Investing in the Future by Divesting from Fossil Fuels
story | Harrison Linder, Staff Editor
photo | Aidan Mock
Red background, and a single word “DIVEST” in all-caps and white font. You have probably seen stickers matching this description plastered on students’ laptops and water bottles around campus recently. These stickers were given out by Fossil Free Yale-NUS College (FFYNC) and Students Taking Action For NUS to Divest (STAND), campaigns that advocate for the National University of Singapore (NUS) endowment to divest from the fossil fuel industry.
Both FFYNC and STAND were inspired by Yale-NUS Divest, a campaign started in 2017 that did not survive after many of its key members graduated. The current campaigns are led by different groups of core members with slightly different agendas. Whereas Yale-NUS Divest focused primarily on lobbying the Yale-NUS administration, FFYNC and STAND also focus on spreading awareness for their cause.
FFYNC is currently one of the most visible social movements on the Yale-NUS campus. During meal times, FFYNC members are often in the dining halls discussing the divestment movement with students and faculty. They also solicit signatures for the joint FFYNC-STAND petition which calls on the NUS administration to fully divest from the fossil fuel industry by 2024.
FFYNC also engages the Yale-NUS community on social media through sharing testimonies from Yale-NUS students and faculty about their personal experiences involving the effects of climate change, as well as by sharing news articles and scientific reports that illustrate the morally reprehensible behavior that the fossil fuel industry has been accused of engaging in.
Beyond the visible advocacy on campus and online, according to a core member of FFYNC, Wong Cai Jie ’21, FFYNC has been in conversation with President of Yale-NUS College Tan Tai Yong regarding strategies for the divestment movement. Mr. Tan has put FFYNC in contact with NUS’ Chief Investment Officer, whom they hope to meet with at some point in the future. Additionally, FFYNC has been gathering signatures from student organizations for an open letter to be sent to the Yale-NUS Governing Board encouraging support for the divestment movement.
Meanwhile, according to a core member of STAND, Bertrand Seah, STAND has been engaging the NUS community through participating in NUS’ climate action roadshow last month, partnering with other NUS sustainability groups like Students Against Violation of the Earth (SAVE), and speaking with climate change experts and other sympathetic members of the NUS faculty and administration.
STAND plans to continue spreading their message in and outside of the NUS community. Specifically, they hope to release an article in a local newspaper covering the movement.
The divestment movement at Yale-NUS and NUS is the first of its kind in Singapore, but similar campaigns have been successfully waged in many Western countries, including the US, UK, and Australia. Organizations that have divested range from sovereign wealth funds and pension funds to university endowments and NGO’s. According to gofossilfree.org, a website that tracks the progress of divestment movements, over 7 trillion USD has been divested from the fossil fuel industry out of environmental concerns.
While FFYNC and STAND would love to add to that divestment figure, they acknowledge that the amount of money that NUS has invested is relatively small. According to the FFYNC Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ), less than 10 percent of NUS’ SGD 3.73 billion endowment is invested in the fossil fuel industry.
FFYNC and STAND realize that NUS’ divestment in itself will not significantly damage the fossil fuel industry, but they hope that it will help spark further indignation against the industry, especially in Singapore. Wong said, “I think that the divestment conversation is one that we should be having not just with our universities but also with other national institutions. Our investment signifies belief in the long-term profitability of something, and as a society we should question the long-term profitability or desirability of something that threatens our shared future.”
Beyond the moral argument, FFYNC claims that the fossil fuel industry is projected to be unprofitable by the year 2035, and that the NUS administration should adjust their portfolio sooner rather than later.
While these movements have proven successful in other contexts, divestment might be particularly challenging at NUS. NUS is a public university, and Singapore itself is closely tied to the fossil fuel industry. Singapore refined over 7 percent of global oil supply in 2017 and is also home to the two largest oil rig builders in the world, Keppel and SembCorp Marine. The divest movement may not just be seen as an affront to the fossil fuel industry, but one of Singapore’s key economic sectors as well.
While full or even partial divestment is definitely not certain, FFYNC and STAND feel that the success of the movement will not just be measured upon whether NUS divests, but also on the awareness it brings to the NUS community and beyond.
Seah said, “Divestment is certainly a tall order given that it is not common for the senior administration to be lobbied by the student body in this way. We certainly don’t expect that it can be achieved easily or quickly, but we are quietly optimistic given that we have both the moral and the financially pragmatic arguments on our side.”
He said that in the meantime, there are other smaller ways to help the movement succeed, such as getting students to think about tackling climate change on a more institutional level. “[We] students are ultimately an important constituency of the senior administration, and they should be accountable to us for the decisions they make.”
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