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Commentary: Work of Singapore climate activists has only just begun

Climate activists can play a bridging role in helping corporates and consumers make the green shift but need help forming powerful alliances, says Terese Teoh from Singapore Youth for Climate Action.

Commentary: Work of Singapore climate activists has only just begun

Participants hold up sign boards at the climate change rally at the Speakers' Corner in Singapore.

SINGAPORE: To many, activism comes across as a somewhat polarising term – reminiscent of bell-bottom wearing, placard-carrying protestors and demonstrators seen during the flower-power activists’ days of the 1960s and 1970s.

But climate change has changed how activism is looked at in many parts of the world. Now that the world is more aware of the dangers of climate change and the need for stronger action, people are starting to better appreciate the role of activists in helping to create that future.

The diverse faces of climate activism, from students like Greta Thunberg to actors like Leonardo DiCaprio and politicians like Al Gore, show that anyone could contribute to climate activism.

A similar shift is now happening in Singapore, with young students and working adults alike founding a new wave of climate advocacy groups. While we did not physically attend Singapore’s first climate rally in 2019, the passion for activism that the rally sparked in our peers is still palpable today.

If individual actions won’t move the needle on climate change, what will? Find out what climate activists are pushing for on The Climate Conversations:



To be fair, activists have not been alone in this fight. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s 2019 National Day Rally highlighted how Singapore stood on the precipice of an “existential threat”

Since then, the Government has committed to halving emissions by 2050 and reaching net-zero emissions as soon as practicable thereafter.

This target has been supported by the introduction of a carbon tax, and initiatives within the recently announced Green Plan, like the electrification of our vehicle fleet and introduction of green bonds.

But more can be done. The work of activists is far from over when resistance to climate action remains strong.

We can see these tensions in the debates over the future of our petrochemical industry and over carbon taxes. Our society remains unwilling to transition away from such sectors for economic reasons, despite their major contribution to our emissions. Public resistance to carbon taxes is strong, as people fear their impact on costs of living.

Chemical refineries in Singapore. (Photo: AFP) Singapore's Jurong Island. (Photo: AFP/Alex TAN/AT)

A conversation on trade-offs must be had, but there is no denying we are not doing our fair share as a developed nation, or maximising Singapore’s chances of survival. We cannot afford such intransigence nor take a gradual, wait-and-see approach.

This is where activism can play a role.

WATCH: Climate change activists face challenges in sustaining the movement | Video


Climate activists play a crucial and bridging role of calling for climate action, while addressing Singaporeans’ bread-and-butter concerns and ensuring that no one is left behind.

Climate groups such as SG Climate Rally have suggested redistributing carbon tax revenues to defray increased costs of living, and have campaigned against the increase in petrol taxes due to their impact on taxi drivers and delivery riders. 

Activists have also demanded support for local workers retrenched by petrochemical companies like Exxon and Shell.

Since 2019, climate activists have made progress in raising awareness of such issues. The organisation we work with, Singapore Youth for Climate Action, recently organised the Singapore Conference of Youths (SCOY) last January to educate approximately 60 participants about climate issues and to encourage them to co-create solutions.

Policy proposals and ideas were compiled into a working paper which would feed into the international organisation YOUNGO’s work with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

READ: Commentary: Five years since Paris Agreement, world must get ambitious on climate action

Other initiatives have translated awareness into advocacy. For instance, SG Climate Rally and Speak For Climate have published a scorecard of political parties’ stances on climate change. Such work has been channelled through community-organised town halls to members of Parliament.


But many climate groups barely have enough volunteers to run awareness-raising programmes, and have little funding to hire full-time staff to manage them, let alone engage corporations and the government.

A participant holds up a sign with the words "Climate Justice Now" at a climate change rally at the Speakers' Corner in Singapore.

Founding members of such groups often have little choice but to engage government agencies and members of Parliament on climate issues on an ad-hoc basis, even as they manage their groups while juggling full-time jobs. They also do so without the support of a dedicated policy research team.

Such groups could benefit from more volunteers, as well as funding from private individuals and foundations, to run advocacy programmes and carry out needed research to inform policy advocacy.

With such funding, climate groups could also augment their capabilities to develop a coherent policy platform to champion. In the United States, policy advocacy groups like the Sunrise Movement focus their efforts on pushing through specific legislation that deal simultaneously with inequality and climate change, like the Green New Deal.

READ: Commentary: Joe Biden takes office in pivotal moment for climate action. Can he deliver?

For a start, climate groups could dive into individual industry sectors, such as petrochemicals, and champion specific alternative economic strategies for each sector. 

Some activists with backgrounds in finance aim to better understand sustainable finance in Singapore, so that they can push for specific proposals to encourage its growth.

Such efforts would benefit from the participation of industry experts sympathetic to the climate cause.

There is precedent for the effectiveness of expert help in activism. Local nature conservation groups often consist of and work with academics specialising in biological sciences. Such experts help climate groups better understand the impacts of seemingly innocuous development projects on local wildlife.

READ: Commentary: Saving Dover Forest and the plight of the Singapore urban planner


Despite the challenges and the uphill task ahead, climate activists like me feel duty-bound to continue fighting for our goals. 

It is important to have an inner drive that endures the bitter moments, rather than waiting for a sweet taste of success, which can be sporadic or slow.

We started our journey into climate activism slowly, in order to avoid disappointment or burnout. 

First we changed our habits to lead a more climate-friendly lifestyle. We then started talking with our friends and family about the need for climate action, advocated for it on social media, attended events and volunteered to run them.

(Photo: Pexels/Nubia Navarro)

We signed petitions and wrote in to news outlets and MPs and worked through town halls. And eventually, groups like the Nature Society Singapore were consulted by the Government on Environmental Impact Assessments for the Cross-Island Line and deployment of solar panels on reservoirs.

Recent events also give us hope that we can mobilise more Singaporeans to be part of the climate movement. 

The fact that Singaporeans rallied for the preservation of Dover and Clementi forests, and expressed outrage at the deforestation along the Rail Corridor in Kranji, shows how nature holds a special place in our hearts.

This concern for our biodiversity and natural resources can be channelled into something greater – the concern for the planet’s health, our place in it and our duty in creating this green transition.

Many years ago, our parents’ generation of nature lovers and climate activists worked hard to preserve Singapore’s green spaces, like Chek Jawa. We are running out of time to protect Singapore from climate change; let us not let their hard work go to waste.

Terese Teoh is a volunteer with Singapore Youth for Climate Action.

Source: CNA/el


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