- The Right Honourable Mr. Chow Kon Yeow, Chief Minister of Penang;
- Her Excellency, Hajah Zuraida binti Kamaruddin, Minister of Housing and Local Government;
- Her Excellency Ms. Armida Alisjahbana, Executive Secretary of UN ESCAP;
- Her Excellency Ms. Maimunah bt Mohd Sahrif, Executive Director of UN HABITAT;
- His Excellency Dato’ Ar. Yew Tung Seang, Mayor of Penang Island City Council;
- Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen.
Across the world, urban centres are assuming a larger role in achieving our Sustainable Development Goals – something that is particularly true with climate change. As concentrated population hubs with high-density living, the world’s cities – over 90 per cent of which are located on the coast – are naturally more vulnerable to catastrophic weather events, they have an outsized carbon footprint, and their buildings and infrastructure trap heat, further intensifying the effects of global warming. But when it comes to meeting any of our SDGs, we shouldn’t see our cities as the problem; with proper urban planning, and through innovative, local thinking, they can be the solution.
The Asia-Pacific Urban Forum has recognised this reality since its inception. Now in its seventh iteration, we are at a point in history where finding these solutions is more urgent than ever. As countries themselves are proving slow to change, and international consensus seems increasingly elusive, the mobilisation of our urban centres is filling the void of nation-based leadership. Mayors are stepping up where presidents and prime ministers are not. While countries stick to the status quo, cities are finding new ways to collectivize and innovate. And that, my friends, gives countries like Fiji who are on the front lines of climate change a ray of hope.
Ladies and gentlemen, while Pacific Island States are experiencing some of the most rapid rates of urbanisation on the planet, the drivers of this change are common throughout the world. Families are moving to cities looking for work or to further their education, they’re escaping climate impacts, or they’re simply seeking the conveniences of city living. Regardless of the reason for this urban drift, it’s on us to ensure that when our people make that move, they find towns and cities that are capable of supporting their well-being.
We in the Pacific have accepted that this is our new reality, and recognise that planning of urban settlements and associated infrastructure, legislation and capacity must keep up with – and in fact get ahead of – the pace of urbanisation.
Just a few months ago, my government had the honour to host the fifth Pacific Urban Forum in Nadi, Fiji. The gathering allowed Pacific Island States to face this issue head-on, highlighting the pressure we face from rapid growth of our urban centres and the impacts of this accelerating urbanization.
Whether with climate change or a host of other issues, Small Island States see things through a lens of increased urgency. We don’t have the luxury of waiting – for us, the problems that will inevitably challenge larger nations in the future demand action now.
That’s why, during the Pacific Urban Forum, a great deal of time was spent discussing the critical need to preserve our social harmony in the face of urbanisation.
We highlighted the irreplaceable role of women and young people in producing and maintaining inclusive and prosperous cities.
We stressed the need to cultivate a sense of belonging in our urban centres, ensuring no person or group feels excluded from our national development.
We sought ways to empower our more-remote communities, and to learn from their local knowledge and unique worldviews to have a more holistic outlook in achieving our development goals.
We recognised the need to enhance connectivity of our people – bolstering connections between our largest population hubs and smallest traditional settlements, between rural and urban centres, between large cities and small towns, and between remote islands and the mainland.
And, above all, we reaffirmed that climate change is the single greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and well-being of our people.
But the Pacific Urban Forum was not just a discussion of the problems we faced– it ended with tangible steps forward. A range of voluntary commitments, both large and small, were made by participating countries, organisations and agencies to back our words with action.
Commitments were made to participate in both the Ocean Cities programme and the Pacific Mayors Academy for Sustainable Development, and leaders pledged to power Pacific Heads of State residences with solar energy to set an example in sustainability. Individual participants also stepped up with new commitments, such as a pledge to review urban policies by Vanuatu, the Cook Islands and Kiribati, and new plans for informal settlement upgrading by the Solomon Islands.
The forum concluded with a call to find sustainable solutions for all our urban centres, and the recognition that – without proper foresight and careful planning – our cities risk dragging down our progress rather than uplifting our people. We left Nadi knowing that great work remained to be done – work that will require an integrated approach across all sectors, with buy-in from all actors and agencies.
If anyone here today would like to learn more about the Pacific, hear about the approaches we’re taking to manage urbanisation – including those gained from the Pacific Urban Forum in Nadi – I encourage you to attend the Pacific Urban Innovation Session later this afternoon.
Ladies and gentlemen, the Seventh Asia Pacific Urban Forum provides all of us here in Penang with a similar opportunity to develop consensus – but this time, with the benefit of even broader perspective. The great minds in this room offer an invaluable wealth of knowledge on how to tackle the vast challenges and immense opportunities posed by urbanisation that we all face – universal themes that, when shared, will benefit our nations, the region, and the world.
Indeed, my friends, it is the impact of our actions, the boldness of our commitments, and the strength of our cooperation at this forum that will determine whether our urban centres become bastions of inequality and climate vulnerability, or instead, emerge as engines of sustainable development. The future is in our hands; for the sake of our people and our planet, I urge each of you to leave Penang more sustainably-minded than when you arrived.
Vinaka vakalevu. Thank you.