Remarks by Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office and Ministry Of Manpower Sam Tan Chin Siong at the dinner dialogue of the Arctic Circle Singapore Forum

His Excellency President Grimsson
Foreign Minister Sveinsson
Distinguished guests
Ladies and gentlemen


1 A very good evening to all of you. On behalf of the government and people of Singapore, I would like to extend a very warm and tropical welcome to President Grimsson, Minister Sveinsson, the Icelandic delegation and our distinguished guests from around the world. I would like to express an equally warm welcome to friends from Singapore as well. My thanks also to the excellent speakers we have heard from since this morning who have made this Forum so significant.

2 Over the past few hours we have heard speakers on various topics, such as governance in the Arctic and the Northern Sea Routes, and how various states and non-state actors can cooperate in investment, infrastructure, shipping and governance. It has been a fruitful discussion. While I have nothing more substantive to add to the wisdom so generously shared by the various esteemed speakers before me, I only wish to humbly and briefly share three points on what Singapore has been doing to advance cooperation in the Arctic. First, our engagement with the indigenous peoples of the North. Second, our framework for engaging the Arctic on science, technology, education and management (STEM). Lastly, our contributions towards the future of Arctic cooperation, which is the main theme for tonight’s dinner.

Our Engagement of the Arctic Indigenous Peoples

3 So how did the cold Arctic come to be such a hot topic today? As all of us present here are aware, rapid changes are taking place in the Arctic, spurred by climate change. Temperatures in the Arctic, as mentioned by many speakers, show that the region is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world. A new minimum record for sea ice in the Arctic was reached in September 2012 when the ice extent was only half of what it was a mere 30 years ago. Already during a few months in a year we see ships using the Northern Sea Route to transport cargo and goods – just ten ships used the Route in 2010, compared to 71 in 2013. This global warming has created new opportunities for shipping, infrastructure and development, which have led to increased interest in Arctic affairs. The first Arctic Circle forum in Asia, right here in Singapore, is a visible demonstration of this interest. Conversations on the Arctic have grown exponentially in a short three years, with this year’s Arctic Circle Assembly in Reykjavik drawing 2,000 delegates from 50 countries. Why such a great interest in the Arctic, especially from Singapore? I remember in my first speech at the Arctic Circle Assembly in 2013, I said quite anecdotally that Singapore’s future Prime Minister in a hundred years’ time might have to conduct Cabinet meetings in a scuba suit, as Singapore would be completely submerged underwater by then if nothing was done about climate change! Climate change has created further economic opportunities, but it also has an impact on indigenous peoples of the North and others around the world.

4 I have been honoured to make several visits to the Arctic, and I have visited seven out of eight Arctic Council member states so far. To complete the circuit, I am going to Moscow in Russia next week. I am probably the only one in my government who has travelled to all the Arctic Council Member States for Arctic engagement. I can personally bear witness to the Arctic’s beauty and unique majesty, with the region featuring breathtaking landscapes, great ecological diversity, and rich cultures and heritage of the indigenous peoples. As President Grimsson mentioned this morning, the Arctic has been the home to its indigenous peoples for hundreds, if not thousands of years. I fully understand what he means after having many opportunities to interact with many indigenous peoples in the last few years.

5 Most recently in January, I was invited by Norway to speak at the Arctic Frontiers Conference in Tromsø, where I shared Singapore’s perspective on the “state of the Arctic”. After the conference, I visited Karasjok, the Saami capital in Norway, on a blistering cold winter afternoon where temperatures were about -34 degrees celcius. I had lunch with Saami President Aili Keskitalo, where I learned so much about Saami culture, history and traditions. Later on, I went on a dog sled ride on the recommendation of the Norwegian Ambassador to Singapore, His Excellency Tormod Endresen, in the cold where I almost froze my face off. I told my dog sled driver that there was a burning pain on my face from the cold. Instead of sympathising with me, the driver said “it is good you feel pain, because it means that you are still alive. If you don’t feel any pain, you are dead!” He continued to say that “We live in pain every day and the pain makes us stronger the next day.” I was amazed, and very impressed by their resilience. Indeed, I am very happy to have made these new friends in the Arctic, some of whom visited Singapore for study visits under the Singapore Cooperation Programme in November 2014 and in September this year. I welcome our indigenous friends to visit Singapore so that we can exchange ideas and views on the Arctic, and deepen Singapore’s understanding of the Arctic.

Singapore’s Framework to Engage the Arctic

6 In my view, our engagement in the Arctic revolves around what can be referred to as the science, technology, education and management framework, or STEM as I mentioned earlier. As Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean mentioned this morning, Singapore is still new to the Arctic and we are a small country with limited resources. But where possible, we have tried to work constructively with our friends and partners in the Arctic, and our universities are actually exploring the many possibilities of cooperating in the Arctic. You heard earlier this morning that the National University of Singapore will be signing a memorandum of understanding with the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Our establishment of a corporate lab between NUS and Keppel on Arctic studies is another example of our keenness to understand the Arctic and what is going on there. We are also interested to raise scientific and technological awareness of Arctic issues in our domestic context. In this regard, I am delighted that President Grimsson will be visiting our first liberal arts college, the Yale-NUS College to give a public lecture on “Clean Energy, Climate and the Arctic” tomorrow. Mr President, thank you for sharing your wisdom with our youth through this public lecture. I would also like to mention that the Norwegian Embassy has gifted its “Explore the Arctic – Past, Present and Future” exhibition to Singapore on our 50th anniversary of independence. I would like to thank Norway and Ambassador Tormod for this gift. And how apt for this Arctic exhibition to find its permanent home in Singapore at a venue called Snow City!

7 In the Arctic Council, which remains the premier intergovernmental forum for Arctic cooperation, Singapore works through the Council’s various working groups, including the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF). Our National Parks Board (NParks) works with CAFF to track Arctic migratory birds which stop in Singapore to feed and roost during the Arctic winter, contributing to efforts to conserve threatened shorebird populations while they fly from the Arctic to Singapore. We are also developing our Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve as a capacity development centre, and are delighted that President Grimsson will visit the Reserve tomorrow. You can see for yourself our efforts to conserve not just local, but also migratory birds. Our efforts at science and technology flow seamlessly with our expertise in engineering, especially in our maritime industry where Singapore companies have developed good capabilities.

Ladies & Gentlemen

8 It is important that states and governments come together to manage their differences and work together constructively in an inter-governmental context. The Arctic Council’s two agreements on search and rescue and marine oil pollution in 2011 and 2013 respectively are positive signs of this intergovernmental collaboration regardless of political differences. Our Maritime and Port Authority attended a marine oil pollution workshop at the US Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington DC in September this year, and they shared that it was helpful to discuss and learn from their counterparts and experts gathered there.

What’s Next?

9 So what’s next for cooperation in the Arctic? We are happy to learn from everyone, be it our longstanding friends like the eight Arctic Council Member States, or our newfound friends among the indigenous peoples whom we have met in the Arctic, some of whom have made the effort to come all the way here. We have hosted, and will continue to host several Arctic activities and events to raise public awareness, not just in Singapore but also in the region. While Singapore believes that the eight Arctic Council Member States and its indigenous communities are the primary stewards of the Arctic, we welcome and also encourage the growth of forums like this one in Singapore as the Arctic grows in importance. It is only through dialogue and conversation that we can continue to understand each other, build lasting relationships, and make constructive contributions for future generations.

10 Thank you very much for your attention.