Environmentalists in Singapore mobilise on May Day

Submitted by martin on 6 May, 2021 - 12:28 Author: Sara Lee

On May Day, SG Climate Rally, a youth-led environmentalist organisation, held an online public meeting entitled “Workers Rights = Climate Action”. The meeting commemorated Labour Day (1 May in Singapore) and marked the conclusion of SG Climate Rally’s petition for the rights of food couriers and ride-hailing app drivers.

The petition was started in response to the government’s new petrol tax hike, announced in its Budget as an environmentalist policy. Ironically, the same Budget allocated $870 million to Singapore Airlines, an aviation firm that is not only incredibly pollutive, but which has also lost $200 million every quarter since the pandemic hit last year.

The petrol tax hike caused some anger amongst couriers on motorbikes and ride-hailing app drivers. The tax rebates were only partial and limited to a year. SG Climate Rally’s petition demanded that the rich be taxed instead to fund generous subsidies for green vehicles. It argued in its preamble that climate change was caused by the rich, and that the working class shouldn’t pay for it.

There were other important demands too: that couriers and drivers be given a guaranteed income, that they not be made to pay for their own uniforms and equipment, that they be given a full rebate on the petrol tax hike, and that roads be made safer for pedestrians, couriers and drivers.

Important political lessons can be drawn from SG Climate Rally’s petition.

First, SG Climate Rally, in its petition, articulated “bread-and-butter” issues affecting couriers and drivers while still articulating the working class’s long-term interests in combatting climate change. As socialists, we are in favour of this because we do not think that the working class will be able to build socialism merely by fighting on the industrial or economic terrain. Engaging in broader political struggles like climate change, race and gender oppression - and not just economic struggles in the workplace - helps to bridge differences across industries and sectors, and helps to unite the working class as a class.

Second, the petition was not just against the petrol tax hike, but it was for certain concrete, positive demands. It did not merely say “no to the petrol tax hike” but it demanded green cars be subsidised by taxing the rich. As revolutionary socialists, we agree with this approach because we know that socialism will not be built merely by opposing this or that policy, or by opposing this or that government. Indeed, socialism will not be built by merely opposing capitalism. The only way we will stop climate change in its tracks, is by articulating positive politics. We are not only against capitalism, but we are for socialism. We are for democratic control by the working class. In every working-class struggle, it is our job to encourage the articulation of concrete, positive demands. This will enable the workers to see that they can do without the bourgeois ruling class – the state and the capitalists. It will enable the workers to gain confidence in their ability to rule. We believe that the working class can and should “make itself fit to rule.”

SG Climate Rally’s public event was a resounding success. Moments before the event began, the petition was delivered to five government agencies, with the signatures of 19 civil society organisations and 2063 individuals. About a hundred people watched the event on the livestream, while about 90 attended the meeting on Zoom. The fact that this event took place on Labour Day was significant in the Singapore context. Trade unions in Singapore are entirely co-opted by the National Trade Unions Congress, which has cosy corporatist ties with the repressive ruling People’s Action Party. For a group of environmentalists to be expressly reclaiming May Day for the independent working class in Singapore, was remarkable.

There were a number of guest speakers, including a food courier, Yi Hung, who is also a member of SG Climate Rally. Yi Hung spoke about the hyper-exploitative conditions of delivery work, which compels couriers to risk their lives and ride in extreme weather conditions in order to earn a living.

It was also remarkable that the event had a number of speakers on migrant worker rights, despite food couriers and ride-hailing app drivers being predominantly Singaporean. The links that were drawn were important. Nessa, an activist for migrant domestic worker rights, drew striking similarities between gig workers and migrant domestic workers, and demonstrated that both Singaporean and migrant workers are part of a single working class. A migrant worker, Ripon, who works at a shipyard, spoke about a recent spate of migrant worker deaths due to workers being transported in the backs of lorries. It is not just food couriers who die in fatal road accidents and who are killed by the insane rush to complete a number of jobs in a short span of time. It is not just food couriers whose safety is sacrificed for the profit of the CEOs and bosses.

Xiang Tian, a young environmentalist, gave rather shocking numbers on the amount of corporate tax that the likes of Shell and ExxonMobil pay – or rather, don’t pay - in Singapore. As the two-hour meeting went on, the class politics that were being articulated only got sharper. Everyone who spoke, contributed to its sharpening. Again, this is significant because of the context. Singapore is a country that does not have the presence of an organised left. The (metaphorical) banner of “workers’ climate action” is now being publicly raised in Singapore – a slogan that harkens back to the Green Bans, the Lucas Plan, and the Vestas wind turbine factory occupation.

It was also significant because the meeting was open and democratic. Open and public meetings are essential to democratic organising, but one rarely sees meetings of that style in Singapore. Of course, this is due in part to the fear of state repression and security concerns amongst people in civil society. But the lack of democratic practices like open meetings can also be attributed to some of the reasons we see a lack of democratic practices in, say, the UK student movement. Democratic structures and practices simply need to be built up and inherited over time amongst a fairly stable group of people. Where there are relatively new groupings or where there is significant movement into and out of different groups (fairly common in spaces dominated by university students or former students), there will not have been time for democratic practices to be cultivated. The goal is to build a single community of action that is capable of taking collective action on the basis of centralised, democratic decision-making.

The open and democratic way that SG Climate Rally did its meeting is a vital step forward in that regard. There were a number of guest speakers at the meeting, but the floor was open to anyone to speak, even if it was to express an opposing viewpoint. Indeed, that is the only way to persuade people of your politics – to allow them to express sincere disagreement and for you to be able to respond to them. If SG Climate Rally continues to promote its politics through debate and discussion, it will be able to win the battle of ideas. It will have a chance at winning other environmentalists and other environmentalist organisations – who aren’t as left-wing – over to its politics.

It is significant that the meeting was not tightly stage-managed. It was only moderated - meaning that people had to raise their hands, speakers had to keep to time, and everyone had an equal opportunity to speak. The lesson here is that if you get the democratic processes right, most other things will fall into place. One needn’t fear occasional silences or that people will say the ‘wrong’ things.

The meeting went incredibly smoothly and had a sense of being extremely well-organised. But it was obvious that the organisers were also prepared to sacrifice some of that ‘sleekness’ for a sense of democracy if they needed to. This was right. Activists shouldn’t see their role as pulling off slick, corporate-style events, where the content of what is spoken is agreed beforehand and the meeting itself is only a formality. It is OK for a political meeting to be rough around the edges – it shows that it is organised by actual human beings who care enough about the cause to do it on their own time. It shows people that this is a fight they can and should join. It shows that the meeting is an actually a democratic and collective space.

The fact that SG Climate Rally was able to pull off a livestreamed public event at short notice is important. The event on May 1 was largely attended by environmentalists, along with a handful of couriers and drivers. But, from Sheffield to Singapore, the experience in most places is that this is an industry where workers are generally capable of gathering and mobilising their forces rapidly. Struggles in this industry can often take you by surprise, because of how quickly they coalesce. If environmental and socialist activists want to have a chance at responding to the groundswells of working-class struggle in the future, then they must be able to make interventions in these struggles at short notice, organise events and open meetings, while doing so in a democratic way. This experience has proven that they are able to do that.

In terms of the nuts and bolts of organising, there are one or two things to be learned from the SG Climate Rally experience, such as how to set a deadline for a petition to be delivered to its addressees. SG Climate Rally chose May 1 as its deadline, in order to reclaim Labour Day from the corporatist, authoritarian National Trade Unions Congress. The date was significant but it was more than two months from when the petition went live. In that time, the public’s attention moved away from the petrol tax hike, and toward the death of a food courier who was killed by a drunk driver. News of this courier’s death naturally eclipsed the public outrage about the petrol tax, and now more than ever, couriers wanted to talk about health and safety. The lesson here is that, in doing a petition on a particular issue, one has to bear in mind the possibility that the issue might be eclipsed by another in a matter of weeks, and this is an argument in favour of operating on a shorter timeline.

There were a number of things that enabled SG Climate Rally to cope in these circumstances. In hindsight it was a good thing that SG Climate Rally had campaigned not only on the petrol tax hike but also on more general issues like pay and uniforms. It had even mentioned safer roads in its petition. No matter how quickly the conversation moved away from the petrol tax, the petition’s demands were always relevant. More importantly, SG Climate Rally’s activists were able to make the link between workplace heath and safety and climate change – the exploitation of natural resources, including human bodies and human labour, for profit. They were also able to make the argument that safe working conditions for couriers cannot be disaggregated from wider demands for better pay. The fact that the food courier who died was killed by a drunk driver showed that, no matter how safe the roads are, being on the road all day, every day carries inherent risk: risk for which workers should be paid.

Ultimately this was a petition that SG Climate Rally activists were able to defend politically because of their political education. And indeed, they did defend it, by going on the streets and talking to couriers and drivers about the petition, making links with them and inviting them to meetings. In a state where there aren’t any independent trade unions, how these environmentalists have begun to orientate toward the working class is significant. Their commitment to building an independent fighting labour movement that can fight and win on the issue of climate change is something we can take inspiration from.

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