The future (I want) in Singapore

We’re in the middle of election season in Singapore; parliament was dissolved on 23 June, signalling the start, and polling day will be on 10 July. Many questions can be asked about why the election needs to be called right now, given the difficulties posed by the covid 19 pandemic and made worse for overseas voters (like me) who are unable to travel to exercise our right to vote. Nevertheless, the campaigns and manifestos put forth by candidates are important to engage with because they represent the direction Singapore wants to move towards.

Cartoon by Kevin Kallaugher, taken from here. To be honest, I think the time of modern nation-states is past. Most have only been around for the last 50 to 100 years (since European colonial powers ceded independence to their former colonies, but still wield substantial political and economic power over every country on this planet). Nonetheless, as part of such a nation-state at present, one should actively participate to forge the future we collectively want.

I think it’s been much more exciting this year compared to the last one in 2015 (which was my first time voting in Singapore’s GE), since every one of the 93 elected seats in parliament are being contested (so everyone who can will get to vote) and the quality of (social media) campaigns seems to have increased. I’m really not a political commentator nor do I follow any political party closely enough to comment about the differences between this and the previous election, beyond just my personal experience that this year’s has more hype in it. It has though, been really encouraging to see the highlighting of social structural inequality in Singapore, and proposed policy measures to tackle these issues from most parties. (Slightly less encouraging to see the xenophobia take centre stage at times though).

Where’s climate change?

Yet many other issues – like our treatment of foreign workers – seem to have been sidelined in all the rhetoric about overcoming crises, having a great future, jobs and whatnot. The most glaring omission is perhaps any mention of climate change in any discussion…

From Twitter user @Laurie_Garrett, posted on 17 June, when temperatures in Siberia hit 32˚C; original cartoon (only showing covid-19 and recession) by Graeme MacKay for The Hamilton Spectator on 11 March 2020. I had actually first come across this cartoon but with ‘biodiversity loss’ in a bigger wave behind climate change, but after spending 30 mins scouring the internet trying to find it again, I gave up.

In a 5-yearly discussion about how our future will be directed, one would think that this very major threat – potentially for the survival of, if not our species, then at the least civilisation as we know it – the earth is facing at the moment would feature. Singapore isn’t climate-denying; that much is known. The government had previously pledged to spend SGD 100 billion on infrastructure to adapt to climate change (I know they used the word mitigate but really, they mean adapt to the effects of climate change, like building sea walls, polders, reclaiming islands etc. Not mitigate (to reduce) the effects of climate change). But yes, we need to talk about mitigation!

The petrochemical industry on Jurong Island is the leading oil trading/refining hub in Asia, within top five globally. The industry doesn’t just import crude oil, refine it, and export it to the rest of the world, they’re also involved in building fossil fuel extraction infrastructure (like oil rigs). And 25% of globally-traded goods pass through our port! Cargo ships use the dirtiest fuel and contribute greatly to CO2 emissions [Read more in this great NewNaratif article].

Our banks finance coal plants, oil palm or other cash crop plantations in the region (and sometimes further afield). To ‘develop’ Singapore, sand is imported from our neighbours, to the detriment of the communities from whom land is literally being taken from underfoot. 90% of our food supply is also imported, a large proportion of which is also from around the Southeast Asian region. These activities all contribute to climate change (by changing planetary dynamics) and are affected by the same. If we take climate change seriously for what it is – I don’t know how one does not, I spent days being miserable and angry about the recent 30+˚C temperatures in the Arctic circle – then we need to do something about it. It’s something that should be mentioned in manifestos and shouted about over loudspeakers and on social media campaigns!

The good people at SG Climate Rally and Speak for Climate have co-organised the campaign Greenwatch, producing a climate scorecard for each of the contesting political parties. On a score ranging from -90 to 90, no party did particularly well…

What future do we want?

There’s so much talk about the post-covid future, the economy, jobs, development etc. The assumption though, is that we all want ‘development’, and ‘progress’. It is after all, in our national pledge.

We, the citizens of Singapore, pledge ourselves as one united people, regardless of race, language or religion, to build a democratic society, based on justice and equality, so as to achieve, happiness, prosperity, and progress for our nation. 

Who is development (equivalent to progress?) pursued for though, and to what ends? Supposedly, the pursuit of development (which manifests itself in chasing after constant economic growth, as in GDP), is to improve peoples’ lives, increase standards and quality of well-being and ultimately to allow everyone(?) to live decent and dignified lives.

On one level, past a certain point, happiness/well-being/life satisfaction does not concomitantly increase with Gross Domestic Product (used as a measure of development) – known as the Easterlin paradox.

Image taken from this Medium article authored by Jack Herring- The Social Case for Degrowth, but which was (probably?) taken from the book Degrowth (The economy: Key Ideas) by Giorgos Kallis, Figure 4.2 of chapter 4 The Case for Degrowth.

Singapore’s GDP per capita in 2018, according to Google, is USD 64,581.94, and according to a poll reported in September 2019, half of the population isn’t very satisfied with their lives.

On another level, development is a concept introduced by USA president Henry Truman in his inaugural speech in 1949 – to be specific, he described most of the world as ‘underdeveloped’ and therefore should follow the Western mode of development to industrialise and achieve a higher standard of living, and so reduce suffering. I’m no longer so naive as to think that the USA (or UK) is a benevolent nation that wants to help poor people around the world. Through the past few months/years of reading into colonialism, postcolonial and decolonial studies, I fully see development as neo-colonialism, whereby concepts and schools of thought, ways of knowing, relating to others, and seeing the world are being reshaped and refashioned after Western ways (internal colonialism or colonisation of the mind – Tuck and Yang 2012; Fanon 1963), and where resources (land, people, ideas etc.) are extracted to benefit those in power.

Hence, I see development not as a ‘good’ thing, but as something to be questioned (which I have tried to explore and understand in previous writings). Development serves to entrench those already in power, exacerbating inequalities, does not make us (the general population) happier, and at the expense of our forests and biodiversity.

Singapore has lost 46% of her butterflies (Theng et al 2020), 22% of recorded plants (Kristensen et al 2020), and an overall loss of at least 28% of fish, bird and mammal species (Brook et al 2003). Since being colonised by the British in 1819, by 1990, more than 99% of our original forests have been lost (Corlett 1992). And even the remaining few areas of secondary forest are being lost to development and progress as we speak.

Read the rest of the Twitter thread here.

Needless to say, the loss of forests (albeit at a larger scale) contributes to climate change, while the localised effects are felt immediately quite noticeably – temperatures under forest canopy are lower than that in open space by 1.7˚C on average, up to a maximum of 4.1˚C cooler (De Frene et al 2019). Sure, we could (and should) push for more Environmental Impact Assessments before development starts, but that also has its issues. Rather than play the game on their rules, it’s time perhaps, to start questioning if we even need to play the game.

A future that is socially and environmentally just

I am quite well aware that at this point in time, any candidate questioning the need for economic growth and development would not get very far politically. After all, this is exactly what our education system and larger society conditioning was meant to achieve – to produce good workers for the economy so that growth can continue to be pursued.

– Spring, J. (2011) A New Paradigm for Teaching in (Ed. Rossatto) Teaching for Global Community: Overcoming Divide and Conquer Strategies of the Oppressor, p94.

But while we acknowledge the present political unfeasibility, it doesn’t mean that we should not discuss radical alternatives. What is the future that we, the people of the community, want to see and to build? Food sufficiency? Then why not have children learn more about growing food, and doing that in their school gardens? (Some schools have started these initiatives, and it supported by NParks) A caring community? Then we need to reduce incentives for competitive behaviour (humans are not inherently selfish and competitive, no matter what neoclassical economists and the political elite try and tell you).

At the end of the day, what is it that matters? I would think the answer should be a planet we can all live and thrive on. If the trend of temperatures exceeding 30˚C in Siberia when it should be closer to 0˚C continues, then this will not be achievable. ‘Progress’ caused and continues to contribute to climate change1; ‘progress’ for some will always be at the expense of others (which is how the political economic system of capitalism works). If we want social justice, equitable outcomes for all and not not just the few (be they Singaporean citizens or not), if we want climate and environmental justice, then we need a new system. One that doesn’t rely on more development, whether it’s in our country, or enacted in other places by our companies. Without social and environmental justice (which cannot and should not be seen as separate, really), we. have. no. future.

This ain’t the future I want. Cartoon from here.

1 There is no evidence of absolute decoupling between resource/energy use and greenhouse gas emissions, i.e. to reduce GHG emissions we will need to reduce resource/energy use (Haberl et al 2020). There is also little evidence of absolute decoupling between GDP and resource/energy use (Ward et al 2016), particularly when taking into account embodied resources, where material production or extraction takes place overseas and is externalised.