Fighting for a Just Transition (3/3): Suraendher Kumarr (Singapore Climate Rally)

Suraendher Kumarr is a climate justice organiser from Singapore and member of SG Climate Rally, a coalition pushing for climate justice and a just transition to ensure a fair future for all.

Could you briefly introduce yourself (and your group/collective)? What is your activism about? Where are you active?

I’m a member of SG Climate Rally, an organisation in Singapore which pushes for climate justice and a just transition to ensure a fair future for all. The organisation was first founded in 2019 when it organised the first-ever climate rally in Singapore. It was attended by over 2000 members of the public and had politicians from the ruling party and opposition party attend it. This was significant as prior to the rally, climate change was not discussed substantively in parliament or any other national conversation. SGCR, along with others in the climate movement in Singapore effectively shifted the political needle and less than a year later, most political parties had policy positions on climate change.

Yet, much of climate change discourse- in Singapore especially, treats environmentalism as a separate issue from class, gender, disability, sexuality, race, imperialism, for example- very much in the vein of green capitalism. This is not a sustainable solution, as the logic of capitalism is to continuously extract for the need of profit, and as long as we produce and extract more than we need, we are still going to be polluting and depleting the earth. A system built on such a logic is fundamentally unsustainable. While SGCR has called on the state to lead on systemic climate action since day one of its existence, we have also more recently clearly articulated that we want a just society , democratically accepted by our membership. We don’t just want to mitigate emissions, we want it to be done in a way that is fair. A just transition essentially.

 What does this mean? Our organisation, broadly, has 3 calls to action.

1. Bringing power to the people by building a democratic society,

2. launch a green recovery based on justice and equality, and

3. Redefine what pragmatism and growth means in the Singapore context.

A big part of “the people” is the working class. The financialisation of capitalism has to some extent, reconfigured class and so when we say working class, we must clarify that we mean people who primarily rely on wage labour for their subsistence. Another part of “the people” is marginalised communities who do not necessarily participate in the realm of wage labour. Examples include unpaid caregivers, rural farmers, homeless persons or anyone else who may rely solely on mutual aid or social welfare. SGCR means both the working class and marginalised communities – two broad groups that have significant latent power but have historically been disempowered psychologically and legally.

What do I mean by latent power? For one, there is no wealth, no world without workers’ labour. Without labour, wealth remains stagnant, it cannot grow. And workers cannot go to work without care labour, usually unpaid and usually performed by caregivers who tend to be women – activities that we systemically understand as social reproduction.  But workers and marginalised communities are legally disempowered through anti-union and assembly laws for example, preventing them from organising themselves and exercising their power autonomously. They are psychologically disempowered by narratives that celebrate the capitalist logic of endless profit and consumption, where the role of the worker is reduced to an individualised unit, competing against other workers for the privilege of wages just to stay alive. It is our job as activists and organisers to resist these forms of disempowerment and channel energies towards realising their latent power.

We are not interested in a green recovery that benefits capitalists if it is at the expense of the majority of the working class and other marginalised communities. A just transition is a green transition that centres the working class and marginalised communities as active agents of this change.

Singapore is almost 100% urbanised, but SGCR also understands that a just green transition is impractical without international cooperation and solidarity. We are therefore internationalist in our outlook and have stood in solidarity with ecological struggles around the world. These include but are not limited to the struggles in Myanmar against the military coup, the Palestinian struggle against Israeli settler colonialism, the democracy movement in Thailand, and the forest fires in Chiang Mai for example.

One might say that SGCR is being too expansive in the issues we address. We don’t see it that way. Climate justice and a just transition are big asks, and we are not shy to practice what we say. Our main role, we see, is to effectively articulate the links between different features of capitalism (imperialism, gender injustice, racism, xenophobia, ableism, queerphobia, and our retributive criminal justice system etc) and yet another one of its features, climate change.

What are some current struggles/problems?

One of our most recent struggles is climate justice for app-based gig workers. Food delivery couriers and private hire car drivers who are employed by apps like Grab, Food Panda, and Deliveroo were disproportionately affected by an abrupt petrol price increase imposed by the government recently. This was done during the pandemic, where workers were already suffering reduced incomes and mass lay-offs.

What particularly moved SGCR to act was the government justifying the petrol hike as an effort to address climate change. SGCR responded to say we are environmentalists who are against an abrupt petrol hike as it was clearly classist, and, from a policy perspective, likely to be ineffective. After speaking to some food couriers and private hire car drivers about the petrol hike, we organised a petition with the slogan, “Workers didn’t cause climate change, they shouldn’t pay for it. Give them better rights!”, where we also called for taxing the rich to pay for climate change instead. Singapore does not have a wealth tax. The petition had other demands as well – touching on points about rider safety, a minimum income guarantee, and social and health protections.

For the first time in our organisational history, SGCR members went to the streets to talk to riders and drivers about a petition connecting labour and climate change issues, and invited them to weekly meetings about the campaign. Several riders were actively involved in the campaign.

While we mostly listened to their struggles, we were also actively linking their workplace issues concerning public safety, lack of employment and social protections, petrol price increases, and low pay, to climate change. For example, we argued that the petrol hike is not environmentally friendly as the tax is likely not to result in behavioural change (given the short time-frame and lack of financial and infrastructural support to make a shift in vehicle choice), but workers absorbing the cost. We argued that since the main polluters are the capitalists and they increased their wealth during the pandemic, we should be taxing the rich instead to finance climate change.

We also argued that public safety of riders is an environmental issue. There have been increasing cases of food delivery courier cyclists dying in road accidents due to unsafe public infrastructure leaving them to resort to using the far more dangerous roads. Moreover, recent regulations disallow cyclist to use footpaths. In Singapore, cycling paths are not as common as countries like the Netherlands for example. Public infrastructure still upholds the supremacy of the motor vehicle. We argued that the lack of a safe working environment for food courier cyclists and e-bikers is anti-ecological as it puts workers at risk. This point on workplace safety also resonated with low-wage migrant workers in Singapore who work in the construction industry and are ferried from their dormitories to construction sites in the back of a an open roof lorry with no seatbelts. The other more direct link to climate change is that riders work outdoors, and increased temperatures cause higher chances of heat stress. Some drivers and riders have told us that they prefer working at night due to the heat, for example. Beyond the specifics of policy, we are so used to distinguishing between humans and nature that we forget that humans – and therefore workers – are also part of nature. Environmentalism that doesn’t care for workers’ well-being can only be what Nancy Fraser terms an “environmentalism of the rich”.

Fundamentally though, the extractive and exploitative logic of capitalism is not sustainable for this planet. And the gig economy is one of the latest frontiers to extract even more from labour to profit capitalists. They do so by attempting to erase centuries of hard-fought wins for the international labour movement – paid leave, paid sick leave, paid healthcare for example. As a climate justice movement, SGCR believes that this must be resisted. It is workers who can decide that they wish to engage in socially useful work that doesn’t ravage the planet and people, but only if they have control of their workplaces.

We also released 3 issues of labour bulletins hosting workers’ voices and analytical articles about the gig workers’ struggle for fair pay and overall conditions. This served as a helpful way of connecting with riders. This was quite historic in the Singapore context, where it is generally stigmatised for workers to openly organise – and for an environmental group to initiate. These riders and drivers had previously organised against an abrupt ban on e-scooters that wiped out many of their livelihoods overnight, and many saw it as novel – but it was done by the riders alone – and spontaneously.

We held an open meeting on Labour Day, to mark the submission of the petition which eventually carried 19 organisational and over 2000 individual signatories to 5 government agencies. The open meeting was attended by almost 100 people online (with more than 2000 views on facebook), discussing and debating openly about class politics on labour day. In a country like Singapore where labour and class politics has been severely muted and depoliticised for decades, we wanted that to change. To date, the state has not responded to us, privately nor publicly. 

We are currently taking stock of what was done and how to carry the work forward post-petition, especially since the government has yet to respond to our petition. As climate activists, talking to workers in fossil fuel industries would be the logical next step, but there are many barriers to this. Many of these workers sign non-disclosure agreements and are therefore scared to talk to us, fearing legal costs. We are still committed to engage with people in the fossil fuel sector. We have heard through the grapevine that even as fossil fuel companies stay silent on transition plans, some workers in fossil fuel sectors have been planning their own transition out of the fossil fuel sector and into greener pastures, where they have transferrable skills. This leaves the open question of what happens to workers who are not able to make the jump to other industries and will be left behind as mass lay-offs continue.

What is the role of Shell specifically in the place where you are active?

The oil and gas industry and the services, equipment, and construction companies that support it account for close to 5% of Singapore’s GDP. Shell’s Singapore refinery is Shell’s largest wholly owned refinery in the world. Shell operates two oil and petrochemical sites in Singapore, namely in Pulau Bukom and on Jurong Island. As far as we are aware, Singapore does not publish the data of carbon emissions that individual companies have created. However, the oil and gas sector accounts for 45% of Singapore’s carbon emissions. Despite this, Shell paid only $49 million in taxes despite generating $2.3 billion in profits, far below the 17% tax rate on corporate profits.  That’s about 2% of its profits.

Shell’s origins in Singapore go as far back as 1960, 5 years before the country’s independence. 1960 was when then newly appointed Finance Minister Dr Goh Keng Swee grasped an axe and symbolically chopped down a Flame of the Forest tree, breaking ground on the site of Shell’s first petroleum refinery in Singapore. Shell invested $30 million in this refinery, representing the single biggest investment for Singapore at that time. Economic growth for this young nation would go on to be inextricably tied to the growth of the fossil fuel industry.  The refinery would go on to grow and become Shell’s largest in the world, and possibly, its most profitable worldwide.

War around the world has reaped Shell in Singapore enormous profits. The Vietnam war strengthened Singapore’s position as Asia’s oil supply hub. According to Louis Wesseling, president of Shell, much of the fuel for the US and South Vietnam in the Vietnam War was supplied through Singapore’s refineries. He added that some of the fuel also unintentionally slipped to the Vietcong, enabling them to successfully carry out their guerrilla warfare. Moreover, Singapore’s refining industry had its most profitable spell in the months after Iraq’s military invaded Kuwait in August 1990. As a result of these record refining margins, Shell was reported to have fully recovered its investment for a long-residue catalytic cracker in less than two years. The US-led invasion of Iraq was also another cause for cheer for Singapore’s refineries with Merrill Lynch reporting that refining margins in 2003 were at their highest levels since 1996.

Shell says it aims to be a net-zero emissions energy business by 2050. The scepticism around the loopholes of 2050 net zero pledges is well documented. Meanwhile, Shell Singapore outlined a 10-year plan for the company to repurpose its core business and aim to cut its own carbon dioxide emissions in the country by about one third by then.

How are people taking on Shell/fighting for a just transition? What are their strategies?

Succinctly put: In your view, why must Shell Fall?

Currently I would say that the most active movement confronting big oil is the divestment movement which is largely university campus-based

  • First divestment campaign launched by Yale-NUS students in 2017 calling for the university to divest the endowment fund from fossil fuels and reinvest in socially & environmentally responsible enterprises —> Brought attention to the outsized role that the industry plays in Singapore, and Singapore’s significant contributions to the global proliferation of the industry
    •  To date, there are three active divestment groups: FFYNC, NUS STAND and NTU Divest. These organisations have been engaging regularly with  the respective campus Investment Offices and the student bodies to heighten pressures for our universities to divest.
    • Though dialogues, they have uncovered that:
    • A single digit percentage of NUS’s endowment fund of $5.9 billion is invested in fossil fuels, which can mean anywhere between $40 – 360 million. NUS’s fund is the largest university endowment fund in SG; Yale-NUS shares in this same fund.
    • NTU has also confirmed “minimal exposure” of the fund to fossil fuels. NTU holds the second largest endowment fund in SG.
    • No universities have publicly disclosed the exact exposure of their endowment fund to fossil fuels despite repeated calls for transparency.

It’s also worth noting that despite Singapore’s tight assembly laws, we had our first and only climate strike by 2 students last year, in March. The strikers were 20-year-old Nguyen Nhat Minh and 18-year-old Wong J-Min who were both from the Singapore chapter of Fridays for Future. Wong 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 “ExxonMobil KILLS KITTENS & PUPPIES” – clearly hyperbolic rhetoric meant to jolt the viewer out of complacency. Shortly after Wong posed outside the office, Nguyen held up a placard in public saying “SG IS BETTER THAN OIL”. Given strict assembly laws, the two strikers were interrogated by the Police. SGCR helped to organise multiple environmental and civil society organisations to sign a statement in solidarity with the strikers.

Moreover, in our labour day open meeting for app-based workers (which was livestreamed), we invited another climate justice group Lepak in SG to speak. They said that the true polluters are petrochemical companies and that they are not paying their fair share of taxes. This is in stark contrast to the government’s recent move to increase the price of petrol, affecting app-based gig workers, truckers, and waged drivers, disproportionately. Emissions from petrol vehicles only contribute to 5% of total emissions in Singapore. Meanwhile, petrochemical companies contribute to 45% of emissions here. However, while workers are taxed even more on petrol, petrochemical companies receive generous tax cuts. The speaker went on to cite that BP paid 6% in taxes while Shell paid taxes amounting to 2% of its total profits. It’s not clear how much Exxon pays. These statistics also reveal the classism rooted in the government’s environmental policy. Meanwhile, fossil fuel companies like Shell continue to spend only minuscules fractions of their R&D budgets on renewable energy, and are hardly committing to reducing fossil fuel production, whilst inundating social media and mainstream news outlets with proclamations of their climate pledges.

In principle, what would need to happen for fossil fuel companies to acquiesce to a just transition is for pressure from workers within Shell and other big oil companies to transition out of the sector into less pollutive industries, and to fight for adequate labour protections and support in making that transition. As environmentalists, we believe workers in these sectors hold within themselves the creativity and innovation to come up with impressive solutions for a just transition. One source of inspiration is Platform London’s report entitled Offshore: oil and gas workers’ views on industry conditions and the energy transition. The report surveyed over a thousand workers indicating the extent of exploitation that goes on in the industry and an appetite for alternative industries including offshore wind and renewables. The report also recommended that the just transition must be worker led. This is consistent with our principles, but we need to first build the capacity to do such work sustainably, which we are working on.

On a strategic point as well, the last thing we want to do is alienate the working class in our fight for climate justice. The working class in Singapore is the majority class, although they do not identify themselves as one class. But the misleading distinction has been set by state-owned media and so on – that there are climate issues that the younger demographic is passionate about, distinct from material “bread and butter” issues that older generations worry over. Our campaign for app-based gig workers affected by the petrol hike was meant to disrupt that narrative. Here we are, young environmentalists very much putting front and centre the “bread and butter” issues and linking it to climate change. It is also just incorrect to say that climate change is not a “bread and butter” or “materialist” issue.

We can’t expect the working class in fossil fuel sectors to support the cause for climate justice if we do nothing about the labour issues they will face in the green transition. Workers will see environmentalists as coming after their jobs. Not only is this anti-ecological, it’s just poor strategy if our theory of change involves changing mass public opinion about the need for a just transition.

In the absence of reach with workers due to the factors mentioned above, we have relied on online forums and word-of-mouth about what workers’ issues are in the sector. When Exxon workers were laid off en masse recently, we put out a statement with the hashtag #AxeExxon saying that SGCR stands with the workers and that they should receive more government support to transition to greener sectors. And that the government should stop pumping in more money to a failing, immoral, and environmentally destructive company like Exxon. Exxon also has a very close relationship with the Singapore government. The then-chairman and managing director of ExxonMobile Asia Pacific has a seat in a government appointed taskforce aimed at adjusting the economy to the effects of the pandemic.

Could you recommend some groups/movements for people to follow? Are there any ways in which folks from around the world can support these groups/movements?

You can subscribe to SGCR’s newsletter on our website:

  • Like us on FB, Instagram, or twitter. And if you’d like to touch base and learn from each other, here’s our email. Let’s meet over zoom.

Some green groups in SG you could follow (not limited to)

You can also check out the 18 other groups that signed our petition for app-based gig workers. There is an increasing willingness of different issue-based groups to publicly align themselves to environmental and labour issues.