Singapore on Fire: From Fossil History to Climate Activism by Aidan Mock
IT'S A WARM September afternoon when I find myself lying on a grass field, squinting up at the ash grey sky, sprawled among dead bodies. I feel sweat condense on the inside of my face mask as I watch the fog of grey air thicken and swirl above me. Indonesia is on fire again, and it’s hard to breathe.
In my left palm, I’m holding a stranger’s limp hand. Suddenly I feel the fingers stir and pull away. I turn my head and watch as its owner pulls herself upright, picking off flecks of grass and dirt from her shoulders and neck. There is soil on her legs too, and eventually she gives up trying to brush it all off. Parks are not the most comfortable places for dying.
“Thank you for participating in today’s die-in, and we hope to see you at next year’s Climate Rally,” a voice calls out to the sticky undead. Rolling to my feet, I survey the scene as two thousand strangers stagger upright and leave the park with a low murmur. Loping through the crowd, I regroup with my team at the foot of the main stage. We’ve just organised Singapore’s first climate rally, gathering two thousand Singaporeans at Hong Lim Park, and congratulations are in order. As we begin to clear our equipment off the field, a familiar whine cuts through the air. We pause in our tracks, exchange knowing glances and roll our eyes. Our work, along with the annual Formula 1 race, has only just begun.
Civil society in Singapore has been blossoming, and it can be hard to keep up with the number of groups that are addressing important social issues through activism. Collective movements like Pink Dot and SG Climate Rally have emerged as advocates for LGBTQ+ rights and national climate action, while individuals and groups have challenged the personal mobility device (PMD) ban, inadequate policies against sexual violence in universities and the ubiquitous distribution of disposable plastic in Singapore. All of these groups are working towards a more just, egalitarian and liveable future, and should be commended.
Understanding history is one of the keys to achieving social and political change. Past behaviour can provide insight into present policies, path dependencies and obstacles to change. For example, understanding Singapore’s historical lack of water security and subsequent obsession with it is critical to appreciating the country’s approach to nature conservation. From this perspective, the central catchment area’s primary purpose is to filter and store water for the island, not conserve biodiversity. If there were other reliable sources of water in the country, it is plausible that the forests in the central catchment area would have been razed to make way for The Hanging Gardens, or some other aspirationally named condominium. Singapore’s concern about water is the same type of anxiety that it has about energy security, and this apprehension explains the country’s heavy reliance on fossil fuels today.
Climate activists cannot afford to lose sight of the past. When two thousand demonstrators showed up at Hong Lim Park on 21st of September, 2019 chanting, “What do we want? Climate justice! When do we want it? Now!” they positioned themselves against fifty years of national policy that has worked to foster and grow the fossil fuel industry in Singapore. If the government is to be persuaded that a fossil-fuelled future is only for fossil fools, activists and advocates must have a robust understanding of the history of their adversary. Strategies and tactics must consider what has come before. Successful campaigns must prepare to counter rebuttals that draw on the past.
How did we end up here? Why is the government unwilling to take strong action against the fossil fuel companies despite the incredible urgency of the climate crisis? For an industry built around an inky black liquid, the story is surprisingly colourful.
On the 14th of June, 1960, the newly appointed Finance Minister, Dr Goh Keng Swee, found himself on a small island just south of mainland Singapore called Pulau Bukom. Like Singapore itself, this small and underappreciated island was bound for greatness, even if the rest of the world hadn’t realised it yet.
Grasping an axe, Dr Goh symbolically chopped down a Flame of the Forest tree, breaking ground on the site of Shell’s first petroleum refinery in Singapore. One year later, Dr Goh would return to a towering structure of steel and concrete that had risen in its place in record time. With a ceremonial flick of a switch, Dr Goh brought light to the complex and ushered in a new era of Singapore’s history. From then on, the only flames on the island would be the fires that danced atop the refinery’s flare stacks. Other oil companies would follow in Shell’s footsteps and build Singapore into their global empires, but Shell would remain the leader for many years to come. With the refinery, Singapore was well on its way to becoming a petroleum superpower; the future was bright, secure and limitless. The oil industry promised both financial and energy security to a small island nation that was not yet independent from colonial rule and still struggling to find its feet.
Some nights, when the sky is not choked with haze, I can see the gas flaring from my dorm room window in Clementi. The fires paint low-hanging clouds an orange hue and, when the flaring is particularly extreme, the shadows shiver along the walls of my room. I think about Dr Goh and wonder if he realised just how symbolic his act of chopping down that tree was. I wonder what the forest would look like today if it had been left untouched. I lament all the things that we have already set on fire.
This is an edited extract from Eating Chilli Crab in the Anthropocene edited by Matthew Schneider-Mayerson.