Big turnout at Hong Lim Park for first Singapore Climate Rally

SINGAPORE - Air quality might have crept into the unhealthy zone in southern Singapore during some parts of Saturday afternoon (Sept 21), but that did not stop people from turning up at Hong Lim Park for Singapore's first climate rally.

Clad in red, they held up banners with signs such as "no planet B", "no beer on a dead planet", "respect your mother (Earth)" and "I stand for what I stand on", as they called on the Singapore Government and firms here to do more to reduce planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions.

Ms Lad Komal Bhupendra, 19, one of the rally organisers, said participants were urged to turn up in red to signal the gravity of the climate crisis. Red, she said, indicated an emergency.

And in a demonstration of just how much of an emergency climate change is, the participants staged a "die-in". One by one they fell, domino-style, laying on the grass in silence as they mourned the potential loss of human lives and biodiversity in a warming world.

Call for a better future

Even though Saturday's event was organised by young people in solidarity with the global youth climate movement kickstarted by 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, the first Singapore Climate Rally was attended not just by the young.

The young-at-heart and the four-legged also thronged the Speakers' Corner, and despite the heat, the crowd was buzzing as they cheered, listened to speeches, and wrote to their representatives in government.

IT consultant Rao Yarlagadda, 54, said he decided to attend the event to lend his support to the climate movement, pointing to Singapore's reliance on food imports to meet local demand.

Gardener Derek Lim, 50, said he turned up because it was time for Singaporeans to come together to push for a better future.

He said: "Even though Singapore is small, we have a role to play in this region. We are a big oil refiner and have a lot to do with fossil fuels. I am here to support the young people and what they want and (show) how all of us oldies can play a part in a better future for the younger generations."

Even though the event was open only to Singaporeans and permanent residents due to restrictions surrounding the use of Hong Lim Park, those who could not take part in the event stood outside the perimetre in a show of solidarity.

Ms Karen Sim, 40, who works for a non-government organisation, brought along her son Noah, six.

She said: "I am concerned about his future. We need to understand that climate change is already happening. You can be 60 and it will still affect you."

Children, said Ms Sim, do get it. "When I asked him what it means that the world is warming and the ice caps are melting, he says that there is going to be a lot more water. And when I ask him what happens if there is a lot of water, he knows the water goes into the sea. Asked again what that means, he says 'floods'."

The Singapore Climate Rally had gained traction on social media following a report in The Straits Times in August.

Savvy organisers had also reached out to the public through various channels, such as Instagram and messaging app Telegram.

The organisers said 2,000 people showed up. Nanyang Technological University undergraduate Shawn Ang, 21, said the large turnout showed that there is a collective climate consciousness in Singapore. 

He added: "Singapore talks a lot about emission intensity and about our mitigation efforts and about $100 billion going into our climate adaptation plans. But the $100 billion is not going to address the crisis. We are not stopping the rain, we are buying a $100 billion umbrella."

In August, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had highlighted Singapore's vulnerability to rising sea levels, saying more than $100 billion may be needed over 100 years to deal with the threat.

Another participant Sarah Lim, 23, said: "We've had years to do things about global warning, but we have been dragging our feet. And the window of opportunity is getting smaller."

Temasek Primary School pupil Oliver Chua Ray, 11, speaking at the Singapore Climate Rally on Sept 21, 2019. PHOTO: The Straits Times

"As a low-lying island nation, and one that imports 90 per cent of our food, we will be in trouble if tides continue to rise. No amount of reclamation and sea wall infrastructure improvement can save us," said the political science undergraduate from the National University of Singapore.

She hopes the Singapore economy can transition to one that is more reliant on renewable energy, and that the Republic can slash its emissions by 50 per cent by 2030, and net zero by 2050.

Under its 2030 Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) - the technical name for climate targets set by each country under the Paris Agreement - Singapore pledged to become greener economically and reduce the amount of greenhouse gases emitted to achieve each dollar of gross domestic product by 36 per cent from 2005 levels, come 2030.

It also pledged to stop any further increases to its greenhouse gas emissions by the same timeline.

Politicians, including Mr Desmond Lee, Minister for Social and Family Development, and Nee Soon GRC MP Louis Ng, were at the event.

Mr Lee told The Straits Times that he was there to show his support for Singaporeans who care about the climate, the future, and future generations.

"We want to work together, we want to hear their voices and look forward to Singaporeans - both here at the rally and not at the rally - giving their views, inputs and feelings to the National Climate Change Secretariat (NCCS), which is holding a public consultation," he said.

Mr Lee added: "This energy by Singaporeans to take positive action to care for our climate and future, to protect our biodiversity, is an energy we want to harness for positive action."

He urged Singaporeans to partner the government and non-government groups to make that happen.

Minister for Social and Family Development Desmond Lee with participants at the Singapore Climate Rally on Sept 21, 2019. PHOTO: The Straits Times

A uniquely Singaporean call to action

The Singapore Climate Rally is the first physical one in Singapore since the international youth climate movement began in August last year, although there have been other social-media climate campaigns here.

The global youth movement was kick-started when Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, now 16, went on the first solo climate strike last August, skipping school in a bid to pressure the Swedish government into taking more drastic climate action.

Since then, many young people have been inspired to do the same, missing classes on a Friday in protest against what they consider climate inaction.

The first #FridaysforFuture coordinated global school strike was held on March 15. Estimates by international climate organisation said more than one million young people took part.About three times the number took part in the most recent global school strike for climate on Friday (Sept 20).

Organiser Aidan Mock, 24, said while the Singapore Climate Rally was organised in solidarity with the global strikes, he emphasised that the event here was a uniquely Singapore one. For one, the event in Singapore was held on a Saturday.

Speaking to international media ahead of the global student protests, Mr Harjeet Singh, global lead on climate change for non-governmental organisation (NGO) ActionAid, said young people have infused fresh energy into the climate movement.

"NGOs usual work on the policy side. But the enthusiasm of young people has taken things to a very different scale, and pushed NGOs to go beyond speaking to the converted," he said.

This article was first published in The Straits Times. Permission required for reproduction.