On 13 March, Singapore saw its first climate strike when an 18-year-old student, J-Min, skipped school to protest outside the office of Exxonmobil in Harbour Front Tower 1. J-Min held up signs with the words PLANET OVER PROFIT”, “SCHOOL STRIKE 4 CLIMATE” and “ExxonMobil KILLS KITTENS&PUPPIES”, photos of which made its way around social media.
About a week later, 20-year-old followed with a second strike, this time outside Toa Payoh Community Club and Toa Payoh Neighbourhood Police Centre. Photos of Minh holding up a placard with the words “SG IS BETTER THAN OIL @fridays4futuresg” also started gaining traction on social media.
The two are not being investigated by the police for allegedly participating in a public assembly without a permit.
The duo, however, don’t seem to be fazed by the investigation. In an interview with Managing Director of New Naratif PJ Thum on New Naratif’s podcast Political Agenda , J-Min said she is “definitely not going to stop”.
When asked about her motivations to start the strike, the young Singaporean said it was driven by her anger at the budget that was announced earlier in February.
She said she felt that she was “immensely frustrated” and felt that the budget was not adequate in addressing the crucial issue of the climate crisis.
Noting that Exxonmobil has the worlds seventh largest oil refinery on Jurong Island, J-Min asked, “What is the way to shift the focus from “we should off our lights and live more greenly” to getting the government to divest from fossil fuels?”
She stressed, “It’s not to say that we are so small we can erase ourselves from the emissions picture. We just contribute like disproportionately. Because our population is so small and yet we contribute like .11% which is a lot.”
Specifically on why she decided to conduct a strike instead of something like a letter writing campaign or reaching out to her Member of Parliament, J-Min wondered how many letters it would take for action to be truly taken.
She added, “I’ve always been painfully aware about the fact that a lot of the civil rights that we have across the world is because of activists who put their lives and bodies on the line,” adding later, “I’ve never been one to just sit back and try and work within the status quo.”
As for Minh, a founder of Fridays4FutureSG, noted that it felt like a moral obligation to him to use his privilege as an upper middle class student to bring forward issues that are important to society.
A naturalised citizen, Minh explained that activism is also personal to him. He spoke about his Vietnamese heritage and how the Vietnam-America war resulted in about half of his grandfather’s bloodline being wiped out as a result of that war.
Minh continued, “And people know that as the war that was ended by protesters… So to me, protesting and the fact that it was American protesters who were considered as radicals and tree hugging hippies and were sort of the minority in their society, the fact that they used their privilege to support a cause and bring an end to an injustice, even though it was sort of pushing the legal boundary and it caught them a lot of flak, to me that’s what protesting is. I respect it.”
Singapore doesn’t live up to it’s self-title as a “green city”
Within the context of Singapore, Dr Thum, who is also a historian, pointed out that protesting is severely discouraged here, so much so that it is technically illegal for even one person to assemble or protest without a permit, which is difficult to obtain as well. In fact, people have been sent to jail for solo protests before.
When asked what they hoped their strikes would achieve, J-Min she hoped to bring the issue of climate change and the climate crisis into the public consciousness, noting that she felt the “illegality” of a protest would spark a discussion of the issue.
Minh chimed in to add that being in a country that is considered advanced in many ways—from education to social well being an even its management of this current pandemic—Singapore has relatively small climate ambitions.
“To see the way that Singapore calls itself a green city while knowingly setting climate goals that are like less ambitious than a lot of countries that we consider poorer, I just didn’t, I just couldn’t reconcile that, honestly,” said Minh.
He also explained that the consequences of striking in Singapore is nothing compared to what he is asking others to do by participating and the impact climate change has already had on many people.
“I am not only asking Singapore as a country to do this, I’m asking people who will have less resources to cope with it, people who are living paycheck to paycheck,” said the 20-year-old.
He added, “And people like climate refugees, people who were recently affected by the Australian wildfires—they lost their homes and they can’t make a living. They’re struggling to like even put food on the table.”
The government needs to first acknowledge that there is a crisis
When asked about what they would like to see the government do about climate change, the J-Min didn’t mince her words. She said, “I think for now the bar is literally on the floor because they are doing absolutely nothing to mitigate it.”
The student said she would like the government to first acknowledge that there is a climate crisis and that something has to be done to stop it, instead of just “building walls along the coast”. Next, she wants the government to commit to emissions goals that are comparable to those set by other countries, followed by setting a rough plan on how to achieve those goals.
Minh then pointed out that many developed countries have set a target to be carbon neutral by 2050 but Singapore, which is supposed to be adaptable and forward-looking, is “knowingly” not doing the same.
He went on to dismiss the argument that the country has “a lot to lose” if they commit to such a high target, highlighting that other countries will also lose out on economic growth but they are doing it nonetheless.
“So I would say that either we stop calling ourselves a global leader, at least in this regard, and acknowledge that our goals are behind and maybe then move towards fixing the problem,” he stressed.
He added, for a country that holds itself to the standards of a First World country and “keeps calling ourselves the best in the world at everything”, that Singapore should already have done this.
How can people get organised to create political change in Singapore?
The conversation then turned towards a more general area of how people in Singapore could organise themselves in order to create political change, especially given the environment that is usually not encouraging of protests.
Minh noted that student activism in Singapore is not as normalised compared to other countries, explaining that part of the problem here is that there is no “institutional knowledge” anymore about this concept.
Even so, he stressed that most activists start out knowing very little. Using the example of the global FridaysForFuture movement of students protesting for better climate change action around the world, Minh highlighted that most of them are students who are also doing this for the first time.
He shared that the internet has plenty of resources on what these other activists have done, the impact they’ve made and the responses they’ve garnered, which can be invaluable to those just starting out in Singapore.
“What I and J-Min did, what we did was also we just messaged Fridays4Future leaders from other countries and they just tell us exactly what they did, how they did it,” he explained.
“There’s a lot of resources available in the library even that tells, that is basically a step by step manual of activism,” Minh added.
One of the books he mentioned was Be the Change by Gina Martin, a feminist activist who details her process.
Minh went on to say, “I think the main barrier for Singaporeans is we sort of assume that things that happen in other countries won’t happen here. So we sort of like self-censor. Like the moment someone says protest or students or anything to do with that, we just sort of assume that because it hasn’t happened, it can’t happen here.”
Overcoming that is actually the main hurdle, Minh stressed.
Anyone can get involved, you learn as you go
Dr Thum then mentioned that there have been studies to show that only a small percentage of the population needs to be involved in a non-violent protest for it to be effective.
Minh added that, “So the statistic is at the point where 3.5 percent of the population has gone out into the streets, that is theoretically when success is basically inevitable. But again, 3.5 percent is actually quite a lot in Singapore.”
Dr Thum then asked the duo about what might be a good first step for a Singaporeans who might want to help out and get involved but are afraid or nervous and are aware that they don’t really know anything.
J-Min merely pointed out that you don’t have to know everything, admitting that even she didn’t start out knowing much, adding that it is important to start making yourself aware of issues and narratives that not just from the government.
Minh agreed with this, noting that most activist don’t start out brave or knowledgeable, but actually learned along the way from people around them, adding that they are not immune to making mistakes either.
Minh suggested immersing yourself in the scene of activism first to get used to it, to learn and be a part of the culture.
J-Min, however, also warned that a knowing what the civil disobedience route might entail is important.
“If you truly want to take that civil disobedience route, you have to be aware of the consequence… So you have to make that personal choice for yourself.”
Still, she explained that people can still get involved by making placards and taking photos of it at home to post online, noting that this is one way to protest that maybe more people might be comfortable with and that could be effective in keeping the conversation going. It’s also appropriate given the current situation with the pandemic which has left most people stuck at home.
Minh noted that no one could have predicted that Swedish student-activist Greta Thunberg’s solo climate strike in front of her country’s parliament would have kick-started the global climate protest movement.
While noting that he does not encourage anyone to protest in front of the Singapore parliament the way that Greta Thunberg did in Sweden, he explained that people will always say that something cannot or will not happen, but they end up happening anyway.
“Like in Singapore, you say that people won’t support it and that it can’t happen here. But last year during the digital strike, people said that there will never be a physical demonstration, and then there was the SG Climate Rally.”
“And then people said there will never be a school strike, and then there was a school strike. People said there would never be another one. They’re just going to keep saying it till the end of time.”
He stressed, “There comes a point when you just sort of have to put yourself out there,” emphasising again that it should be done legally, not illegally.
J-Min then said, “I think that if you have the capacity and the privilege to be able to do it and really care for it, then I think you should go for it because you’ve got to do something with the privilege.”