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divest green is the new black

Unpacking Singapore’s First Ever Divestment Coalition: Students Campaign Against Fossil-Fuelled Universities

This week, a new research report published by the coalition Students for a Fossil Free Future (S4F) exposed deeply embedded and problematic links between fossil fuel industries and Singapore’s public universities that allow them to “purchase the social license to continue their status quo activities” while compromising university integrity. This is unsustainable and unacceptable. Through demands and recommendations, they’re calling for a full divestment by 2030. Here’s a wrap-up of the report: what it reveals, why it’s critical to the global divestment movement and how you can support.

BACKGROUND

What is S4F?

S4F’s report is a ground-up, independent research effort by over 60 individuals that include current students, alumni, academics, civil society members and lawyers. This extensive 68-page report titled Fossil-Fuelled Universities “is the culmination of three years of effort, and testifies to the urgency and severity all of us across generations feel towards the climate crisis and transitioning away from fossil fuels,” shares Shawn Ang, environmental activist and member of the S4F team. 

The coalition grew out of the need to be heard: since 2017, members have engaged with their respective university administrators and have made close to no progress. These students from the National University of Singapore (NUS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore Management University (SMU), Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) and Yale-NUS say that “we no longer have time to give companies ‘space’ to transition at their own pace. Fossil fuel companies must transition or be rejected, and only the serious threat of the latter can incentivise the former.” 

This comes at the heels of other recent youth-led climate and local environmental activism, including the collective statement “An urgent call from Singaporean youths on the environmental crisis” released during COP26 last yearwith a focus on treating climate change not just as an environmental crisis, but also an economic, labour, housing, educational and social issueand the 2021 SG Climate Rally titled “The People in Crisis.” During both efforts, fossil fuel divestment was cited as urgent and necessary climate action. But before we start in on the report, what is divestment’s theory of change? How does it effectively materialise? 

 

The race to the precipice 

Big Oil has always known about the disastrous effects of climate change. In 1989, ExxonMobil, BP and Shell formed the Global Climate Coalition (GCC) to lobby against reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The considerable presence of the fossil fuel industry “is deeply troubling as we attempt to educate a new generation of young people to help us slow climate change and adapt to a turbulent and challenging future,” said Associate Professor Matthew Schneider-Mayerson, an interdisciplinary environmental studies scholar at Yale-NUS College. “Should those who have profited off of the climate crisis—off of widespread suffering, death, injustice, and mass extinction—play any role in decisions about education?”

There are several arguments against divestment but as Noam Chomsky puts it, “they are not wrong but essentially irrelevant.” To those who ask why we should divest and remove funding/scholarships if that’ll cost the university more, he says: “If we, as an institution, tell the world that we’re not going to stop this because it might cost us, what are we telling people?” And to those who say divestment isn’t strong enough to financially destabilise fossil fuel industries, he reminds us that “the purpose of divestment is not to injure ExxonMobil (which is near impossible);  it’s symbolic. It’s telling the world that this must be taken urgently because it’s significant.” And so their financial loss is felt not through reduced shares but through social and moral bankruptcy. 

Since the public release of the report, several students, especially engineering undergraduates who hope to have a career in these markets, have come forward with a common concern: does cutting ties and divesting have their best interests at heart? These anxieties are not unfounded. They will be the first to see the effects of reduced fossil funding and sponsorships. But the truth is, a just transition is both possible and inevitable: fossil fuel companies’ profitability has become more volatile and their financial success is reducing. In the past years, major oil firms have retrenched hundreds of workers: 300 from ExxonMobil, 500 from Shell and at least 10% from Chevron. Fossil fuels are a sunset industry—laying the fossil money pipeline disproportionately affects students, faculty and workers far more than investing in long-term planning that prioritises stakeholders. 

 

Why divest—more than just “gesture politics”

What costs the fossil fuel industry approximately $200 million every year? Lobbying—designed to control, delay or block climate-motivated policy. These companies follow a business model that is fundamentally incompatible with international agreements on mitigating climate change. (The CEO of Shell said the company would stick with its plans to increase carbon emissions despite the recent Dutch court ruling calling for them to reduce emissions by 45% by 2030.) It is true that most (74% of) coal, oil and gas reserves are owned by state-controlled companies but let’s not forget that fossil fuel companies have huge political and social power, making it difficult for leaders to act against them; they blindside and block the creation of political space for just policies. 

Historically, divestment has worked before. The largest divestment campaign to date was over the issue of South African apartheid; hundreds of universities, governments, counties and cities divested their money from companies doing business in the country. Globally, a number of universities have announced plans to start divesting from fossil fuels, including Oxford University, the University of British Columbia, the University of California, Harvard University and National Taiwan University. More recently, The UN organisation in charge of global climate change negotiations said it was lending its “moral authority” to the divestment campaign: “We support divestment as it sends a signal to companies, that the age of ‘burn what you like, when you like’ cannot continue,” said Nick Nuttall, the spokesman for the UN framework convention on climate change (UNFCCC). 

 

 

S4F divest green is the new black
IMAGE: Photo from Students Taking Action for NUS to Divest (STAND), NUS Outreach, 2018 / IMAGE DESCRIPTION: Two students are doodling and writing slogans on a chalkboard for spreading awareness about divestment 

 

KEY INSIGHTS FROM THE FOSSIL-FUELLED UNIVERSITIES REPORT

1. Universities are NOT for sale 

According to the report, most Singaporean universities have indirect investments in the fossil fuel industry. NUS has an undisclosed, single-digit percentage of its total endowment indirectly invested in fossil fuels, the lower-bound amounting to $59m. NTU has an undisclosed percentage of its endowment indirectly invested in the industry while for SMU, SUTD, SIM, and SIT, it is undisclosed whether the endowment is invested in fossil fuels. You can’t claim to be a “green campus” if your actions and hidden investments do not align with your values—that’s just dirty greenwashing.

The report also compares fossil fuel companies to the government’s ban on cigarette companies sponsoring and publicising corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities. “Singapore’s Government has banned cigarette companies from sponsoring and publicising corporate social responsibility activities, clearly signalling that an industry whose core business is harmful should not be positively rebranded,” said the students in the report. “Fossil fuel companies who have not credibly committed to a post-carbon transition should not be allowed to purchase positive branding and social acceptance from our universities.” 

 

2. Positions of power

In 2019, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong described climate change as one of the “gravest challenges facing mankind” during the National Day Rally. At the same time, ExxonMobil committed to a multi-billion-dollar expansion of Singapore’s manufacturing complex. This duality of the state is condescending at the very least. To perform this way, and not expect the public to notice, make noise, organise.

The report also pointed out the presence of fossil fuel industry leaders sitting on university boards. Two board members of NTU were involved in fossil fuels firms, including the former chair of Shell Singapore, Swee Chen Goh. SIM’ Board Chair is currently a senior leader in a fossil fuel company. Academic prizes include the ExxonMobil Gold Medal and Shell Gold Medal at NTU, the BP Gold Medal Award at NUS and the BB Energy Scholarship at SMU. When academia is inextricably linked to the fossil fuel industry, self-censorship restricts universities from being critical about the industry’s environmental impacts. “These programmes impress upon students the career viability of the fossil fuel industry. However, the fossil fuel industry is a sunset industry, which may limit medium- to long-term career viability,” said the report

During the liberation war in 1968, Agostinho Neto, an Angolan politician and poet, said, “Our struggle is not an isolated struggle in the world. It is part of a global struggle by humanity to bring an end to exploitation.” So how does this link to the rest of the world? ExxonMobil’s largest refinery in the world is in Singapore and Shell’s Singapore refinery is its largest wholly-owned refinery globally. Further, it has been suggested that Shell’s refinery in Singapore has been the most profitable worldwide. The impacts of fossil fuel companies overseas are inextricably linked with, and perhaps even made possible by, their operations in Singapore.

 

3. Co-opting of campus spaces

Professional development programs with industries provide them with the social license and a steady stream of talent, supporting companies that are endangering the world while funnelling students into sunset industries. Exxon is a long-standing sponsor of the ExxonMobil Campus Concerts series at NUS. It also sponsors programs at the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum. Also, on-campus career events include the Women in NUS event sponsored by Shell, BP personal branding workshops and talks at NTU and more. S4F has shown that many undergraduates secure jobs upon graduation through such career and recruitment events at schools. Fossil industries are using university spaces to improve their public brand, greenwash and normalise their presence. 

Take this neoliberal “Women in Shell” rhetoric, for example. They are exploiting “feminism” by not using it intersectionally but as an indicator of financial success, individualised work-life balance and “growth” up the ladder. They are not only co-opting our physical spaces but also our language, keeping our minds colonised by individual capitalistic success. The goal is the same: they are now shifting their messaging to climate-conscious and women-inclusive, rather than denying climate change outright, to overcome social resistance and delay climate action.

 

exxon campus concert green is the new black
IMAGE: Photo from Joshua Choo, NUS University Town, 18 Sept 2021 / IMAGE DESCRIPTION: View of ExxonMobil Campus Concerts (2021) advertisement board

 

4. Demands & recommendations

S4F’s demands go beyond short-term divestment and include a range of ways to cut ties with the fossil fuel industry (over time, to prioritise the wellbeing of stakeholders), including removing the name branding of fossil fuel companies from scholarships and prizes and ceasing new industry partnership programs with fossil fuel companies. These demands aim to redirect university students to more sustainable industries. 

They are calling for Singapore’s universities to purge investments in fossil fuel firms by 2030, and squeeze out forms of involvement from carbon-intensive polluters, including the influence of oil and gas executives on university management boards. Additionally, they recommend universities implement climate crisis education by 2024. (Read the detailed short-, mid-and long-term recommendations here.) 

 

UNIVERSITIES RESPOND TO THE REPORT (for the most part, just ambiguous bureaucratic language) 

In response to this exposé, an SMU spokesman said the university was developing its approach to environmental, social and governance issues, including responsible investment. 

And, an NTU spokesman said the university’s sustainability framework had involved “substantial consultation, feedback and input from internal and external stakeholders and domain experts”. 

He added that the university’s investments – which does not specifically target the fossil fuel industry – enable it to maintain a steady stream of funds to support its long-term growth, while guarding against disruptions, such as having to significantly increase tuition fees during economic downturns.

“Environmental, social and governance considerations are carefully integrated into the investment management process to balance the university’s sustainability objectives with its fiscal health and financial outcomes for the portfolio and endowment fund over the long term,” he said.

Essentially, for now, they’re sticking to their guns and still haven’t revealed the endowment amounts that the report demanded, nor fully committed to engaging with S4F’s recommendations. Instead, they are turning to technocratic language (“domain experts”) that does not address the lack of transparency that’s at the root of this issue. 

Earlier this week, S4F responded to the universities’ comments: “We urge our universities to carefully assess the suitability of their current environmental, social and governance (ESG) benchmarks if they allow investments in companies which threaten a liveable future. At minimum, we believe that good governance should entail our universities disclosing their investments across all asset classes, their investment exclusion and inclusion criteria as well as investment policies.

Without consultation and transparent (and accessible) reporting on these developments, any “sustainability framework” is a top-down decision that has no regard for the broader communities’ wellbeing. If our renowned public institutions are truly concerned about our futures, they need to use their position to catalyse Singapore’s divestment.

“We strongly believe that it is important to develop longer-term plans now to ensure that the transition from fossil fuels is just, equitable, and inclusive, and that our students and broader communities will not be harmed in the process. We invite interested students, stakeholders, and members of the public who would like to contribute or get involved to reach out to us, as we pivot to supporting student groups working across all five universities to push these recommendations and possibilities forward. We hope that students will also continue to engage in these conversations within and beyond the classroom,” the students shared.

And the coalition has made clear they will continue to mobilise towards their demands: “We are reaching out to university leaders directly in hopes of further engagement and dialogue. In August 2022, we plan to release a memo to share updates on these engagements and their progress in line with a just transition, as part of our commitment to transparency and accountability to the wider community on these issues that affect us all. We are optimistic that we can work with and alongside our universities to achieve meaningful change, and the time to act is now.”

singapore university divestment fossil free university green is the new black
IMAGE: Photo by Shawn Ang, S4F NTU Outreach, 2022 / IMAGE DESCRIPTION: A long white sheet is sitting on a bench, with the words “WE ARE FOSSIL-FREE FUTURE” drawn in the middle, and doodles/words by other students surrounding it. 

 

ONWARD

1. Make noise and build social pressure

If we are to survive, which is by no means a certainty, we need to make our collective voices heard. Diffuse the smokescreens that obscure the simple fact: fossil fuels must remain in the ground. Reimagine institutions and support systems that do not simultaneously betray us

What we really need moving forward is more people in the movement to rejuvenate our groups. If you’re in Singapore, join S4F or create your own divestment group if your university doesn’t have one yet. S4F will be around to build capacity but it is, after all, a coalition, and its strength lies in the respective student groups that can directly engage with their own universities and hold them accountable. 

And if you’re overseas, consider creating your own coalition to lead your own research. The undergraduate team behind the S4F report was inspired by a similar report published by the Cambridge Zero Carbon Society in 2018, called Decarbonising Cambridge: A Pathway To Divestment And Positive Reinvestment. The bottom line is, we will only be heard if fossil fuel industries know their reputation is at stake. So do everything in your power to expose their injustice, consolidate your demands and force them to produce receipts with transparency and evidence.

 

2. Continue to read, process and articulate

Compared to what oil companies have done, there’s a severe dearth of public condemnation or even acknowledgement of harm. Through building a social license, they have created positive associations in the public mind; they have done everything they can to limit our access to the vocabulary of oppression and liberation. We need to not only educate ourselves but also reach out to others who might be sitting on the fence: have a conversation with (maybe even radicalise) them.

The best place to start is by reading the report. It charts the history of fossil fuel industries in Singapore and consolidates international links that wouldn’t have been public if it weren’t for the labour of the S4F team. Shawn shared that putting together the report involved trawling the Internet, combing partnerships and events pages, annual reports, directories of university management and staffing lists wherever they were available. “Simultaneously, our members from various universities also combed through internal school portals to detail associations and linkages,” he said. Let’s make sure it reaches more people.

 

3. Most importantly, help sustain S4F!

As the second half of the campaign continues this week, keep an eye out for on-campus events on their socials. They are also raising $7,800 through an art sale (featuring gorgeous radical prints, pins, zines and more) and direct donations, which will go towards logistical costs, access services, public engagement activities and remuneration for their campaign contributors. More on how you can get involved here, here and here

  

FEATURED IMAGE: Photo from Students Taking Action for NUS to Divest (STAND), NUS Outreach, 2018 / IMAGE DESCRIPTION: A paper stand holding a sheet that says “CHOOSE A FUTURE” on the top with “FOSSIL FUELS” in black crayon on the left and “RAINBOW RENEWABLES” in rainbow and green crayons respectively on the right
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