Climate change activists test strict Singapore protest laws

Young people questioned by police after sharing photos of themselves criticising oil companies on social media.

On 22 March, a photo of 20-year-old Nguyen Nhat Minh holding up a placard in public saying "SG IS BETTER THAN OIL @fridays4futuresg" was posted on Fridays for Future Singapore's Instagram account. The account has now been made private [Supplied]

Singapore – On 13 March, Wong J-min skipped school and headed to a glass-walled tower at the Harbourfront complex on Singapore’s west coast. 

While her peers sat in their classrooms, the 18-year-old posed for a series of photos before the building housing ExxonMobil’s Singapore office, holding up messages scrawled on pieces of paper that read, “PLANET OVER PROFIT”, “SCHOOL STRIKE 4 CLIMATE”, and the tongue-in-cheek “ExxonMobil KILLS KITTENS & PUPPIES”. 

The photos were shared on social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram, but while they fuelled some interest, did not go viral.

Wong’s small action signalled a fledging Singapore chapter of Fridays for Future – a global school strike movement founded by Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg – but just over a week later, Wong found herself summoned for questioning by the police, and her phone was confiscated.

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Singapore is a low-lying island that will be heavily affected by rising temperatures and sea levels caused by climate change. Yet much of its economy is also built on the fossil fuels that have been pinpointed as a major perpetrator of the crisis.

According to the country’s Economic Development Board, the energy and chemicals industry contributed S$81 billion to Singapore’s 2015 output – almost a third of its entire manufacturing output.

“Youth feel that in spite of all that has been announced – various legislation such as the Energy Conservation Act and measures such as the carbon tax – more needs to be done,” said Melissa Low, a research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Energy Studies Institute. 

Wong’s signs took aim at the petrochemical industry and its presence in Singapore. 

Fossil fuel industry

Members of the world’s largest oil and gas companies, such as Shell, Chevron and ExxonMobil, all have a significant presence on Jurong Island, one of the world’s largest petrochemical hubs off the southwest coast of Singapore’s main island. 

Singapore Wong
Wong J-min, 18, skipped school on March 13 and posed for a series of photos in front of the building housing ExxonMobil’s Singapore office, holding up messages she had scrawled on pieces of paper. [Supplied]

ExxonMobil, already one of the largest foreign investors in Singapore, recently held a virtual foundation-laying ceremony for the expansion of its refining and petrochemical complex.

She is not the only young Singaporean speaking out against fossil fuels, despite laws that make protest difficult. 

In 2017, a group of students at Yale-NUS College launched a campaign to push the institution to divest from coal, oil and gas. Other initiatives, such as LepakInSG, organise and list activities that provide public education. In September last year, more than 1,700 Singaporeans turned up for the country’s first ever climate rally, organised by the new youth-led SG Climate Rally group.

On 22 March, a photo of 20-year-old Nguyen Nhat Minh holding up a placard in public saying “SG IS BETTER THAN OIL @fridays4futuresg” was posted on Fridays for Future Singapore’s Instagram account.

Nguyen says that he, like Wong, only posed for the picture before leaving.

But he has also been questioned by the police. As part of the investigation, he was escorted from the police station back to his home, where his laptop and mobile phone were seized, and officers dug through the dumpster outside his home to retrieve his cardboard sign. 

The duo also says that they were “strongly advised” by the police to take down the Fridays for Future Singapore website and social media accounts. The website has been removed, while the Twitter and Instagram accounts have been made private.

Permission for protest

If convicted of illegal assembly, the maximum sentence is a fine of up to 5,000 Singapore dollars (US$3,500). 

Under Singapore’s public order laws, there is only one park in Singapore where residents are allowed to participate in public assemblies without a permit, and even a solo protest is outlawed if the police have not first given their permission. 

In 2018, performance artist Seelan Palay spent two weeks in prison in lieu of a fine after a performance – which involved walking with a mirror out of the park to Singapore’s parliament building – was deemed an illegal procession. 

The Singapore Police Force declined to comment for this story. 

Faced with dire warnings of the impact of climate change, Wong feels like the Singapore government needs to move away from fossil fuels sooner rather than later, even though she acknowledges the economic cost.

“To me, as a young person, I think it’s a trade-off that’s worth it, because I feel like … [do] you want the economy to die, or [do] you want me to die?” she told Al Jazeera.

Divesting is easier said than done. As Low points out, the energy and chemicals sector is not only an important contributor to Singapore’s economy, it also provides energy security in a country with no natural energy resources of its own.

Singapore refinery
Vessels pass an oil refinery in the waters off the southern coast of Singapore [File: Edgar Su/Reuters]

Singapore is already looking to decarbonise the energy and chemicals sector as much as possible, Low wrote in an email to Al Jazeera.

“Even if Singapore were to completely rid itself of this sector, the question of moving away from fossil fuels and divestment is not so simple, as there’s always the risk of carbon leakage where the carbon emission simply goes elsewhere,” she said. 

Parents’ worry

Wong and Nguyen’s run-in with the authorities has caused them strife at home, too. 

Wong, who is preparing for her A-Level exams this year, says her father worries the investigation might hurt her future: “It’s not his fault because I guess he’s scared, because he’s never really had trouble with the police before.” 

Nguyen is facing a similar situation. “[My father] went through the whole speech about his Vietnamese immigrant upbringing and how he worked his way to Singapore and … how I’m basically just throwing it all away,” he said. 

This experience is familiar to many young Singaporeans venturing into activism. Kristian-Marc James Paul, a member of SG Climate Rally, says that many members have had to “constantly negotiate and navigate our parents’ fear for our safety”. 

“Our parents have seen how Singaporeans, time and time again, have been punished for speaking up and they don’t want that to happen to us.”

That said, Paul said that some parents are supportive of their children’s efforts, acknowledging that their offspring are more motivated and courageous than they have been.

Singapore skyline

Police attention and parental disapproval have not deterred Nguyen, who says that he took the risk because “ultimately what happens to me isn’t as bad as what would happen to other people if we just keep going business as usual”. 

Nor is he concerned about any potential threat to his future prospects.

“[Maybe] I make less money, okay … but there are people out there who will not have houses, like their islands will literally be underwater, they won’t have anything to eat.” 

Bread-and-butter issue

Although the government announced in February that Singapore will aim to halve its peak 2030 greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, with a view to achieving net zero emissions some time in the second half of the century, climate activists are not satisfied.

SG Climate Rally pointed out that Singapore’s targets fall short of the recommendation by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to reach net zero emissions by 2050.

Since the September event, SG Climate Rally has teamed up with another group, Speak for Climate, to launch Greenwatch, a campaign that has already produced a policy brief on climate and intends to score political party manifestos according to their proposals on how to tackle climate change. 

“This country focuses a lot on ‘bread-and-butter’ issues and one of the main criticisms we get is that the climate crisis is not a ‘bread-and-butter’ issue,” said Paul.

“We hope that Greenwatch will show Singaporeans that the climate crisis is indeed such an issue because it intersects with so many other concerns Singaporeans have, whether it’s cost of living, healthcare services or social inequality.”

Wong and Nguyen have been keeping an eye on social media, trying to gauge the level of support for them. They say the reaction has been fairly polarised: while some have been pleasantly surprised by the emergence of Fridays for Future in Singapore, other commenters have belittled their activism.

“One common criticism I get is, ‘Why should adults listen to children?'” Nguyen said. 

“[But] no one needs to listen to us; there have been researchers [calling for action on climate change] for decades. And if we’re the first people to tell someone about it, that says more about them than it does about us.”

Source: Al Jazeera