Four key takeaways from the 76th UN General Assembly President’s visit to Singapore
The President of the 76th UN General Assembly (UNGA), His Excellency, Abdulla Shahid, made an official visit to Singapore from Feb 6 to 7.
Mr Shahid hails from the Maldives and is the first sitting UNGA President to visit Singapore. He was accompanied by Ms Janil Greenaway, senior adviser for macroeconomic issues and financing for sustainable development issues, Mr Liu Shaoxuan, adviser for sustainable development, and his executive secretary, Mr Ahid Ahmed.
During his two-day visit, Mr Shahid called on Singapore President Halimah Yacob and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the Istana. He also met with Singapore’s Minister for Sustainability and the Environment Grace Fu during site visits to Marina Barrage and Gardens by the Bay, and was briefed on Singapore’s sustainability policies, including water management and coastal protection.
His packed schedule also included a breakfast meeting with Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, and a briefing on Singapore’s urban transformation by Singapore City Gallery Deputy Director Colin Lauw.
It was at the Marina Barrage that Mr Shahid met with us youths and we had the opportunity to share some of our experiences and hopes for youth engagement on sustainable development. His delegation had earlier expressed an interest in engaging with youth leaders in Singapore.
Here are four key takeaways from the engagement.
1. The UN General Assembly President is pushing for climate action
In a world of global issues that transcend physical boundaries like climate change and COVID-19, it is important that countries work together to address these issues through peaceful means. At the UN General Assembly (UNGA) level, this means providing forums for multilateral discussion on international issues covered by the UN Charter. The UNGA has been around for more than seven decades and one can only imagine the amount of work and discussions covered over the years.
During the engagement session at Marina Barrage, Mr Shahid highlighted a series of informal consultations that he is leading in February and March, as part of efforts to accelerate the realisation of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
Given this and other meetings at the UNGA, as well as the fact that the UNGA Presidency runs on a yearly term until September the current UNGA President has the weight of the world on him to ensure that high-level discussions on the SDGs and climate change make progress.
At the opening of the COP26 Climate Conference in Glasgow, United Kingdom, last year, Mr Shahid said: “Since achieving the role of the President of the General Assembly, I’ve heard more about climate change than any other subject. I heard it from every single world leader and delegate at the High-Level week. I heard it from my travels, from youths, from civil society, from local leaders, and from women’s groups. I heard it at the General Assembly meeting on climate change, that I convened ahead of COP26.”
“While the intensity of their tones varied, their messages were one and the same. The urgency of keeping with the 1.5 degrees Celsius target, the need to support vulnerable populations, the irresponsibility of not capitalising on technological innovations, and the importance of empowering women and youths. I promised the membership of the General Assembly that I would bring this message, to here, to Glasgow.”
Subsequently, at another meeting several weeks later convened by United Nations Economic and Social Council (UN ECOSOC) President, Mr Shahid emphasised that “we must build on the momentum of COP26 and steer our progress towards more ambitious, more action oriented NDCs at COP27”.
Mr Shahid has made excellent use of his platform to deliver messages of climate urgency and to push for climate action. We hope he continues to do so, even when his UNGA Presidency concludes later this year.
2. Small island states have a significant role to play in multilateral forums and in the fight against climate change
If you live in Singapore, you may have heard or seen this messaging: “As a small island city-state, Singapore is vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.”
Singapore and Maldives, where Mr Shahid is from, are members of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS). Since 1990, AOSIS has represented the interests of the 39 small island and low-lying coastal developing states in international processes, including on climate change and sustainable development.
During the engagement session at Marina Barrage, Ms Fu shared Singapore’s approach to water management, coastal protection against sea-level rise, and environmental sustainability. These were exemplified by the Marina Barrage, which serves not only as a freshwater lake to boost Singapore’s water supply but also a tidal barrier to prevent flooding in low-lying city areas. Mr Shahid discussed common water challenges between Singapore, Maldives, and other AOSIS countries in general, and the importance of collaboration to respond to the impact of climate change on small island states.
On this note of collaboration, Lastrina asked Mr Shahid and Ms Fu to consider including more youths in AOSIS-related discussions, in the as a lead-up to the next UN Climate Conference in Egypt this year.
3. Singapore is a trusted facilitator in the international arena
Building upon the conversation around small island states and being surrounded by water, did you know that 2022 is the 40th anniversary of the adoption of the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)?
UNCLOS is an international agreement that establishes a legal framework for all marine and maritime activities.
Singapore’s notable milestones over the years include Ambassador-at-Large Tommy Koh being the president of the Third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea from 1981 to 1982, and subsequently, Singapore being a party to UNCLOS in 1994.
In June 2020, Singapore became the first country outside Hamburg, Germany(headquarters of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea), to host Tribunal hearings on Law of the Sea disputes. This illustrates Singapore’s commitment to international rule of law and peaceful settlement of disputes, as well as illustrating the trust other countries put on us to be an objective mediator and facilitator.
What is happening with Singapore’s involvement and role in UNCLOS is also similar to what is happening at the UNFCCC stage.
In 2021, at the invitation of UK COP-26 President Alok Sharma, Ms Fu and her Norwegian counterpart, Minister for Climate and the Environment Espen Barth Eidet co-facilitated Ministerial consultations on Article 6 of the Paris Agreement.
Her predecessors played a similar role as well.
In 2019, the Chilean COP-25 President Carolina Schmidt, invited then-Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli to be co-facilitator with Spain’s Minister for the Ecological Transition Teresa Ribera Rodríguez on the overarching decision texts for COP-25.
In 2018, the Polish COP-24 President Michal Kurtyka, invited Mr Masagos to co-facilitate with Norway’s Minister of Climate and the Environment Ola Elvestuen on the Ministerial negotiations on mitigation.
In 2015, French COP-21 President Laurent Fabius, invited then-Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Dr Vivian Balakrishnan and Brazil’s Minister of Environment Izabella Texeria to co-facilitate on the theme of differentiation.
In 2012, the Doha COP-18 President Abdullah bin Hamad Al-Attiyah, invited Dr Balakrishnan and Germany’s Minister of Environment, Peter Altmaier, to co-facilitate Ministerial outreach on issues which required immediate attention in consultation with the AWG‐LCA Chair and the President.
These are just some examples of the facilitator role Singapore has been entrusted with in regards to UNCLOS and UNFCCC. We are at the forefront of contributing strategically to the international arena.
Mr Shahid had a breakfast meeting with Dr Balakrishnan on his second day in Singapore, where he was assured of Singapore’s support for his plans to convene a high-level commemorative event for UNCLOS in April this year.
At the personal level, we look forward to hearing more updates on Singapore’s role at UNCLOS and UNFCCC.
4. Young people can be more engaged in sustainability issues
Mr Shahid is 60 this year. He began his professional career as a foreign service officer about 40 years ago and has since been involved in many things, be it at home in the Maldives, or beyond.
His UNGA candidacy last year was built around the theme of hope and garnered 143 votes of 191 ballots cast, electing him as the UNGA President. In his vision statement, he said: “I strongly believe that young people should have a say in the decisions that will shape their destinies and I will work to ensure that they are represented and that their voices are heard.”
At the Singapore COP-26 Youth Climate Dialogue held in March last year, organised in partnership between the National Youth Council, British High Commission in Singapore, the Italian Embassy in Singapore, and the National University of Singapore’s Asia Pacific Centre for Environmental Law (APCEL) and Energy Studies Institute (ESI), Ms Fu spoke about how a sustainable future for Singapore must be co-created by all stakeholders.
She said: “My ministry will work with the National Youth Council and other partners to engage our youths on the Green Plan. Our youths have an important role to play in this journey of co-creation. And rightly so, as they have a greater stake in the future”.
Seeing both Mr Shahid and Ms Fu at Marina Barrage, we were reminded of their past remarks on engaging youths and having us play our part in deciding what we want for our future.
Melissa shared her experience attending her first UN Climate Conference as a student and how that shaped her interest in climate activism and career choice. Meanwhile, Lastrina was reminded of the current Maldives’ Minister of Environment, Climate Change, and Technology, Aminath Shauna and her days from being a climate activist to now a climate Minister.
We acknowledge that our governments can initiate and provide platforms for youths to contribute to sustainability issues. In the case of Singapore, one can contribute thoughts on policies via the REACH platform, or when various Ministries and agencies have public consultations, citizen’s workgroups, or focus group discussions. One can embark on their own sustainability projects, via a funding push from the Ministry of Sustainability and Environment’s SG Eco Fund, or from the National Youth Council’s Youth Action Challenge.
At the same time, it is up to us youths to be more aware of climate issues and funding opportunities, or to get ourselves ready for the transition Singapore is making into a more sustainable future. Just looking through job postings on Green Collar Careers, co-founded by Heng Li Seng and Rusty Goh, for example, gives us hope that we are moving in a good direction and gives us clarity on what kind of jobs we can take up.
Being engaged in sustainability can look very different for each one of us and therefore, we will be co-creating our future differently.
Find a path that lets you co-create your future in a meaningful and sustainable way.
Lastrina is the Co-Founder of the Singapore Youth for Climate Action and Melissa Low is a Research Fellow at the Energy Studies Institute at the National University of Singapore.