Pictured, clockwise from left: Rebecca (moderator), Rashidah (sign interpreter), Kathleen (panelist), Meerabelle (panelist), Yogesh (panelist), Nihit (panelist)
Can We Talk About the Big Oil In The Room? brought in various individuals from climate science, journalism, art and activism to discuss the pervasive role that the fossil fuel industry plays in Singapore today. As moderator Rebeccca Loy pointed out in her introduction to the panel, the industry sector is responsible for approximately 60% of Singapore’s emissions, three quarters of which come from the oil and gas and petrochemical sectors. Its enormous role in Singapore’s environmental record is not sufficiently discussed. This is because opposing it goes against the Singaporean idea of economic development.
How Media Erases Big Oil
The first speaker, Meerabelle, talked about the role of journalism with regard to the fossil fuel industry. She covered both the media’s role in erasing the industry’s responsibility for the climate crisis, and also spoke about her own work with New Naratif to uncover how Singapore’s involvement with fossil fuels goes far beyond the small role that official metrics tend to suggest.
In Singapore’s discourse on climate change, the statistic that people often bring up is the 0.11% that Singapore contributes to global climate emissions. This figure is based on a direct and territorial accounting of emissions, and gives the impression that Singapore’s impact on climate change is negligible. However, Meerabelle points out that there are other metrics which give a more critical account of Singapore’s environmental impact. In terms of emissions per capita, that takes into account Singapore’s population size, Singapore ranks much more highly, and is the 26th largest polluter.
Even more importantly, there is also embodied emissions, which looks at the emissions throughout the lifecycle of a product, including the stages of extraction, production, transportation and transport. This is key to understanding Singapore’s role as Singapore is a major trading port. As a trading port, Singapore is a hub through which a lot of trade volume flows through. This generates large amounts of emissions which isn’t counted as part of Singapore’s official emissions numbers.
Furthermore, Singapore is also a refining and petrochemical hub, which processes large amounts of fossil fuels that are extracted and consumed elsewhere. A more comprehensive account of emissions that is based on embodied emissions shows that even though the global south produces a significant share of rising emissions, most of which goes towards the consumption activities of the global north.
As a result, the large environmental role of the fossil fuel industry is often made invisible. On top of that, the most vulnerable parts of the industry are also not given enough attention. This includes frontline communities most exposed to the impacts from the industry and workers ( mostly migrant workers) whose labour is exploited to generate profit for the industry.The impacts to ecosystems and local villages when sand is used to reclaim land in Singapore ( particularly Jurong Island, where reclaimed land is used to join 7 islands, turning it into a massive industrial complex for the fossil fuel industry) is also neglected. Instead, the larger narratives that greatly privilege the status of the fossil fuel industry need to be questioned. This includes the extractive nature of the modern economy, with its lineages to the histories of European colonialism, and the unquestioned necessity of growing GDP, which supports the fossil fuel industry.
Science calls for Rapid Decarbonisation
The second speaker, Dr Nihit Goyal, brought insights from the climate sciences. He referenced data showing that concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has reached never before experienced levels, and is causing severe temperature rises now and in the future. This needs to be stabilised as soon as possible. To do so, annual global emissions need to be reduced to approximately half its current levels by 2030. This will mean reducing emissions by about 7% per year, which will require rapid decarbonisation.
As a policy specialist, he discussed several steps that could be taken for Singapore to decarbonise. This is crucial as Singapore’s current efforts are considered “Highly Insufficient” according to the Climate Action Tracker. This means that if every other country were to make targets of a similar ambition to Singapore, it will lead to 4 degrees of warming, far beyond the 1.5 degree target of the Paris Agreement.
The first is to increase the use of solar energy solutions in Singapore. Currently, even though Singapore enjoys large amounts of sunlight throughout the year, electricity is mostly provided by natural gas, while solar energy provides only a tiny proportion. An ambitious plan to increase usage of solar energy can help to reduce Singapore’s dependence on fossil fuels for energy.
The second is to take more of a leadership role in green buildings. Even though Singapore already has several green building measures and certifications, more change is possible if Singapore works towards ensuring that new buildings can be made net-zero. Thirdly, a higher carbon tax can ensure that polluters can reduce emissions. Even though Singapore has a no exemption policy for its carbon tax, its $5 rate still ranks very poorly according to global standards.
Taking such measures would generate numerous benefits for Singapore. As a global hub, Singapore can have a prominent role in taking charge of environmental transformation. There are also multiple economic benefits. Moreover, the Covid-19 pandemic revealed how vulnerable the oil industry is to financial shocks, with oil prices reaching below zero at one point. Lastly, there are non-economic impacts too, it would help to reduce local air pollution and haze, as well as reduce the Urban Heat Island effect, which amplifies the effects of warming even further in urban environments.
Looking at Big Oil through Films
Yogesh then looked at cultural views of the oil industry in Singapore. Quoting literary scholar and novelist Amitav Ghosh, he spoke about how even though fossil fuel plays an enormous role in modern society, it isn’t discussed much in modern literature and art. This is also observed in Singapore, possibly because of the influence of oil money in funding arts institutions and groups.
He then talked about his chapter in the book Eating Chilli Crab in the Anthropocene, where he reads films from the 1950s about the Orang Minyak(or the oily man), as a reaction to the ongoing modernisation of Singapore and its development into a major oil refining hub. Yogesh points out that the Orang Minyak emerged as a cultural figure very suddenly in the late 1950s. Thus, while it is seen as a symbol of Malay folklore, it is actually a very modern figure that reflects modern anxieties.
The two films he analyses, Orang Minyak and Sumpah Orang Minyak, are basically morality tales that express the fears of transitioning from traditional kampung life to the modern lifestyle and the role of oil in this transition. With this in mind, it’s easy to view the films’ depiction of oil as a substance that invokes fear and functions as a threat to traditional lifestyles, even if it promises wealth and prosperity. The way oil has come to play such a natural, invisible role in our modern life and how this is often overlooked is exposed through the sudden appearance of the Orang Minyak as part of the Malay folklore. Through figures like the Orang Minyak, art is able to bring our attention to such details and allows us to rediscover the shock of how widespread and deeply rooted oil is in our society. Yogesh suggests that we need more of such art that interrogates and openly discusses the role and impact of oil in our society.
The University Divestment Movement
The last speaker, Kathleen Ooi, spoke about her work starting a fossil fuel divestment group in the Nanyang Technological University (NTU). She first outlined the history of the divestment movement. It has its roots in the anti-apartheid movement in the 1980s, with the fossil fuel divestment movement starting at Swarthmore College in 2010 . Today, the divestment movement can be seen in universities like Oxford, Brown and University College London (UCL). In Singapore there are three major university divestment groups - NTU, National University Singapore (NUS) and Yale-NUS. The divestment movement seeks to remove investments by university endowment funds in fossil fuels.
There are two main justifications that support this demand.The first is economic, as divesting from fossil fuels removes the risk of losses caused by the oil industry. For example, the oil industry suffered large losses during the 2020 corona crisis. Secondly, we have the moral responsibility to divest as investments in oil companies give them both the financial means and the social licence to continue their existing practices, which are extractive and environmentally damaging.
Thus far, the divestment movement has achieved some small victories. In NUS and Yale-NUS, they have managed to arrange two meetings with the Investment Office. They received confirmation that the NUS has a low single digit percentage of its $6 billion endowment invested in fossil fuels. The NTU divestment group has also just had its first meeting with NTU’s Investment Office. The divestment groups have also managed to gain some attention nationally, with op-eds and reports featured in major publications such as the Straits Times, Today and Eco-Business.
Lastly, she had several reflections on the challenges faced by the movement, particularly how student activists do not have as much expertise compared to administrators and how students and staff have limited political space. The key is thus to acknowledge that university administrators have the expertise in managing the endowment funds, but students can take political action to shift their investments away from fossil fuels.
Question and Answer
The first question during the Q&A addressed how people can come together and organise in authoritarian countries like Singapore, where laws place significant restrictions on free speech and free assembly. Meerabelle responded that even though the restrictions are very real, in many places movements succeed because people resisted no matter what the restrictions were in place on their political freedom.
Another question was raised regarding what can be done to ensure that a higher carbon tax doesn’t negatively affect lower income groups. . Dr Nihit answered that policy research can help to identify the effects of the tax on commodities and services, and then to look at which groups consume these. The carbon tax must also be looked at with respect to other taxes and policy options so that it doesn’t worsen existing social inequality.
The speakers were also asked about their views about the newly renamed Ministry of Sustainability and Environment. Kathleen pointed out that the ministry remains too anthropocentric in its thinking, putting human needs too much over the environment. This seems outdated, and we need to carefully rethink how we relate to nature.. To this, Yogesh added that sustainability is still a very neoliberal term, which only demands minor changes to the current situation.Instead, we need to be thinking about more ambitious changes to the system. Here he referenced how former Minister Masagos Zulkifli often emphasised individual actions, and that we need to question if it will lead to more tangible changes, or if it is simply greenwashing.
Meerabelle was then asked about whether stronger unions or workers’ rights can help to demand a just transition. To this, Meerabelle pointed out that the terms of a just transition still haven’t fully been worked out, which Dr Nihit also agreed on. Many in the fossil fuel sector are migrant workers whose stay in Singapore are tied to their employment, and it is thus not clear what their employment and livelihood interests are in relation to decarbonisation.
Nonetheless, for decarbonisation to be a just transition, a participatory approach is important to ensure that groups directly affected have a say in the decision-making and policymaking process. It is then from there that we need to look at power structures and interests come in, before we think of how to signal the interests of society to push governments to take action.
Finally, Rebecca closed the session by asking how each panellist thought more radical actions could be taken. Yogesh felt that can be done through art and presenting concrete information and solutions. He felt that everyone including the general public should be discussing oil and critiquing it. \Meerabelle pointed out that we’ve reached a stage where we should question any environmental group that isn’t thinking about moving away from fossil fuels. Kathleen felt that it is important to question the hidden relationships that other companies and institutions have with the oil industry. For example, the internships by oil companies to lure students into careers in sunset industries should be criticised. Finally, Dr Nihit, believed that climate science has shown that we cannot continue as per normal. He felt that decarbonisation is necessary, but we have to figure out how we will go about doing it. From there, we have to try to unite politically and present our demands, and create the willingness for society to accept the costs for such policies.
There is also a full glossary prepared previously for the module.
Anthropocentric: a worldview which regards humankind as the most important in this world, compared to other species.
Authoritarian: a form of governance where people are made to obey power and authority instead of being allowed to question them and have other thoughts.
Endowment Funds: the funds a university receives from donors and sponsors.
Emission Metrics: The way in which a country’s carbon emissions are calculated.
Free Assembly: the right or ability of people to come together and express their shared ideas and demands publicly.
Just Transition: It refers to a set of practices needed to make sure that our society moves towards a green economy in a way that is fair and equal to everyone in society.
Land Reclamation: creating new land from water bodies like oceans, seas and riverbeds.
Morality Tales: stories where one learns about right and wrong
Neoliberal: related to neoliberalism, which is the political belief that governments should minimize their control over society and markets. The belief regards free market competition as the best way to allocate resources in society.
Urban Heat Island Effect: when an urban area is much warmer than the surrounding area because of human activities.