden [city] transforming into nature. They noticed it and shared that such an integration leads to multiple benefits on the climate change side.

10. Which Singaporean, past or present, inspires you and has influenced your perspectives?

Professor Wong Poh Poh from the Department of Geography at NUS, and all my university professors set the stage and started me on this path towards climate action, but with a uniquely Singapore twist. I also admire and feel inspired by all the sustainability communities in Singapore - in government as well as civil societies.

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