Environmental Law in Singapore: The Role of Non-Government Organisations (NGOs)

Aspirations and Affirmative Action

Most people would take the view that international environmental law has little practical value unless and until it is translated into binding national legislation. While that may be true from the perspective of enforcement, the aspirations of international environmental law documents do have a direct effect and impact on the environment at another level: this is when the aspirations are translated into affirmative action by local civic groups.

How is affirmative action featured in international legal documents? Is there an environmental NGO scene in Singapore at all? Daren Shiau examines these and other related issues.


In recent years, no area of international law and policy has been associated with public participation more than that of environmental protection. Maurice Strong, Secretary-General of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) notes that 'the imperative transition to sustainable development cannot be made without the full support of the community and the participation of ordinary people at the local level.'

Recognition of the need for public participation in environmental protection is evident from key legal documents at the regional and international levels.

Legal Basis for Public Participation in Environmental Issues

Regional and international agreements

Few of the international law documents dealing with public participation are legally-binding. They are, at best, instruments of soft law or law in the process of making.

What is significant though, is the recurrent theme of public participation in these multilateral instruments, which reflect the decisive will and consensus of state parties to acknowledge the importance of non-governmental contributions to environmental protection.

Regional level: ASEAN Agreement on the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources

Signed by the Foreign Ministers of ASEAN at Kuala Lumpur in 1985, this Agreement is a landmark document as South-East Asian states have traditionally shied away from agreements and treaties, preferring instead the flexibility provided by non-binding instruments such as declarations. The call for public participation surfaces in Chapter V of this 1985 Agreement, which outlines national supporting measures. Article 16(2) states:

[The Contracting Parties] shall circulate as widely as possible information on the significance of conservation measures and their relationship with sustainable development objectives, and shall, as far as possible, organize participation of the public in the planning and implementation of conservation measures.

The manner of public participation contemplated by the Agreement is demonstrably broad. It calls on ASEAN governments to co-ordinate public participation at both the levels of decision-making and of execution.

Global level: legal documents arising from UNCED

Convened by the United Nations General Assembly in 1992, UNCED, or the Earth Summit, has been hailed as the most important international environmental, and for that matter diplomatic, meeting of the century. The conference saw top-level world leaders of over 150 countries discussing the means of solving major global environmental problems. It defined the sharing of roles in a global partnership of the North and the South, examined the needs of present versus future generations and revisited the issue of ownership of natural resources.

More importantly, the conference recognised and legitimised public participation in environmental issues both during the negotiation process and in adopting the legal instruments at the summit. The eventual consensus on the importance of public participation was embodied in the words of the Rio Declaration and Agenda 21.

The Rio Declaration

Originally titled the Earth Charter, the Rio Declaration is a 27-principle agreement which governs the relationship between states and citizens in relation to the environment and development. Principle 10 underlines the importance of public participation. It states:

Environmental issues are best handled with the participation of all concerned citizens. At the national level, each individual shall have appropriate access to information concerning the environment that is held by public authorities, including information on hazardous materials and activities in their communities, and the opportunity to participate in decision-making processes. States shall facilitate and encourage public awareness and participation by making information widely available.

Agenda 21

Agenda 21, the 600-page monumental agreement which accompanied the Rio Declaration, is a comprehensive global plan to achieve sustainable development by confronting and overcoming the ecological and economic problems of the world.

Although not a legal document, it contains specific guidelines to actualise the aspirations laid down in the Rio Declaration. Each guideline had been crafted through a multilateral diplomatic process and the final document was adopted by various countries at UNCED. The plan contains several major themes ranging from the quality of life on earth to sustainable economic growth. One of the most outstanding themes is the importance of public participation. Section Three of the Agenda, which discusses the empowerment of the public in environmental protection, covers up to one-quarter of the entire document.

The preamble to Section Three recognises the need to mobilise the public in order to achieve sustainable development. It provides that the commitment and involvement of all social groups are critical to the effective implementation of the objectives, policies and mechanisms of Agenda 21 by governments. Specifically, Paragraph 23.2 states:

One of the fundamental prerequisites for the achievement of sustainable development is broad public participation in decision-making. Furthermore, in the more specific context of environment and development, the need of (sic) new forms for participation has emerged.

Once again, the themes of participation in decision-making and access to information are apparent. The call for public participation to achieve sustainable development in Agenda 21 filled a lacuna. None of the legal instruments which had called for public participation in environmental protection, prior to Agenda 21, had identified the proper agent to carry it out. Members of the public cannot act independently; to be effective, they must arrange themselves into grassroots bodies or NGOs. Agenda 21 expressly calls for public participation to take place through such groups. It dubs NGOs as 'partners in development'.

Agenda 21 contains an entire chapter highlighting the role of NGOs in sustainable development. Chapter 27 contains guidelines as to the basis of action, objectives, activities and means of implementation of NGO activities.

Paragraph 27.1 calls for the participation of NGOs as independent institutions:

Non-governmental organisations play a vital role in the sharpening and implementation of participatory democracy. Their credibility lies in the responsible and constructive role they play in society. Formal and informal organisations, as well as grassroots movements should be recognised as partners in the implementation of Agenda 21. The nature of the independent role played by non-governmental organisations within a society calls for real participation; therefore independence is a major attribute of non-governmental organisations and is the precondition of real participation.

Furthermore, Paragraph 27.3 stresses that governments should tap on NGO expertise and knowledge.

Non-governmental organisations possess well-established and diverse experience, expertise and capacity in fields which will be of particular importance to the implementation and review of environmentally sound and socially responsible sustainable development, as envisaged through Agenda 21.

Hence, the Chapter suggests that governments should, in consultation with NGOs, review and enhance the mechanisms by which NGOs can partake in decision-making and that governments should take into account the findings of NGOs in monitoring governmental efforts.

Effect of the law

The effect of the law on public participation in Singapore can only be surveyed meaningfully by identifying the central themes in the environmental law instruments Singapore has acceded to and the extent to which these themes have been implemented by the Government.

Themes arising from the legal documents

The emergent themes can be divided into two categories: the manner of public participation and the NGO as the proper agent of public participation.

Manner of public participation

The international community, including Singapore, has been consistent about the manner in which public participation is to take place. They advocate inclusion of the public in the decision-making process on issues affecting the environment and suggest that mechanisms be set up to facilitate such involvement.

The NGO as the proper agent for public participation

It is also clear from the documents that the countries of the world have recognised that where public participation is to occur, the most appropriate agent is the NGO.

Their conclusion is not surprising. Environmental NGOs had been proliferating and making contributions long before their formal recognition at UNCED. It is no coincidence that while the world leaders at the Earth Summit were paying tribute to the work of grassroots bodies, the environmental NGOs of the world were meeting on the sidelines at their largest ever gathering. The legal recognition of environmental NGOs hence completes the missing link in environmental protection.

At the passive level, environmental NGOs are necessary to raise public awareness, to disseminate information and to cultivate green ethics at the community level. Such activities are generally uncontroversial and are widely encouraged by governments and their agencies. However, the more significant contribution comes from their active function of contributing opinions and expertise to the formulation of policies with potential environmental impact.

Implementation of the themes in Singapore

Consistent with the view that Singapore is ahead of other countries in its broad environmental accomplishments, the Singapore Government has and continues to make pronounced efforts to include NGOs in decision-making processes at various key levels.

Multi-stakeholder participation: Singapore Green Plan, Concept Plan 2001

First presented at the Earth Summit in 1992, the original Singapore Green Plan is the country's masterplan on the environment. The Plan describes the policy directions which Singapore will take towards the realisation of the long-term vision of a model green city. It looks at all the areas of environmental concern and describes what the Government has done for the environment and what it proposes to do to preserve, protect and enhance the environment for the future.

In 1999, the Singapore Green Plan Review Committee was set up by the Ministry of the Environment to rationalise the direction of the Green Plan in the next century. The Plan's six strategic concerns, ranging from clean technologies to nature conservation, were studied not only by the Government but examined and analysed for over half a year by sub-committees of representatives appointed from the business sector and NGOs.

Similarly, the two focus groups which were set up to discuss the major planning dilemmas in the Urban Redevelopment Authority's (URA's) Concept Plan 2001 were appointees from professional, grassroots and interest groups, as well as NGOs. The Concept Plan is the 'long-term strategic blueprint which maps out the physical development of Singapore' and, as such, determines the future green spaces in Singapore. The formulation of the new 2001 Plan, which is still being finalised at the date of this article, has involved not only the multi-stakeholder focus groups, but also open consultation at public forums.

Civic action

Perhaps the best case study of civic action is that undertaken by the umbrella organisation of green groups in Singapore - the Singapore Environment Council (SEC). Formed in 1995, the SEC's mission is to be a catalyst for action and a broker between the Government, business and educational institutions.

The year-round agenda of projects undertaken by the SEC range from fieldwork, such as the underwater clean-up of the Southern Islands with the Singapore Underwater Federation in 1997 and the reforestation of the Bukit Timah Nature reserve with the National Parks Board in 1997, to the educational outreach efforts such as the three-year Coral Reef Programme with the Singapore Science Centre which has benefited thousands of students. The SEC has also initiated regional forums such as the International Policy Dialogue on South East Asian Fires in 1998. Its most lasting contribution though, is its prestigious annual Singapore Environmental Achievement Award which was established in 1997 to encourage businesses to adopt a more pro-active approach towards environmental management.

Today, the SEC's fieldwork is carried out primarily through its highly successful Green Volunteers Network (GVN) membership of which comprises citizens from all walks of life, run on-going programmes targeted at waste minimisation, nature conservation and public education.

Profile of Singapore NGOs

If the SEC is the holding group for Singapore NGOs, then what are its components? What follows are some of the more prominent environmental NGOs currently at work in Singapore.

Nature NGOs: Nature Society of Singapore (NSS)

The Singapore Branch of the Malayan Nature Society was formed in 1954. Its main objective is to promote an interest in and an appreciation for the natural heritage of Singapore and the region. Although the NSS conscientiously organises projects of general appeal, its main attraction is its specialist groups such as the Bird Study Group, the Marine Group and the Vertebrate Group.

Besides organising member activities, the NSS also envisions a secondary role in researching conservation possibilities and advising the Government on their findings; the NSS is capable of doing so because it has on its roster academics, experts and notaries from various scientific fields as well as wildlife experts.

Legal Environment NGOs: Asia-Pacific Centre for Environmental Law

The aim of the Centre is primarily training and multi-disciplinary research in environmental law and policy at the international, regional and national levels. APCEL focuses primarily on capacity-building. It seeks to enable professionals and academics in the implementation and enforcement of the multilateral environmental law instruments which have been signed in recent years.

Professional Environmental NGOs: ECOS, SAFECO

Led by the Singapore National Union of Journalists, the Environmental Communicators of Singapore (ECOS) was set up in 1993. Their aim was, and still is, to raise environmental awareness within the communications industry so that the green message can be expressed in the media to the public. To date, ECOS has organised a wide range of activities, including a localised environmental participation programme.

The business community, which is one of the major groups recognised by Agenda 21, has also not been passive. Realising the importance of environmental protection in the manufacturing process, the Singapore Manufacturers' Association (SMA) spearheaded two distinct NGOs to enhance their contribution to resource conservation.

One was the SMA Environment Committee (EC), which encourages companies to practise environmental auditing and to implement environmental management systems. Another was the Singapore Association for Environmental Companies (SAFECO). Largely industry-based, SAFECO aims to promote private enterprise in environmental technology and to disseminate information on environmental business opportunities in the region. Both NGOs have been active in organising environmental activities locally.

Youth Environmental NGOs

In terms of sheer numbers, the growth of NGO activity in Singapore must be attributed to the burgeoning of youth environmental NGOs. The Rio Declaration calls for the mobilisation of youth for environmental protection while Agenda 21 contains an entire chapter dedicated to the role of youth. The call has been acknowledged in Singapore.

In 1995, the youth green NGOs in Singapore met to form the Youth Environmental Network (YEN) an association which declares that its formation is 'a response to the call made at the international level by world leaders at the Earth Summit that the youth of the world should forge a global partnership to achieve sustainable development'. YEN has been regarded as a forerunner in youth environmental work and is a prime mover in influencing responsible behaviour towards the environment in the formative years of Singaporean youth.


There is little doubt that the NGO is the proper agent for environmental involvement. There is even less doubt that the NGO scene in Singapore is a thriving and vibrant one. What is unique about the participatory process in Singapore is that it takes the form of what local commentators have referred to as 'Eastern-style democracy', which emphasises moderation. Although this is a different model from that of Western environmental NGOs, the role of Singapore NGOs is by no means a diminished one. Local NGOs have shown that they are satisfied to play a supporting role to the Government in the development of environmental law and policy. It is, in turn, encouraging to see the way in which the Government has, in line with its new consultative approach, opened broad channels for continuing participation, by NGOs and the stakeholders they represent, at all significant levels of decision-making.

Daren Shiau
Allen & Gledhill