The Climate Crisis and the Fight Against Inequality
The top twenty cities that are most vulnerable to rising sea levels are all in Asia. Most threatened on this list are places like Dhaka in Bangladesh, Jakarta in Indonesia, and Manila in the Philippines. These cities are most threatened by rising sea levels not merely because of the fact that they have large numbers of people living in low-lying areas, but also because these risks are exacerbated by soaring levels of inequality and rampant poverty. The climate crisis, like all crises, will lay bare the stark inequalities of a given society. Unless we make a swift and radical change to our socio-economic system, the most vulnerable are set to be sacrificed in record numbers.
Land projected to be below annual flood level in 2050 (Climate Central)
The Singapore economy depends upon hundreds of thousands of workers from these cities that will be affected by rising sea levels. They are our migrant construction workers, our domestic helpers, and many of our nurses. While they carry out thankless work for meagre wages in one of the most expensive cities in the world, their families back home stand on the frontlines of the climate crisis.
In coming to Singapore, many of our migrant workers have left their children behind with their families and extended families to look after. These workers have moved to Singapore not out of any desire for a change of scene, but out of economic necessity. It is with great sacrifice that they have left their countries to work in ours. These sacrifices will only become more acute with the impending intensity of the climate crisis.
If recent crises are anything to go by, prospects for these workers look grim. We are still in the midst of a pandemic which has seen hundreds of thousands of migrant workers confined to their dormitories and placed in a lockdown that has just passed its two-year mark. As the BBC recently noted, this is one of the longest lockdowns faced by any population anywhere in the world. Meanwhile, Singaporeans are travelling the globe and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has proclaimed that the city-state is nearing “the finish line” of the pandemic.
There are two Singapores: one for citizens and “expatriates”, and another for migrant workers. This is nothing new but has only become more explicit during the pandemic. One might think that during a crisis, when these inequalities become impossible to ignore, people would speak out in overwhelming numbers against these injustices. One would hope that out of the crisis, a new society would emerge. A society in which a greater emphasis is placed on care and basic humanity, rather than economic growth at the direct expense of our most vulnerable workers. As far as the most vulnerable sections of our population are concerned, this has not happened.
We cannot talk about the climate crisis without talking about inequality. When we speak about climate refugees, for instance, these are not well-off people who will suddenly find themselves in precarious conditions. For the most part, these are people who are already in poverty, without safety nets and adequate social protections. These are people who come from communities where it is common to travel across oceans in order to find employment just to keep themselves and their families afloat. Many of Singapore’s migrant workers come from these communities.
When Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced “a new phase” with the easing of COVID-19 restrictions in late March 2022, he said that during this crisis “[we] kept faith and supported one another.” He concluded that this “solidarity remains crucial as we tackle fresh challenges ahead.” In order to tackle the climate crisis, this support, care and solidarity must extend to our most vulnerable workers, who are overwhelmingly non-Singaporeans. This cannot come through empty gestures like claps and smiles, but only through a direct confrontation with the structural issues that made them so vulnerable in the first place.
 Sunil Amrith, Unruly Waters: How Mountain Rivers and Monsoons Have Shaped South Asia’s History (Penguin UK, 2018).
 Nick Marsh, “Singapore Migrant Workers Are Still Living in Covid Lockdown,” BBC News, 24 September 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-58580337.
 “A decisive move towards living with Covid-19: PM Lee’s full speech,” The Straits Times, 24 March 2022, https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/politics/a-decisive-move-towards-living-with-covid-19-pm-lees-full-speech.
 Kirsten Han, “Singapore’s New Covid-19 Cases Reveal the Country’s Two Very Different Realities,” Washington Post, 16 April 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/04/16/singapores-new-covid-19-cases-reveal-countrys-two-very-different-realities/.