Yale-NUS students launch Singapore’s first divestment campaign

A group of students at Singapore’s Yale-NUS College has kicked off a campaign calling on the university to divest its S$365 million endowment from fossil fuel companies.

Students at Singapore’s Yale-NUS College have launched the country’s first fossil fuel divestment campaign, calling the institution’s investment in energy sources like coal, oil, and gas “morally unacceptable” and demanding that Yale-NUS divests its S$365 million endowment from carbon polluters.  

A group of 15 students at the college, which was set up in 2011 and is jointly run by the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Yale University in the United States, launched the campaign on Facebook on Monday. 

The campaign, a rare activist effort in conservative Singapore, entails a week of networking and information sessions to raise awareness amongst students about the impact of fossil fuels on climate change, and the importance of divesting from non-renewables.

The students also launched an online petition calling on the university administration to freeze new investment in fossil fuel companies and move towards full divestment of the college’s endowment within the next five years.

Zachary Mahon, a fourth-year environmental studies major at Yale-NUS College and one of the campaign’s co-founders, told Eco-Business that “this is the first push of the campaign”. 

“We are trying to bring the issue to people’s minds before they go off for their upcoming term break,” said Mahon. “Once we come back for the next semester, we will have a lot more people who can start pushing this forward.”

Campaigners also want the university to deliver a statement to the campus community by May 5, outlining its position on the issue. 

“We want the school to explain whether or not it sees the value in divesting, and justifying the stance,” said Mahon, explaining that the students have been discussing the issue with outgoing president Pericles Lewis, newly appointed president Tan Tai Yong, and other members of the university management. 

Campaign co-founder Feroz Khan, a third year environmental studies student, shared that “so far in our interaction with the administration, they have been quite sympathetic and understand our concerns”. 

“The administration are happy that students are getting involved in climate-related advocacy,” he added. 

A key obstacle to divestment efforts, however, is the lack of transparency around how much of the university’s divestment is actually invested in fossil fuels. This is because the endowment is independently managed by external fund managers to prevent a conflict of interest. 

A Yale-NUS spokeperson cited the complexity of its endowment management and the multiple parties involved to explain why “it would be very challenging for the college to completely divest from fossil fuels”. 

The spokesperson added that the college “appreciates the frank feedback” from students, and said that “such open conversations are a distinctive feature of our everyday culture”. 

“Nonetheless, the College appreciates the efforts of the students, and remains open to suggestions on how we can support possible environmental sustainability efforts,” said the spokesperson. 

But while the young campaign at Yale-NUS appears to be facing an uphill struggle, student-led activism on divestment has clinched major victories globally in recent years. 

Students at Yale University in the US, for example, started a campaign in March 2015 calling on the institution to stop investing in fossil fuels. Almost a year later, they clinched a partial victory when the university announced that US$10 million of its US$25.6 billion endowment had been divested from fossil fuels. 

Last May, Australia’s La Trobe University became the first in the country to divest from fossil fuels, announcing that it will drop coal, oil, and natural gas companies from its portfolio by 2021. 

Industry experts welcomed the Yale-NUS campaign, but stressed that more systemic change is necessary to weaken the polluting fossil fuel industry globally.  

Assaad Razzouk, chief executive officer of Sindicatum Sustainable Resources, said: “Calling for investors to divest from polluters is laudable and should be encouraged; it’s therefore great that the divest movement has landed in Singapore.”

But demanding divestment alone won’t be enough, said Razzouk, pointing out that the divest movement to date has only affected a tiny fraction of the US$150 trillion global capital market. 

“The call to divest should therefore be accompanied by robust action in the courts, aimed not at investors but at pension fund trustees, the investors’ ultimate “bosses”,” said Razzouk. 

He added: “It’s time we hold big corporate polluters to account via the courts, because governments won’t.” 

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