“What’s Climate Change Got to Do with Me?” – Tips for Environmental Action in the Malay/Muslim community

In February 2021, Singapore’s Parliament debated its first motion on addressing climate change. Filed by six Members of Parliament (MPs), the motion included several recommendations, including “regular reviews to increase the carbon tax, encouraging the setting up of more electric vehicle (EV) charging points in public, expanding climate education in schools and adding climate defence as a seventh pillar of total defence”1. At the end of the six-hour debate with various inputs from the People’s Action Party (PAP) and Workers’ Party (WP) MPs alike, the Parliament declared that:

“… climate change is a global emergency and a threat to mankind and calls on the Government, in partnership with the private sector, civil society and the people of Singapore, to deepen and accelerate efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change, and to embrace sustainability in the development of Singapore.” 2

With the exception of those with some interest in environmental issues or active in environmental circles, it seems to me that there are two sets of responses among Singaporeans. The first is indifference. The second is cynicism. In terms of the former, climate change is essentially just another news headline as Singaporeans have, thus far, become accustomed to the top-down technological advancements and policies that ‘fix’ the problems of the day. In other words, it is the government’s job to handle environmental challenges, such as flash floods and rising sea levels. For the most part, much of the government’s sustainable development policies over the years have been commendable. From the diversification of our water sources and greening of the urban landscape, to progressively more ambitious efforts in the periodical sustainability plans and the ‘30 by 30’ food security plan – all of which are concrete measures to mitigate and adapt to climate change, and other socio-environmental challenges associated with it.

The second response, cynicism, seems to emerge as a result of what is perceived as policies that provide little tangible benefits. Charging for plastic bags, thus far, seems to have limited effect, as takeaways and food deliveries especially during this pandemic have only increased the amount of single-use plastics. With regard to the recommendations mooted in February 2021, there are concerns that increases in the carbon tax would result in higher costs of living, and worse, causing small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and lower-income families to bear the brunt of these increased costs3. (In fact, the introduction of the carbon tax in 2018 had already caused some cynicism, with some opposition party members mentioning it during the 2020 election campaign as yet another example of high costs of living.) While MPs such as Louis Ng have acknowledged that it will be necessary to provide further support to these groups and cushion the impact on small businesses when the carbon tax is implemented, it remains to be seen how this would actually pan out4.

From my observations, responses from the Malay/Muslim community generally mirror these trends. On the one hand, there has, over time, been an increased interest in environmental issues, predominantly by millennials, and in particular, a greater understanding of environmental consciousness as being an innate part of Islam. Civil society groups such as FiTree have, since 2013, conducted environmental awareness campaigns targeted specifically to Singapore’s Muslim community. What is particularly noteworthy are their efforts during Ramadan, where they have collaborated with mosques to organise green iftars and promote their Wudhu’ with Less Water campaign. In addition, they have also organised regular nature walks as a way of increasing awareness and appreciation of the environment. Such strides are a far cry from the late 2000s when I was advocating for the need for greater Muslim environmental action5. With the exception of some interest from Muslim societies in tertiary institutions and Islamic environmentalists overseas, the response from Singapore Muslims was generally lukewarm, ranging from, “Oh, this is very new age” to “The community has other more pressing issues to think about”.

Herein lies the problem as to why indifference and cynicism remains – urban societies have not fully comprehended the links between environmental degradation, economics and societal well-being, and still deem climate change as a middle to upper class problem. Unless you are a farmer or a fisherman depending directly on the environment for your livelihood, climate change seems irrelevant, and only felt on a hot, humid day. Unless you live next to a polluted stream that is your only source of clean water, reducing plastic waste seems far off, as far as your 15th floor rubbish chute is to the garbage bin on the ground floor of your HDB block. Environmentalism in the 21st century is no longer simply about conservation and corporate social responsibility, it is about social justice and collective responsibility6.

In this regard, behavioural change activities are fundamental, but not enough. Rather than simply thinking about how we can all do our own part to protect the environment, it would be more beneficial to think about how we can collectively grow and thrive in an increasingly volatile environment. This reframing through a community lens, not only hits at the heart of charity and assistance to fellow Muslim brothers and sisters, but is also an ability to explore community-led systemic change. In particular, there is a need to think more creatively about how we can better streamline environmental sustainability into wider development needs of Muslim communities, be it locally or internationally. Here, I highlight three aspects that Malay/Muslim Singaporeans should reflect on for immediate action.

As I have discussed elsewhere, the growth of faith-based environmental action is gaining traction7. In the words of former executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), Christiana Figueres, in 2014:

“It is time for faith groups and religious institutions to find their voice and set their moral compass on one of the great humanitarian issues of our time. Overcoming poverty, caring for the sick and the infirm, feeding the hungry and a whole range of other faith-based concerns will only get harder in a climate challenged world.” 8

Muslim/Islamic groups and institutions therefore have a massive opportunity to contribute in this regard. But it requires innovative and holistic solutions to address multiple challenges. For instance, we often come across fund raising campaigns to establish new mosques or expand existing ones. Indeed, it is said that contributing to such initiatives is a form of sadaqah jariyah (or on-going charity). That said, could we not further enhance the environmental benefits of such sadaqah jariyah? How many of these mosques have incorporated energy and water saving systems into their building plans? Are Muslim communities planning to retrofit their existing mosques with these systems? It’s 2021, so green mosques should not simply be pilot projects, they should be a prerequisite in every mosque blueprint. The incorporation of energy and water-saving systems do not only help to mitigate climate change and minimise costs, it is in itself a testament to the multiple Quranic verses on preventing wastage9.

Another area to explore is the productive use of wakaf funds (or other forms of alms) for food security initiatives, namely urban farming10. While there is no national data on the extent of food insecurity in Singapore, there are other indicative reports11. According to the United Nations’ 2019 State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World report, about 4.14 percent of Singaporeans faced moderate to severe food insecurity between 2016 and 2018. In a local study by the Lien Centre for Social Innovation at the Singapore Management University that surveyed 236 Singaporeans in four low-income neighbourhoods, it noted that nearly 1 in 5 of these respondents experienced severe food insecurity in 2018. Qualitatively, those working on the ground are well aware of the realities of families struggling to afford basic necessities, and often not getting nutritious and healthy meals.

While food drives are periodically organised by social welfare groups to provide basic food supplies to low-income families, these supplies are often limited to dry goods. What is often missing from their diets are vital yet perishable items such as fresh fruits and vegetables. Introducing sustainable urban farming schemes would be able to fill this void. Moreover, in addition to being a source of free to low-cost farm to table produce, a comprehensive production system would allow members of the community to be trained to gain skills in urban farming and basic business skills. Such an initiative, which has been tried and tested regionally12 and internationally13, would also complement existing policies to promote urban farming in Singapore, and thus develop cohorts of Singaporeans skilled to fill in such jobs where necessary. In this regard, addressing environmental challenges isn’t simply about protecting the environment; it’s about improving our resilience to climate and economic shocks and creating livelihood opportunities for communities in need.

Through developing communities of urban farmers, there is also much that can be learnt and shared about our cultural links to the environment. Notably, there is much to be said about how biodiverse edible plants are, and the extensive range of indigenous foods in the Malay Archipelago. Similar to language, food gives us insight to our cultures. And a disconnect from the land, potentially means a disconnect from culture. How many of us urban Malay/Muslims, for instance, know what jantung pisang, buah kedondong or daun kelor are, let alone have consumed them? Probably not many, since all we often see in the supermarkets are bananas, apples and kailan.

The loss of indigenous crops is a real and global phenomenon14. Yet, it also holds the key to addressing food insecurity, and providing natural nutritional boosts to our modern diets. Some initiatives have sought to address this, such as Javara Indonesia, which strives to preserve Indonesia’s food biodiversity through supporting indigenous farmers and food artisans. We urbanites can do so much more in this regard, whether it be creating awareness and growing traditional foods on our own or supporting our regional saudara serumpun (or cognates) in market development. Such efforts in preserving food heritage would go a much longer way than simply reacting to instances of ‘disrespect’ or cultural appropriation of Malay foods on social media.

This push to save forgotten indigenous foods, however, begs the questions: Is there a market for these old foods? Why would people want to eat kampung vegetables? Indeed, some of these vegetables may take some getting used to for the urban palates. But therein lies opportunities for the wider Muslim business community.

Creating a demand for indigenous foods or healthier food products requires a collective conscious effort from all of us. Branding will need to be on point. Sleek, modern with a strong social or environmental message. Moreover, there is no doubt that celebrities and social media influencers can play a significant role here in creating a movement advocating and supporting home-based businesses (HBBs) that sell healthy and environmentally-friendly products that are sustainably and ethically sourced and packaged.

We are what we eat. And we eat what we produce. With the growth of HBBs, it is important for us as a community to think about what we are selling to one another, especially given the high incidence of preventable medical conditions, such as diabetes and obesity, in the community15. Are we able to move beyond Nutella tarts and choose items without refined sugar? Can we as consumers be offered a wider range of products with higher nutritional value and greater proportions of vegetables? Did you know that there is a market for vegan nasi rawon and vegan nasi ambeng? This is not to suggest that HBBs selling the conventional array of high-sugar, high-fat and meat-laden food items should be shunned, but rather it is important to reflect on whether the Malay/Muslim community is given a sufficiently diverse range of options for consumption. It is understandable that many people increasingly depend on HBBs as a source of income, especially in these turbulent times. That said, it is equally important to understand the long-term vision that we wish to see for ourselves as a community.

Our community may not understand much about climate change, but our community does have some of the solutions to address the real-life effects of climate change. The key here is not to bog society down further with rhetoric about the effects of climate change and environmental degradation, but rather to refocus the attention on how the environment provides us with opportunities to create positive change within the Malay/Muslim community. ⬛

1 Ong, J. 6 MPs file Singapore’s first parliamentary motion on climate change. The Straits Times. 2021, January 29. Retrieved from: https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/politics/mps-filesingapores-first-parliamentary-motion-on-climate-change
2 Kurohi, R. Singapore Parliament declares climate change a global emergency. The Straits Times. 2021, February 1. Retrieved from: https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/politics/singapore-parliament-declares-climate-change-a-global-emergency
3 CNA. PAP MPs file first parliamentary motion on climate change and its impact on Singapore. 2021, January 29. Retrieved from: https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/pap-mps-file-first-parliamentary-motion-on-climate-change-14070086
4 Robert, C. In pushing for climate policy, Louis Ng recognises need for trade-offs and to cushion impact on businesses. 2021, February 4. Retrieved from: https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/climate-change-motion-parliament-impact-business-louis-ng-14102662
5 See: Project ME: Muslims & the Environment. Available at: https://thegreenbush.wordpress.com/project-muslims-and-the-environment/
6 Borunda, A. The origins of environmental justice—and why it’s finally getting the attention it deserves. National Geographic. 2021, February 25. Retrieved from: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/environmental-justice-origins-why-finally-getting-the-attention-it-deserves
7 See: Breaking Silos Collective. Breaking Silos with YSEALI | EP 7: Faith, Nature and Environmental Justice. (YouTube). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tlJgfWSKaFg
8 Figueres, C. Faith leaders need to find their voice on climate change. The Guardian. 2014, May 7. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/may/07/faith-leaders-voice-climate-change
9 See: Abdelhamid, A. Islamic Principles on Waste Minimization. EcoMENA. 2018, December 31. Available at: https://www.ecomena.org/waste minimization-islam/
10 See: Karni, A. S. Masjid Sebagai Lokomotif Wakaf Produktif (in Bahasa Indonesia). Majelis Ulama Indonesia. 2021, February 18. Available at: https://mui.or.id/pojok-mui/29707/masjid-sebagai-lokomotif-wakaf-produktif/
11 See: Tong, G. C., Yip, C. and Tiah, C. Why in a cheap food paradise, some Singaporeans are still going hungry. CNA. 2020, February 16. Available at: https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/cnainsider/food-insecurity-singapore-hunger-poverty-12438646
12 See: Urban Hijau. Urban Sustainability Centre. Available at: https://www.uhijau.org/
13 See: Vida Raiz. Our Vision. Available at: http://www.vidaraiz.com/our-vision
14 Jha, P. Are forgotten crops the future of food? BBC. 2018, August 22. Retrieved from: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20180821-are-forgotten-crops-the-future-of-food
15 Khalik, S. Malay population the most unhealthy group in Singapore. The Straits Times. 2014, December 21. Retrieved from: https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/health/malay-population-the-most-unhealthy-group-in-singapore


Sofiah Jamil is the co-founder of Hornbills: Concepts and Communications, a boutique public relations and research consultancy. With more than 14 years’ experience as a political analyst, she has turned to entrepreneurship to create greater impact in human and sustainable development matters.

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