How Singaporean students pushed for fossil free universities by Isabelle Zhu-Maguire

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One of the most formative experiences I have had was at the National University of Singapore. I was a part of a Fossil Free group at the university and I was there in the early stages of a project. This project aimed to expose all the links that Singaporean universities had to fossil fuel companies. It was so galvanising and inspiring to be in that room and see all these amazing young people show so much passion for making their universities fossil free.

Little did I know that three years later, this campaign would create a 68-page report extensively detailing all matters of connections between Singapore universities and fossil fuel companies. This included scholarships funded by fossil fuels, financial holdings and the “co-opting” of campus spaces by fossil fuel companies.

I interviewed two of the students that participated in this project, Rachel Cheang (she/her) and Rachel Tey (she/her) and here is what they had to say. 

What were the major successes of the campaign? 

In our view, the campaign was successful in shifting the Overton window to redefine what is possible for Singaporean universities, reframing “divestment” as a strategy that is socially acceptable rather than “too radical”. For one, a spokesperson from the National University of Singapore commented that the university is encouraging their fund managers to divest from polluting assets.

Furthermore, this campaign was the first of any climate-related collaboration conducted across students of our five university campuses in Singapore, leading to the formation of our coalition, Students for a Fossil Free Future (S4F). Through this campaign, we were able to strengthen the student divestment movement in Singapore by making collective asks and taking them back to our respective universities, as well as consolidate resources and knowledge sharing to build greater capacity among our student organisers.

What were the challenges of the campaign? 

In Singapore, divestment still remains to be a fairly new concept in the public realm. The main challenges lied (continues to lie) in introducing the premise of the campaign to members of the public and communicating the importance of shifting away from fossil fuels. Locally, activism is largely shunned and perceived as an act of rebellion, and part of the challenge was also presenting the campaign as a work of labour and care towards our institutions and future generations of students.

Additionally, while the campaign launch lasted two weeks, the writing of the report took an iterative process of two years. We also faced the challenge of maintaining momentum from members, especially when many of the initial authors graduated and left the movement, while preventing much of the work falling on a few individuals. This is an ongoing challenge for us as a growing student movement.

What action came from the campaign? How did universities respond?

Four of the main universities responded that they were focused on integrating environmental, social and governance (ESG) into educational programmes and operations, including how university endowments are invested, but swerved the issue of how involved big polluters should be in Singapore’s higher education system. The universities failed to acknowledge most of the recommendations in the report.

As students, we are wary of our universities inflating their commitment to future generations without changing any of the power structures or engagement methods that would allow students to be a part of decision making, especially when it comes to the universities’ endowments and confronting the fossil fuel industry’s presence in our educational institutions. 

To our knowledge, our universities have yet to extensively engage with students and the broader communities in the development of their existing sustainability commitments either. Through this campaign, S4F hopes to challenge the status quo of how decisions can be made within universities. By engaging with both the wider student community and trying to establish working relationships with decision-makers, we hope to create more space for students, either individually or collectively to influence important decisions – and also, demonstrate that better decisions can be reached when students’ perspectives are included. 

In the coming year, we hope to engage in meaningful dialogue and discussion with university administrations, and evaluate where the respective universities stand along our different recommendations. We want to establish working relationships with university leaders and create space for students to influence decisions. 

Concrete actions, rather than vague future commitments and public statements, are more tangible and impactful ways for students to feel like they have agency to tackle climate change. We believe that better decisions can be made when students’ perspectives are included. 

What is important to me about this project is how applicable it could be to other countries. I helped lead a project called ‘Students Say no to Scarborough’ which was heavily inspired by this project. This simple idea of exposing these connections is extremely important and clearly has utility. 

Universities are a place of education and creating research that will ultimately improve the lives of future generations. What this project (and many others) have pointed out, this important role universities play means that it is not a place for fossil fuel.

Isabelle Zhu-Maguire