Tan Heng Yeng (she/her) works on Community & Access and Youth Engagement at National Gallery Singapore and is an organiser with SG Climate Rally. She graduated from Yale-NUS College in 2018 as a Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) major.
Aleithia: Hi Heng Yeng, thank you so much for agreeing to be our first YNPACt interviewee! To get us started, can you share about your involvement in non-profit organisations/groups?
Heng Yeng: Of course! Since graduation in July 2018, I’ve been working at National Gallery Singapore, a non-profit public arts institution. As part of the Community & Access and Youth Engagement team, I work primarily with underserved and underrepresented communities through policy-making, partnerships, and programming. Accessibility at the museum means making sure that the Gallery’s infrastructure, customer service, exhibitions, and programming are inclusive to different kinds of visitors with diverse needs. This includes disabled and neurodivergent communities, migrant workers, low-income families, and the elderly. We work closely with different social service organisations and non-profit stakeholders to do so.
I hold a secondary portfolio in youth engagement: my team and I developed the Gallery’s youth collective programme, Kolektif. We mentor youth volunteers at the Gallery to stage a museum takeover during our annual Light to Night Festival, empowering young people to create the sort of meaningful and relevant museum experiences they want to experience themselves.
Outside of my day job, I’m also involved with SG Climate Rally (SGCR), a youth climate justice movement in Singapore. We first came together to organise Singapore’s first ever physical climate rally at Hong Lim Park in September 2019. Since then, we’ve been working to generate political awareness around the climate crisis and push for a just transition from an extractive to a regenerative economy. Most recently, we released a petition against the petrol tax hike, which will disproportionately affect delivery workers, gig workers and food delivery riders. These workers did not cause the climate crisis we’re in today, and should not have to shoulder the burden of transitioning into a more regenerative and renewable economy.
We’ve also been trying to foster a greater sense of climate justice solidarity within the region, especially recognising Singapore’s position as a finance hub in Asia, where we benefit from a lot of the wealth inequality of the extractivist economy.
Aleithia: Your work with the National Gallery and SGCR both touch on issues we spent a lot of time talking about in school. How have you found the experience of now working on these issues outside of school with people from different backgrounds?
Heng Yeng: There’s so much here to talk about! My first thought would be about the accessibility of language and concepts. It was definitely a challenge to discover, or rediscover, a different set of vocabularies to communicate with people who don’t use the same vocabulary we used, or were taught to use, in Yale-NUS.
There are key values and principles that are important to me in any sort of non-profit or organising work that I do, such as taking an intersectional approach to any sort of critical analysis and action. These are big concepts and ideologies that I was used to talking about with an audience that was likewise familiar with them. But outside of this elite academic space, these are concepts that people may not have learnt about in the way that I did (from academic papers and classes), even if they have experienced these injustices themselves.
I had to unlearn the jargon I was used to and learn how to code-switch to actually be effective. This was an exercise that led me to be more intellectually rigorous as I had to communicate what I believe in many different ways. I also needed to break out of defaulting to “lazy” option of throwing around buzzwords without constantly interrogating what they mean and how I personally understand and practice them. This process concretised my realisation that I’m not doing activism well if I can’t explain what I’m doing to a six-year-old child or to a non-native English speaker.
I’m not doing activism well if I can’t explain what I’m doing to a six-year-old child or to a non-native English speaker.
In SGCR, we’re mindful of how the climate action space in Singapore tends to be populated by university students and young graduates who may share the same vocabulary around neoliberal extractive capitalism, climate justice, degrowth and regenerative economies. But there’s a growing awareness about how communicating solely with this code of more academic English is disabling and inaccessible. Now, with a lot of the SGCR content that we produce, we put out Plain English versions. We also attach a glossary upfront which defines “big” words like “neoliberalism” or “degrowth”. Having worked on some Plain English content myself, I’ve found that having to break these ideas down into Plain English has been a wonderful exercise of growth.
Another area of post-graduation learning was making sense of the new and different spaces I was trying to enact change in, in order to develop new theories of change that are contextualised to each space. Campus activism in Yale-NUS felt more clear-cut, as we were operating in a closed circuit with a student body that shared many similarities in academic understanding and political context, and a community that was so small that everyone knew nearly everyone else. In hindsight, change-making was relatively straightforward in this Yale-NUS compared to the spaces I’m now in (although it certainly didn’t feel that way back then).
Trying to take my learnings from campus activism into the outside world then required a lot of calibration and unlearning. Strategies that worked in calling for improved mental health and survivor support - issues I worked on in Yale-NUS, which was a small tertiary institution space - don’t map neatly onto calling on the Singaporean government to embark on more ambitious climate action, or onto corporate spaces where I am now an employee and not a student. I went through a lot of learning, trial and error, and conversations with friends, and hearing from the oral histories of those who have come before us, for me to begin figuring out new theories of change that make sense to the different spaces I am now active in.
Sylvia: Can you tell us more about SGCR, how it started and what the process was like?
Heng Yeng: SGCR started back in 2019, when one member attended a public consultation about environmental issues . The attendees were very frustrated that nothing meaningful had come out of the consultation, and someone raised the question, “Why haven’t we done a climate strike here in Singapore?” This question came in response to the wave of global youth climate strikes worldwide, inspired by Greta Thunberg and Fridays for Future. That inspired people to come together organically to be like, “Hey, we should really make this happen!” It all happened very, very quickly. We had our first meeting in June, and the inaugural Climate Rally took place in September.
In hindsight, it was all a bit ridiculous that the team managed to pull this off from scratch in just 3 months. As full-time students and workers, we were definitely overworked and not sleeping enough. But there was so much excitement to make Singapore’s first ever climate rally happen. In fact, we intended for this to be the first and last rally, as we felt that doing an annual event was not a sufficient response to the urgency of the current state of ecological and climate collapse.
After the Rally, we‘ve focused on developing a meaningful action space for us to take within the larger climate and civil society ecosystem in Singapore. To be honest, COVID-19 threw a spanner in the works because so much of this unpaid work we’re doing thrives on community, and it’s really hard to build community in digital spaces. So much of the power of the 2019 Climate Rally came from the magic of having all these physical bodies in the same space, and feeling connected to a community of climate-concerned Singaporeans. It was really powerful for so many of us to not feel so alone, and to viscerally sense the excitement and potential of collective action.
So we’ve been thinking hard about new strategies for organising meaningfully and effectively in this more digital context. We’ve been working on a number of different initiatives and projects, such as the Greenwatch campaign for the 2020 General Election, where we engaged with political parties to build their green platforms and rallied citizens to talk to their MPs about pushing for more ambitious climate reforms, amongst others. Another digital campaign that we undertook last year that I want to highlight is the Asia Climate Rally, which brought together youth climate activists from all over Asia for a collective day of physical and digital action, a first for regional solidarity.
Sylvia: Within SGCR, how do you make decisions about roles and responsibilities? How has it been working with volunteers and finding committed people to join the cause?
Heng Yeng: We are definitely still learning! We have been testing different models of how to make the movement work. We’re all facing the challenges of trying to survive under capitalism, much less thrive. A structured job under the current economy takes so much out of our lives (by intentional design) that it is difficult to sustain the time and energy to collectively organise with other people to overturn existing power structures.
We started off with a very decentralised and anti-hierarchical model, with no clear leadership. It worked in the few months leading up to the Rally, when we were running, unsustainably, on a lot of excitement and passion. It was also summer break for university students, so many of the student volunteers were freer to work on the Rally.
Post-rally, we found it harder to sustain the momentum, and were transitioning towards mid- and longer-term goals rather than the short-term goal of pulling off an event. We also had many questions around movement structure, strategy, and direction, as we all had varying theories of change on how to achieve a just transition for Singapore.
Now, we’re trying out a model that has a clearer leadership structure, with defined roles and responsibilities for each member. In this experimental model, there is centralisation of power, but we are still keeping the movement democratic and anti-hierarchical. There are different practical ways of building that into meetings, be it in terms of how we introduce roles or facilitate discussions. So that’s what we’re striving for now.
As for working with volunteers, all of us involved with SGCR are “volunteers”, since this is all unpaid labour we’re doing on top of school and paid work. So, we have learnt to be extra careful to protect people’s time and energy, and ensure that no one burns out, which is something that organisations who have paid workers often overlook.. We do this as we strive to keep the work as sustainable and actively regenerative as possible.
One concrete way we keep the movement sustainable and regenerative is by laying out clear group agreements, which all group members have co-created, about what accountability looks like within “Working Groups” (e.g. committing to replying messages within 2 working days). These group agreements take into account volunteers’ different working capacities (e.g. someone might be able to give 3 hours a week and while another can give 8 hours a week) so that group expectations are inclusive to different bandwidths and working styles. We also emphasise the need for flexibility as long as we are also accountable to each other (e.g. someone may be going through a busy period writing their senior year thesis and may need to step back from active organising for the next 4 months, and can do so with accountability by informing their teammates in advance and doing a proper handover).
Another important pillar in sustaining this volunteer-run movement is building a regenerative movement culture. This work that we’re doing needs to feel nourishing. As volunteers, we need to feel like it’s giving us energy and purpose rather than burning us out. It needs to help us thrive along with all the other things we’re doing in our lives, rather than leaving us exhausted.
There’s a lot more to building a regenerative culture, but one very simple way we practise this is to host regular Regenerative Sessions where SGCR members come together in the spirit of community and connection, outside of working matters. For example, I recently hosted a "Stitch & Bitch" regenerative session for SGCR members where we came together to picnic on the beach at East Coast Park and craft with embroidery and crochet, connecting with the natural world and each other.
Something that I believe very firmly about voluntary work (and this is a fundamental principle that informs my work with Kolektif at the Gallery as well) is that there are 2 main things that keep volunteers coming back to offer their time and energy in unpaid ways: First, is that the work creates a deep sense of purpose and meaning for volunteers. Second, and crucially, is the sense of community that can be engendered. Feeling connected to other people, feeling a sense of belonging, is a very innate human need that organising and activism work can fulfill in wonderful ways.
Aleithia: It sounds like you're also creating a space for younger Singaporeans to envision a different world and ways of organising. Being someone who is doing these things with no precedent - joining Yale-NUS, starting in a new role at the Gallery, and then SGCR - where do you go for sustenance, guidance or resources?
Heng Yeng: I think a lot of my sustenance comes from my peers. I’m slowly recognising that this can be more than enough, and am moving beyond the expectation that mentorship and guidance needs to come from those older than me, because I genuinely believe that my friends are very, very wise and wonderful and thoughtful humans, and I’ve learnt so much from them continuously. Age, or having an older person to look up to, just matters in terms of showing that there is a possibility of continuing to be this amazing person in the future. But the ideas and values I hold dear already exist within my peer community.
I also wanted to respond to your observation about building a community. A big part of what SGCR tries to do is to build and model the regenerative culture we want to see in a future world. The optimistic view is that if we model this behaviour and our members adopt it, there will be ripple effects where people carry these values and practices into other communities and social circles.
The more cynical take is that the world is ending and we will not turn it around in time. So my belief in taking climate action and building a regenerative culture within SGCR is that when the world ends, we will have tried our best, and at least in our little community and those adjacent to ours, things will be better.
Sylvia: How do you deal with that kind of cynicism? A lot of people, myself included, go through phases where we feel really convicted and passionate about the work we’re doing, but also phases of feeling paralysed, like nothing matters?
Heng Yeng: Actually … I’m always struggling to push back against the belief that this work is futile, and to keep believing in the work we’re doing when change feels so heartbreakingly incremental. I think the fight against despair is ever ongoing for me, and I’m actually so deeply pessimistic about the possibility of a better world. But I keep organising and getting involved perhaps exactly because of this profound existential anxiety I feel. An idea I hold very core to my personal ideology is [Antonio] Gramsci’s “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.”
Around the same time the 2018 IPCC report told us that we only have 12 years to turn things around, I went through a really bad bout of eco-anxiety and climate-induced depression . During those 3 months, I was truly in a pit. I’d wake up in the middle of the night and just start crying because I felt so much despair about the state of the world. This was 3 months before I started working on the Climate Rally.
I don’t think my opinion about the viability of a liveable future has changed. In fact, the more I get involved in climate action and learn about climate science, the more I see that we are well and truly screwed. Pessimism of the intellect. To see the world critically, for me, has been to learn how deeply entrenched the systems of oppression that have created what is wrong with our world today are. Most days, this feels insurmountable. Then what?
My simple answer to preserving optimism of the will is: community.
My simple answer to preserving optimism of the will is: community. Paradoxically, working on SGCR has also given me more hope. It was very empowering for me to get involved in collective action. I see how that can be a cliche: get involved in collective action to combat eco-anxiety, but that’s really what it has been for me. I guess it has become such a cliche because it is also the truth. I don’t feel like I’m alone, or like I’m losing it by myself.
Even as I continue to believe that the world is going to end, what I hold on to is that I can make things better for this community that I believe in. And this community of people who are fighting for survival, who are daily trying to do their best, despite everything in their way, to avert crisis and further injustice - they inspire me daily with their creativity, courage, and spirit.
When I see friends get involved in coastal clean-ups for the first time and then go back weekend after weekend, when I see friends go out and talk to delivery riders to build meaningful solidarity between the climate movement and workers, when I see friends sleep 3 hours every night for a month to organise their fellow employees to demand their company to take ethical action against dirty fossil fuel projects, when I see friends organise as climate activists to provide COVID-19 and disaster relief to marginalised communities, when I see that I am now part of these many overlapping communities that deeply care about a more just and liveable future, these instances keep this little flickering flame of hope burning in me, against all odds.
It’s difficult to explain; I know I might be contradicting myself here but I think this difficult ongoing wrangling of this deep despair, wrought by the towering exploitative systems that lord over us, and a careful hopefulness engendered by the resilience and innovation of communities that care, is very resonant with other climate-concerned folks.
Aleithia: To end off, what’s a resource or experience that has shaped your motivations or approach to social impact work?
Heng Yeng: Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine. It was a really transformative book for me which fundamentally shifted the way I understand the world. It is an expose on how neoliberalism is the fundamental ideology of the times we live in now. Klein lays out how that came to be: how Milton Friedman, father of neoliberalism, and the Chicago school of economics messed around in Latin America to finetune their ideology, and how the CIA helped to topple democratically-elected socialist leaders in favour of neoliberal puppets to run experiments on how a country's economy could be entirely privatised and deregulated.
Aleithia: Can you tell us more about why The Shock Doctrine was so personally transformative for you?
Heng Yeng: I first read it while I was learning about neoliberalism and the human rights regime on a US study abroad programme in Chile, which also features a major case study in her book.
What was really powerful about this book for me was also the parallel she draws between the literal physical shocks of torture techniques used on POWs and dissidents, and the figurative shocks of how neoliberal economics was introduced to this Latin American countries. She writes about what torture does to your physical body, and also what it can do to the psyche of a nation, fundamentally altering the fabric of society.
During the programme, I stayed with a wonderful host family who were very vocally against neoliberalism and US-imperialism. I have a very vivid memory from a few weeks into the programme, when my host family hosted a welcome home party for a close friend who had been exiled during Augusto Pinochet’s regime because of their activism and resistance. This was the friend’s first time being back in Chile after decades. I watched as my host family and their friends toasted all their comrades who had been “disappeared” by the regime, tears in their eyes. A half-hour before, I had just been in my room reading about these very same tortured and “disappeared” dissidents in The Shock Doctrine. It was an incredibly heartbreaking and sobering moment for this sheltered college kid used to reading about violence and oppression through the rarefied lens of academic papers.
The Shock Doctrine is personally deeply significant to me as it was that first reading that really politicised my understanding of the world and the economy, and the interconnections of colonialism and capitalist violence.
More information about SG Climate Rally can be found on their website and Instagram account (@sgclimaterally). Find out more about National Gallery Singapore’s Community & Access work and about the youth collective programme, Kolektif.