SINGAPORE — As the movement calling on universities to divest their endowments from fossil fuels spreads around the globe, proponents of divestment remain focused on similar goals but are resolved to use different methods to achieve them.
Earlier this month, students at Yale-NUS College launched Yale-NUS Divest, the first divestment campaign in Singapore. Like many other divestment campaigns, they called on their administrators to ensure that the school’s endowment is not exposed to fossil fuel related investment assets. However, those leading the campaign also stressed that their advocacy for divestment does not need to employ the confrontational tactics that have accompanied divestment efforts elsewhere, including New Haven.
“We are aware of what’s going on in other universities, and we are learning from a lot of these movements, but at the same time, we are not looking to simply replicate that model here,” said Yale-NUS Divest campaign co-founder Feroz Khan YNUS ’18. “We recognize the particularities of the Singaporean context, and it wouldn’t really make sense for our aims to blindly export the tactics of some of the international campaigns.”
According to Khan, planning for the campaign known as Yale-NUS Divest began earlier this spring with discussions between Khan and four fellow environmental studies majors hoping to get involved in campus activism on issues they cared about.
Khan had spent fall 2016 as a visiting student at Harvard University, where he recalls seeing the importance of issues based activism on college campuses through his own involvement in Divest Harvard, a campus group urging the school to divest from all holdings in the top 200 publicly traded fossil fuel companies.
“I spent my semester abroad at a time when Donald Trump just got elected, and it really drove home the idea for me that political participation is kind of like a muscle,” Khan said. “When people have more chances to organize around issues they are passionate about, that can have really strong effects not just on that issue, but also on creating a broader culture of student participation and action.”
Despite any challenges Yale-NUS Divest may face, Khan said that they have not considered adopting the kind of confrontational tactics that have become an increasingly common feature of divestment campaigns on American campuses. Since 2015, more than 50 students have been arrested while sitting in on and blockading parts of college campuses as part of their demands for fossil fuel divestment, including students affiliated with Fossil Free Yale and Divest Harvard.
“In terms of what works for our community, the confrontational approaches that have been employed at some of these institutions are escalation strategies, and escalation strategies require some reason to escalate,” Khan said. “We haven’t had any reasons to escalate yet, because we’re working with an administration that is very open and consultative. It wouldn’t make much sense for us to start sitting in or blockade something when the administration understands and sympathizes with us.”
In a statement to the News, a Yale-NUS spokesperson said that while the college “appreciates the frank feedback” that students running the campaign have shared with the administration, the complexity involved in managing the school’s endowment funds makes divesting its holdings in fossil fuel related assets “very challenging.” The statement also confirmed that the $260 million endowment of Yale-NUS, an autonomous college within the National University of Singapore, is managed by the National University of Singapore investments office.
“Yale-NUS shares the same investment advisors as NUS,” the spokesperson said. “This enables the college to achieve cost savings in investment management fees, hence maximizing our returns on our endowment funds and ensuring that the best financial yield is received by both organizations as a whole. However, the college’s endowment funds are kept separate from NUS’ endowment funds.”
In a separate statement, an NUS spokesperson said that its investments office works with external advisors to create a long-term diversified portfolio. While Yale and several of its public and private American peers annually provide an overview, NUS does not.
As an institutional investment manager with more than $100 million in qualifying assets, Yale is also legally required by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission to declare certain public stock holdings every quarter. A declaration filed by the University in February indicates that Yale has a direct investment worth about $50 million in Antero Resources, a company engaged in the development and acquisition of natural gas in the Appalachia Basin. No provision in Singapore law compels NUS to similarly disclose any of its holdings to the public.
Stating that the management of the school’s investment assets is an internal matter, an NUS spokesperson declined to provide information about the performance, asset allocation, spending restrictions, or exposure to fossil fuel related assets of any endowment funds managed by the school’s investments office.
Concerns about the freedom for community members to engage in political activism have been a consistent feature of the criticism over Yale’s decision to found a liberal arts college in collaboration with NUS and the Singaporean government. However, Khan said the campaign’s reticence to engage in confrontational behavior is their own strategic decision.
“[We are] aware of what the norms around political activity here are — I hesitate to call them constraints, because climate change is a universal concern and not a partisan issue here,” Khan said. “We haven’t had any negative contact with people suggesting we should be wary about what we’re doing or telling us not to get involved with this kind of activism.”
The Singaporean government plans to introduce a carbon tax on large direct emitters of greenhouse gases in 2019.