S’pore must prepare to face 4 ‘Gray Rhinos’ in near future: Poh Li San


Coined in 2016, the “Gray Rhino” is a metaphor for threats that are seen and acknowledged but ultimately neglected.

MP for Sembawang GRC Ms Poh Li San highlights four “Gray Rhinos” that are charging towards us in the not-too-distant future.

Below is an abridged version of Ms Poh’s Budget debate speech which was delivered on Feb 23, 2023.

The Covid-19 pandemic was a crisis of a generation, but it will not be the last. Other potential crises will emerge, and we must try to be prepared.  

The rising costs of living and economic slowdown are concerns that we devote resources to addressing. In addition, there may be other “Gray Rhinos” that may affect our future as a nation. I would like to highlight four of them.

1. Manpower

It is well-known that we are heavily dependent on foreign manpower. 

This may perhaps be a global problem, but the labour shortage problem exists across many of our industries, including aviation, cleaning services, construction, F&B, retail businesses and crucially, healthcare. 

We have discussed various approaches to reduce manpower reliance by increasing productivity via automation, work process redesign, upskill workers, raise salaries and provide better benefits to workers. 

We hope to achieve this via the Progressive Wage Model and Credit Scheme, National Productivity Fund, Enterprise Innovation Scheme and SME Co-Investment Fund and Singapore Global Enterprises initiative. 

However, regardless of manpower savings downstream, automation can be an expensive investment and small companies will not be able to finance the upfront investment.

Perhaps, the Government can consider an interest-free loan scheme with a reasonable loan period under the National Productivity Fund to encourage our SMEs to invest in automation in order to reduce reliance on foreign labour.  

2. Silver Tsunami

This leads me into the next “Gray Rhino”, the Silver Tsunami. 

We are trailing very closely behind Japan at 83.7 years old in terms of the countries with the longest average life expectancy. Our population is greying rapidly. 

With medical science advancements, Singaporeans will likely be able to live longer, but there will be questions on quality of life and health when the Silver Tsunami hits our shores over the next decade.

During the debates on Healthier SG last year, many members in this House spoke about the pressure on aged care facilities required.

In my Adjournment Motion on Dementia, I mentioned that family members may need to consider compromising their careers to care for their loved ones. Medical spending for seniors will be a major concern. 

During the pandemic, there was a shortage of hospital beds and staff.

Will our infrastructure be able to handle our greying Singaporeans when the Silver Tsunami hits us and do we have a clear plan to manage these challenges?

3. Energy security

The third “Gray Rhino” is energy — a concern that may cause massive disruption.

As a nation, we consumed more than 53TWh (terawatt hour) of electricity in 2021.

Currently, our electricity production is 95 per cent dependent on natural gas, with two-third from piped natural gas (PNG) and one-third from liquefied natural gas (LNG).

Hence, to maintain energy security, we will need to diversify our energy sources.

Natural gas is cleaner than coal, but it is still responsible for around 40 per cent of Singapore’s carbon emissions. 

We will need to transit to a cleaner fuel.

Unfortunately, Singapore does not have any alternative energy sources other than some solar energy. Before hydrogen-powered electricity becomes a reality, we would have to import clean energy from regional power grids, such as Malaysia, Indonesia, and Laos.

The ongoing Russia-Ukraine war is severely affecting many European countries.

This is a stark reminder for us because many of these European countries are dependent on Russian natural gas

Do we have a fallback plan should our electricity supply be disrupted for a prolonged period? 

Singapore’s first hydrogen-ready power plant that hopes to supply 600MW of energy, will be built on Jurong Island and in Oct 2022, DPM Wong launched the National Hydrogen Strategy to accelerate transition to net zero emissions and strengthen energy security.

While we are coming up with steps to accelerate the next chapter of our green energy transition, do we have the scientists and engineers like they do in Australia, Germany, and Spain with expertise in this area? Shouldn’t we be investing more to attract experts to Singapore and to develop local talent to focus on the solutions required in our energy sector? 

To add, it is uncertain when and if green hydrogen-powered electricity is economically viable. How do we ensure the import supply will be extended infinitely while the cost of imported electricity can be kept affordable?

4. Rising sea levels

The fourth “Gray Rhino” reared its head during the pandemic, but it may charge at us more aggressively in the future.

Singapore is a tiny island with only 720 square kilometres of land, and is one of the lowest-lying countries in the world, with about 30 per cent of our land less than five metres above sea level.

Extreme weather may cause sea levels to rise by as high as four to five metres, taking into account coastal surges, extreme high tides and land subsidence. If heavy rainfall coincides with high tide, there will be flash floods that are worse than what we are experiencing now.

If we do not have effective mitigation solutions, many homes, beaches, and public infrastructure, including Gardens by the Bay and Merlion Park, will be affected. 

During the National Day Rally in 2019, Prime Minister Lee committed S$100 billion or more to protect Singapore against rising sea levels. In his recent Budget speech DPM Wong shared that S$5 billion will be injected into the Coastal and Flood Protection Fund to support the construction of coastal and drainage infrastructure. 

In view of the latest global temperature rise estimates and reports by sea-level scientists, I have four questions.

One, will we be able to bring forward the construction of coastal protection infrastructure?

Two, can we accelerate our technology and construction research and implement pilots more aggressively?

Three, how do we ensure 100 per cent protection against sea levels rising beyond one metre?

Four, how do we test the effectiveness of the solutions or steps taken?

The importance of planning ahead

The Covid-19 pandemic has reminded us of the importance of planning ahead. There will certainly be more “Gray Rhinos”. If we are not prepared, Singapore’s future can be severely impaired.

With a vibrant economy and a resilient and fair taxation system, we will be able to continue building our national reserves. 

We must deploy both local and foreign top talents to create new solutions to tackle the difficult and complex problems. These solutions must be deliberate, long-term and must not be left to market forces. 


Images via: Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), SkillsFuture Singapore, HDB, Roads SG/Facebook, Poh Li San/Facebook, UCL