Written by Sofiah Jamil.

2018 will be Singapore’s “Year for Climate Action”. Speaking at the recent UNFCCC COP23 meeting in Bonn, Singapore’s Environment Minister noted that the move would complement current efforts in building resilience against climate change.

Indeed, Singapore is not immune to the impacts of climate change. Amongst the most visible impacts in recent years has been increased heavy rainfall resulting in major flash flooding, which has caused significant damage to property and business productivity. Warmer temperatures are also a cause for concern. In early 2014, a 27-day dry spell resulted in Singapore’s desalination and waste water recycling plants operating to nearly full capacity to meet water needs. In 2015, plankton blooms caused mass fish deaths in the northern coast of the island, and adversely impacted fish farms in the area. The impacts of climate change in Singapore are not simply meteorological, but more significantly economic.

The over-reliance on the government for solutions, however, reflects what some have termed as the nanny-state syndrome: due to years of strong state intervention and action, people have become apathetic and expect the government to address all problems.

Many in Singapore’s environmental circles have thus welcomed the “Year for Climate Action” as an important milestone in mainstreaming climate awareness, and see it as a chance to catalyse existing bottom-up environmental initiatives. Some have noted the move provides greater opportunity to pursue more experiential education activities, while others call for efforts to demonstrate how individual actions add up collectively.

While these suggestions are still in the pipeline, what can we really expect from a Year of Climate Action in a country where civil society activities are often heavily regulated?  Two issues are worth noting. First, the certainty of state dominance over environmental matters. Second, the potential for engaging a passive and disengaged public.

“Leave it to the G”

Similar to other civil society organisations in Singapore, the government views environmental groups as service providers for implementing or complementing its policies. Preceding the announcement of the Year of Climate Action, two inter-ministerial reports on Singapore’s Climate Action Plan have comprehensively documented existing and proposed climate change mitigation and adaptation plans for Singapore. Environmental groups in Singapore would be engaged to do a fair amount of heavy lifting to socialise these plans to the public.

Environmental groups in Singapore are accustomed to this. With the exception of the Nature Society of Singapore that has had experience in challenging state development policies, much of the environmental groups emerging in Singapore since 2000 have tended to adopt cooperative stances with government agencies. Some have also argued that the existing approaches to climate action are kept “mild” through talks and online campaigns, rather than overtly challenging existing policies. In the event that environmental groups do challenge state policies, the former is often depicted as proposing less pragmatic solutions than those that have been set out by government agencies.

Such controlled climate action is, in a way, a public expectation. Unlike other developed countries that emphasise the importance of societal action, public perceptions surveys in Singapore reveal a high dependence on government action. In a 2016 survey conducted by Singapore’s National Climate Change Secretariat (NCCS), 60 percent of respondents felt that climate change is a pressing problem for Singapore, and almost 90 percent were concerned about the effects of climate change on future generations. That said, most respondents also felt strongly that climate action should be driven by the government, and over a third of respondents believed that their individual actions would not make a difference to climate change. NCCS’ earlier survey in 2011 and other studies have also noted the preference to leave matters to “the G” (government).

The over-reliance on the government for solutions, however, reflects what some have termed as the nanny-state syndrome: due to years of strong state intervention and action, people have become apathetic and expect the government to address all problems. While the state has created a sense of security by assuring its people that it has everything under control, it has also fed into a sense of entitlement and complacency. In terms of climate (in)action, for instance, the domestic recycling rate in 2016 remains at a low 21 percent despite recycling campaigns since the 1990s and installation of recycling bins under all public housing blocks. In addition, the amount of waste produced in Singapore has grown from 5.02 million tonnes in 2005 to 7.67 million tonnes in 2015.  Such outcomes validate existing studies where affecting behavioural change through campaigns can be extremely difficult, and the success rate often low.

Engaging the Disengaged and Passive

In light of such apathetic public behaviour and the perceived role of being service providers, environmental groups will have to localise their activities with greater precision if they are to make a significant impact during the Year of Climate Action and thereafter. While the usual talks and experiential education activities will continue, more in-depth and targeted engagement ought to be considered. Based on Detenber et al’s recent study on Singaporean attitudes towards climate change, Singaporeans fall into three categories:

  • the Concerned (young, with above average education and income, high interest in global warming)
  • the Disengaged (older with below average education and income, little interest in global warming, most dependent on government solutions), and;
  • the Passive (elderly, least educated, low income, attentive to global warming issues).

To date, much of the existing environmental activities and products caters to those in the “concerned” category, often leaving out individuals with less spending power. However, if engaged effectively, those in the latter two categories have the greatest potential. For instance, environmental groups can assist in creating and upscaling community-level environmental activities that are socially relevant and economically viable. Essentially, if it makes economic sense for the disengaged, it would make sense for others. Similarly, the passive group can be engaged by learning from their personal experiences and traditional values of environmental care. Existing environmental groups have already initiated activities that are worth building on – such as employing elderly people in urban farming, and a repairing community.

An effective Year of Climate Action in Singapore, therefore, does not necessarily require the fanfare of mass campaigns nor environmental proclamations. Rather, it is ideally one that localises environmental practices, and innovates, to make them practical.

Sofiah Jamil is a final year PhD candidate at the Australian National University, and co-founder of Hornbills: Concepts and Communications. Prior to pursuing her PhD, Sofiah was Associate Research Fellow in the RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies, Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. Sofiah is also the founder of Project ME: Muslims and the Environment and tweets as @thegreenbush. Image Credit: CC by Wikipedia Commons.

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