Where does sovereignty sit with sustainability?

My first proper education on climate change and sustainability was at United Nations University in 2009. Perhaps by virtue of what United Nations represented, it meant that getting schooled on the tragedy of the commons came with feelings of dismay with the social construct of “sovereignty”. Attending the infamous COP15 in Copenhagen later that year did not help, with politicians behaving like bickering children.

In this blog series, I seek to clarify my thoughts about sovereignty and sustainability, including we can move forward with United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) within and outside the sovereign construct. On a professional level, I believe that forming a view with robust considerations can offer a perspective to others with the same philosophical struggle, and aid in changing mindsets in advancing the UN SDGs. On a personal level, as a third-generation Singapore citizen, it will help me understand how important I wish for the national identity to be part of my and my children’s identity.

Questions I think about:

  • How important should economic growth be? How about for developed nations like Singapore, where economic success can be argued to a defence for her sovereignty?
  • What is a framework to decide if measures are in support of the SDGs, especially where there is a trade off? This goes back to the classic argument of whether it is “fair” for countries to push for other countries to adopt measures that are better for the environment but are less affordable.
  • In determining how fair it is, a related question is how effective has it been?
  • How do individuals, corporates and the government view the pressure from other countries/entities? Is it positive in legitimising an interest or is it viewed as an imposition of values that are not quite universal?

In the first of the blog series, I would like to explore the first question.

Decent work and economic growth is SDG Goal 8, and the first target of the goal is “Sustain per capita economic growth in accordance with national circumstances and, in particular, at least 7 per cent gross domestic product growth per annum in the least developed countries” (the first part means nothing at all). If at least 7 per cent is allowed for LDCs, and if we hypothetically opt for zero growth in the developed countries, then (coal-rich) emerging economies like China, India and Indonesia are allowed something between 0–7% GDP growth per annum.

For a developed country like Singapore, what would zero economic growth look like? In my memory, there were only negative GDP growth rates in crises in 1997, 2008 and 2020 that accompanied loss of jobs and stress in our society.

While Singaporeans lament about our society becoming increasingly materialistic and stressful, there is no recollection of a conversation around zero GDP growth. It makes me wonder if GDP growth is secondary, a consequence of Singapore’s efforts to prove its relevance to the outside world, or if our initiatives stemmed from an ideal figure we had in mind e.g. 5% target growth.

What has been ingrained however, is the narrative that Singapore’s sovereignty did not come by easily, and it is something we continuously need to defend for. Economic defence is one of six pillars of Total Defence:

Economic Defence

“A strong and resilient economy that is globally competitive and able to bounce back from any crises.”

Economic Defence is about strengthening the competitiveness and attractiveness of Singapore’s economy so that we are special and relevant to the world. Only then can we survive and succeed. Economic Defence is also about keeping our economy strong and resilient, enabling it to carry on and recover quickly should we be confronted by any challenge or crisis in the future, such as a global downturn or economic strangulation that could shake investor confidence in Singapore.

How do you put Economic Defence into action?

  • Embrace lifelong learning and continual skills upgrading to adapt to the changing needs of the economy.
  • Save, invest wisely, and spend within your means. Be prepared to ride through times of economic uncertainty.
  • Conserve energy and water, and adopt environmentally-friendly practices.

I note with interest, and a hint of amusement, that adopting environmentally friendly practices is part of our economic defense. Then again, it all makes sense if our energy security is dependent on countries/companies willing to trade energy resources with us.

Back to growth. I don’t know what the magic number is for GDP growth for Singapore. Even if Western developed nations hypothetically agree to slow down GDP growth, it seems unlikely that the our neighbours in emerging Asia will do the same.

Is the rate of GDP growth or the relative GDP of a nation more important for the adequate stature in political discussions? Right now, it seems like there is some merit to economic growth not for the benefit of wealth and consumerism of citizens, but for sovereignty itself.