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'We as children have to do our part': This 11-year-old environmentalist wants others to join him in saving the Earth

'We as children have to do our part': This 11-year-old environmentalist wants others to join him in saving the Earth

Oliver Chua poses with a collection of his secondhand books and toys. (Photo: Matthew Mohan)

SINGAPORE: "Do you want to see my Goblet Of Fire book?" Oliver Chua excitedly volunteers during an interview at his Tanah Merah home.

"It’s really mangled … it’s like you went to buy it after it was dug back up!"

Most 11-year-olds would be interested in showing off the newest, the fanciest and the best, but not Oliver. 

He opts for second-hand books and toys - even if it means torn pages, missing arms and scratched paint.

"It’s very hard to read those books – sometimes you get one page torn out and there’s like all those drawings," the Temasek Primary School student admitted. "Some people use correction tape and draw on the pages. 

"Sometimes it’s even 'third-hand', if we really can’t find the books, worst comes to worst we go to the library and read them."

The Primary 5 student goes through the hassle for one reason - he is deeply passionate about the environment.

One aspect of that means controlling the "temptation" to purchase new things and going thrift shopping instead.

He explained: "I would say the adjustment period is very hard and you always complain for the first few times. But now even if a toy is missing an arm or the control of a remote control car (is missing), we just pretend it's battle damage or something."

But the precocious Oliver isn't just aiming to change his lifestyle or his family's. Instead, he aims to spread his message of environmental awareness to the masses.

Just two weeks ago, he was the youngest of six speakers at the Singapore Climate Change Rally at Hong Lim Park. 

More than 1,700 participants attended the rally, and the first to speak was Oliver. The 11-year-old stressed the need to tackle the impact of climate change and said schools could do more to expose students to the topic through classes solely dedicated to environmental issues.

"It was very overwhelming and I felt quite honoured because I was the first and youngest person to speak ... Also I'm taking part in the first-ever climate rally held in Singapore," he recalled.

"There were people coming to me and saying that I did very well and that I spoke very well and there was this supporter who bought us a bunch of sunflowers and he gave them to me."

"I’m doing what I think is right and I’m doing what I believe in, so there shouldn’t be people trying to stop me."

Blue ribbons which 11-year-old Oliver Chua has received following speeches at the Mother Earth Toastmasters Club. (Photo: Matthew Mohan)


Oliver's interest in the environment was piqued almost two years ago, when he attended the Mother Earth Toastmasters Club, a group which organises monthly gatherings where members can speak on such issues. 

"It was in December 2017 - the school holidays - we tried to engage him with different activities, a variety of outings, and we chanced upon the Mother Earth Toastmasters Club which was child-friendly," Oliver's father Dr Steven Chua, an executive director at design company Kingsmen Ventures, told CNA.

Oliver's mother, Mrs Carol Chua, is an adjunct lecturer at Republic Polytechnic.

The topic of the day was about gifting and wastage, particularly whether there was a need for new gifts during Christmas, recalled Dr Chua.

"And we thought let’s for one evening listen to something different and very new for him. The main thrust was to expose him to new things ... He went in, he sat and he listened intently. He asked to go back, so we brought him back again."

As Oliver was underaged, he could not become a member of the group. Instead, Dr Chua signed up for membership and took Oliver along as his guest.

"After I attended the first few meetings, I listened in and understood. And then I realised that this climate change will affect the children the most," shared Oliver. "Because most of the adults will not feel the biggest impacts of climate change and they may be gone by then. Therefore they don’t really give a lot of attention to it.

"We as children have to do our part for Mother Earth. I came back mostly because the climate change idea was new to me, I didn’t really understand it before so I wanted to learn more."

And several months later during his fourth meeting, Oliver decided to give an impromptu speech of his own.

"I felt welcome enough and I also felt that I would like to try to do something," he recalled. "I was quite worried that I might not say the right things or people may laugh at me but the Mother Earth Toastmasters Group is very friendly and welcoming, I was encouraged and I just did it – to my immense surprise."

Blue ribbons are usually given out to the best speakers at the meetings - where individuals are assessed based on pause fillers, structure of speech and content among other things.

"The winners always get the blue best speaker ribbon, they only had one but they felt they had to encourage him so they went to the food table and they picked up a pomegranate and gave it to him," said Dr Chua.

Oliver Chua speaks during the climate change rally at Hong Lim Park.

And Oliver hasn't looked back. 

He has gone on to speak to the group on a number of occasions, bringing home several blue ribbons which occupy a place of pride on the Chua family's living room bookshelf.

"First I will jot down the points that I want to speak about or the message that I want to get across," explained Oliver. "And then I will slowly use a bit of data or research, but sometimes I will also use my own experiences. When I’m done with the first few drafts, I will ask my parents to look through it.

"When we think it is good enough, we will print it out and rehearse many times."

Oliver has gone on to speak at British bank Barclays’ staff luncheon and at the Singapore Press Holdings’ Earth Day event. He also gave a talk at a Singapore Environment Council event.

He said: "Every speech delivery needs practice and hard work, but sometimes when I'm trying to write a speech or thinking that I can’t really get the gist of the speech after I’ve written it – like I can't memorise it – I’ll tell myself: 'Look I’ve done it before and I surely can do it again.'”

Oliver isn't merely interested in challenging adults to think about environmental issues - he brings the message to his peers too.

But it is not without some difficulties. 

"They are focused on academia. Doing well, popularity, material things – like whoever has the newest stationery, whoever has the cleaner uniform. If I don’t bring it up, they won’t really talk about the environment," he explained. 

"Most of the time when I see them using disposables or single-use plastics, I will try and advise them next time not to. Some of them will just nod and say ok but the next time they will still do it – I think they do it to get me off their back.  

"There are those that just don’t care – they will just say: 'Aiyah, whatever la."

Oliver Chua poses for a photo in his bedroom. (Photo: Matthew Mohan)


Influenced by their son's passion for the environment, the Chua family has followed suit by adopting eco-friendly practices.

The family not only buys at thrift shops, but also reduce food wastage by being intentional in finishing all their food.

"We are exposed to thrift shopping, but we are more conscientious that if there are reasonably usable things out there, because it's already produced, we can buy them instead of buying new things," said Dr Chua.

On weekends, the family often opts to take a 20-minute walk to the MRT rather than take the car. 

"I have noticed that my parents, my relatives especially the closer ones have been trying to BYO (Bring Your Own) wherever they go and reduce their disposals like single-use plastics," added Oliver. "I feel very encouraged and it drives me on to do more and encourage more people to change."

Calling his son a "maverick", Dr Chua explained that Oliver's approach is a more "balanced" one as compared to young climate change activist Greta Thunberg.

"As compared to Greta, his approach is more balanced – that we do our little part," he said. "His message is that if everyone were to do their little part, we can have an impact. It’s not about being revolutionary, but slowly we evolve.

"As parents we support whatever the child finds joy and is passionate about," added Dr Chua. "That’s the best way and it’s a win-win, because whatever he does, he will go all out to excel and in this case, do something for the greater good of society.

"We feel proud, we feel good that he can possibly bring good when his time comes to himself, his generation and future generations. We remain supportive."

Before the hour-long session with Oliver draws to a close, it is time for the articulate 11-year-old to pose for some portraits.

The blinds have been shut, leaving his bedroom rather dim. So the idea of switching on the lights is quickly floated.

But true to form, Oliver is mindful. 

He pipes up politely: "Can we use the natural light instead?"

Source: CNA/mt


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