USP students got together on the evening of 19 February 2018 for a conversation with Assoc Prof Simon Tay. Prof Tay is Chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and Eminent Expert to the International Advisory Panel on Transboundary Pollution, and he was also formerly the Chairman of the National Environment Agency and a Nominated Member of Parliament. He was invited to USP by our Rector Ms Euleen Goh under The Rector’s Programme.
The evening saw students discuss topics that spanned from the regional haze to recycling habits of Singaporeans. Prof Tay highlighted how the haze situation has been improving in recent years and attributed this to efforts by the current Indonesian government. In particular, he lauded efforts by the current president of Indonesia, Joko Widodo (also known as Jokowi), for taking up the haze situation as one of his priorities. He pointed out how Jokowi went down to haze affected areas during the haze itself, unlike any of his predecessors, which was a reflection of a deeper commitment to improving the lives of ordinary Indonesians. Some of the policies adopted by the current Indonesian government also included investments to get local farmers to move away from slash and burn techniques, and to adopt more sustainable technology.
The topic of conversation then shifted to that of green habits, as one student, Goh Wei Ling (BIZ + USP, Class of 2019), recounted her time on exchange in Europe. She highlighted how stores in Europe utilised a penalty system to encourage its citizens to bring their own bags to do grocery shopping while Singapore utilised an incentive system to get its citizens to bring their own bags. A debate then ensued on the efficiency and drawbacks of both systems, in particular anchoring the argument in the local context, to see if it was possible to adopt Europe’s systems here.
Pushing the argument beyond just bringing bags, another student, Russell Wee (FASS + USP, Class of 2021), brought up the idea of certification of products and whether we could penalise or provide incentives based on that. Ms Euleen Goh then did a quick straw poll around the table on whether people would even be willing to pay a premium for products that were certified to be more environmentally friendly. The poll showed that most were ambivalent on the matter. Prof Tay highlighted the challenges of such certifications, comparing it with the existing system for palm oil whereby different countries were pushing for different standards in order to push their own national agendas. For example, the European Union would push for certifications with tougher standards for environmental reasons, whereas palm oil producing countries would tend to push for certifications with standards that are more lax in order to look out for their own financial interests.
Prof Tay, a winner of the Singapore Literature Prize in 2010, then took some time aside to discuss his interest in writing and literature. Pan Haozhe (Computing + USP, Class of 2020) had read Prof Tay’s article – "Seletar and the Unreality of Wild Chickens" – in the book “Balik Kampung 3A”. This book is one of the readings in the USP Inquiry module, “Singaporean Nostalgia”. Haozhe has always wanted to meet the man behind the article. "Balik Kampung" means going home in Malay, and Prof Tay illuminated that his article contribution was a story that was parts fiction and non-fiction, based around his previous home at the Seletar neighbourhood. He was motivated to pen the story when the British Colonial Houses in that rustic Seletar neighbourhood were to be torn down by the government for redevelopment into an Aerospace Hub. He recounted his experiences writing the story and even clarified some mysteries behind it including a short anecdote about the late Singapore Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew.