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Singapore students rally against fossil fuel firms’ interference in universities

A student coalition says Singapore’s universities should divest from fossil fuels, and the likes of Shell, ExxonMobil, and BP should not be permitted to promote their brands on university campuses as they threaten academic freedom to criticise the environmental impact of oil and gas companies.

Exxon Campus Concerts at NUS
Oil major ExxonMobil has been a long-standing sponsor of National University of Singapore's Campus Concerts. Singapore is home to ExxonMobil's largest oil refinery. Image:

A group of students in Singapore has launched a campaign against the involvement of fossil fuel companies in tertiary education, which they say is “not acceptable in today’s environmental and social context”.

The coalition, named Students for a Fossil Free Future (S4F), is 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.

S4F, which is made up of students from NUS, NTU, Singapore Management University (SMU), Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) as well as Yale-NUS, are also asking that further education institutions secure greener alternatives to replace existing partnerships, sponsorships and funding in research from the oil and gas industry over the next decade. It also calls on universities to implement climate crisis education by 2024.

The campaign centres on a report, titled Fossil-Fuelled Universities, released on Monday, which highlights the ways in which fossil fuel companies such as American multinational ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell and Britain’s BP are involved in Singapore’s universities.

The close ties that polluting energy brands have built allow them to purchase a “social license” to continue to wield influence in higher education, contends the report, which was compiled by 60 individuals including students, academics, and lawyers.

The fossil fuel industry’s presence on Singapore campuses “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,” commented associate professor Matthew Schneider-Mayerson, an environmental studies scholar at Yale-NUS, a joint-venture betweenand Yale University and the National University of Singapore (NUS). The city-state’s first liberal-arts college, is to be shut down by 2025, amid controversy

“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?” said Schneider-Mayerson in a statement from the group.

The campaign, a rare example of environmental activism in the conservative city-state, will run from Monday until 28 January, and will involve engaging students in on- and offline discussions about the report’s findings and recommendations.

When academia is inextricably linked to the fossil fuel industry, self-censorship creates a chilling effect on academic freedom, potentially restricting universities from being critical about the industry’s environmental impacts.

Fossil-Fuelled Universities report 

How do fossil fuels firm meddle in Singapore’s higher education system?

The Fossil-Fuelled Universities report highlights a number of ways in which polluting energy firms are involved in tertiary education in the city-state:

A “low-single digit” of NUS’s endowment is invested in fossil fuel firms, which amounts to at least $59 million (US$44 million).

NTU, SMU, SUTD and SIM do not disclose how much of its endowment is invested in dirty energy. Most claim that the investments are small, incidential and made indirectly, so are difficult to quantify.

SMU has received more than S$1m (US$743,000) from Emirates National Oil Company, S$500,000 (US$370,000) from Shell International Eastern Trading Company and S$250,000 (US$186,000) from Koch Refining International.

ExxonMobil is a long-standing sponsor of the ExxonMobil Campus Concerts series at NUS. Exxon also sponsors programmes at the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum.

Two board members of NTU were involved in fossil fuels firms, including the former chair of Shell Singapore, Swee Chen Goh. 

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. 

On-campus career events have included the Women in NUS event sponsored by Shell, the ITI@SMU Networking Night, which included Shell, Emirates National Oil, and Total, and BP personal branding workshops and talks at NTU. 

Companies such as Shell and Exxon have played a key role in Singapore’s economy for more than 60 years, and continue to hold considerable socio-economic clout. But their role in the climate crisis has drawn increasing scrutiny, particularly among young Singaporeans, who are also concerned about choosing a career in a declining industry, the report noted. Last year Shell signalled a gradual retreat from Singapore after announcing job cuts at its refining facility as the company pivots towards lower carbon fuels and responds to falling crude oil prices and demand.

Shawn Ang, an environmental science and public policy and global affairs undergraduate at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and one of the authors of the report, told Eco-Business that the level of fossil fuel industry involvement in Singapore’s universities is likely to be higher than in other countries due to the high concentration of energy firms the city-state, and the industry’s predominance in the national economy. 

Singapore relies on fossil fuels for its energy needs more than any other country, according to a July study, with 98 per cent of its total supply coming from traditional fuel sources. Meanwhile, the country’s climate policies have been rated as “critically insufficient” and in line with a catastrophic 4°C of global warming.

The campaign emerges almost five years after Yale-NUS launched Singapore’s first student fossil fuels divestment campaign. Students from NUS and NTU have followed with divestment campaigns of their own, but none have gained any traction among university management.

Ang said that he hoped the universities’ leadership would “engage sincerely with us.”

“As students, our universities train and prepare us to go out and change the world for the better. We’re starting at home, right where we are, and we hope our universities will listen to us,” Ang said.

Ahead of the launch of the campaign, NUS provided S4F with some information, which is included in the report, and has proposed a meeting with the students to further discuss a way forward. The group has received no response from the other universities.

Ang said that a goal of the campaign is to bring awareness of corporate ties with higher education into the wider community “in an inclusive and just manner that will protect our collective futures.”

He added that the group was concerned about a backlash and censorship from publicly questioning the ties between two powerful pillars of Singaporean society. “Yet, we press on and dedicate countless hours, weekends, and months of our lives to this, knowing that our short window of time to act to ensure our planet remains habitable is almost gone. We cannot rest without doing everything we can.”

The group pointed out that fossil fuel companies are among the greatest drivers of anthropogenic climate change, and argued that the industry continues to respond inadequately to the climate crisis.

Echoing a statement made by a Singapore youth group around the COP26 climate talks in November, S4F said that all fossil fuel activities “would need to cease in order to keep to a 1.5 degree [Celsius global warming] target” stipulated in the Paris Agreement, and avoid the most dire consequences of climate change.

Singapore’s universities would not be the first in Asia Pacific to divest from fossil fuels. In 2019, National Taiwan University (NTU) pledged to divest its endowment funds from high-polluting industries by 2020. In 2017, 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. 

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