Humans of COP: Cuifen Pui

Humans of COP: A brief Q&A with people met at COP23.

Q: Please tell me about yourself.

A: Hello! My name is Cuifen. I have been an environmental scientist with DHI, a global environmental not-for-profit for the last 15 years. In my day job with DHI, I help leaders make better decisions that they can communicate with confidence by transforming knowledge grounded in good science into visuals and information that they can relate to and analyze. My first degree was in biology, and so when I first started out, I had the opportunity to conduct surveys in mangroves and other forests, as well as the marine waters. I worked a lot on environmental assessment and monitoring projects and more recently shifted into climate change and disaster risk projects.

Cuifen has a multifaceted involvement in the climate change scene.

A few years into my career, I decided to take a gap year to do Masters in Applied Environmental Science in Australia. I totally loved what I was learning and experiencing, and this helped me understand the why we do what we do at DHI. I signed up for various things I didn’t imagine I would get into. One of these was a 2-week Youth Encounter with Sustainability Course, which helped me connect the dots, re-learn what I thought I already knew, gained a lot of new perspectives and understanding. A huge part of this was the exposure to classmates from all around the world, realizing we are so similar and yet different, hearing their stories and being inspired by what other youths are doing.

When I was doing my Masters, I also came across a street of edible gardens, that totally took my breath away and helped me internalize a lot of what I was experiencing and learning. You know, it is the moment the lightning hits, and you kind of gain “enlightenment”. I started Googling about the edible gardens street and was inspired by what I saw. I started going to talks etc to gain new knowledge in a more conscious way, rather than just being a participant. I was still not ready to take any action, but I was really curious and ready to learn.

When I came back to Singapore, I continued my learnings by going to Green Drinks Singapore monthly talks and joining Nature Society (Singapore) on walks/learning opportunities. It helped me find a bit of what I valued in Australia here in Singapore, and also gain broader perspectives and understanding on who and what is in Singapore’s environmental landscape.

I had the opportunity to create my vision of edible garden with my neighbors. This led me to create Foodscape Collective, after learning that people in Singapore hold so many stories and knowledge of our foodscape. After much ground-up work, I felt very much in tune with what me, my neighbors, the people I met want.

I started wondering what the policy makers / global leaders negotiate for when they make decisions and agreements about our collective future. My interest was especially sparked when in 2015, I joined ASEAN Power Shift as a policy delegate (despite knowing nuts about policy) and doing a 1-month climate perception survey focusing on youths. In a few weeks, we had ~200 responses, many of them youths (the non-youths do want to have their say also!). Many of them were less than 15 years old, and a 10-year-old called me to say how she spent 45 minutes working on it because she really wanted her voice heard. I wanted to find my way to COP21 to hear what our Singapore leaders and global leaders say, and especially to tell our local leaders what the youths, especially the younger ones, want them to hear.

So, a couple of months before COP21, Lastrina who organized ASEAN Power Shift contacted me and said there is an opportunity to do so. We just need to start a network of climate change-focused youth leaders here in Singapore. As we discussed and Melissa came on board also, we started thinking of “Singapore Youth for Climate Action” as a name for this network. With the support of Mark of Avelife Foundation and various individuals, we made our plans to go.  Lastrina contacted the Minister; I got in touch with the negotiators. Just before we boarded the plane, we launched the SYCA FB page.

Cuifen is one of the founder of SYCA.

Q: What inspired you to be involved in the fight against climate change?

A: I think the sustainability course, as well as some coaching courses I took to build the courage to live life the way I want to, really made a difference. It has been a bit of a balancing act though – there are opportunities where I could speak up from a citizen / civil society/youth perspective, that I choose to give up given my role in the environmental sector. Must one’s passions remain separate from what we do at work so that we can clearly differentiate what a person says in the context of work/industry / civil society/citizen? These are questions I still ask.

Q: Could you highlight one of the projects you or your organization is involved right now?

A: This year is the Singapore Year of Climate Action, and we have been actively engaging various people in the Government Agencies on climate action-related initiatives. For SYCA, we are curating a second round of Learning and Learning Program.

We are also preparing a write-up of our COP22 experience, and hope to share that publicly on end Feb. At this point, SYCA team (7 of us) have our own initiatives that are inspired by what we learned through SYCA or other initiatives. Pamela has just started Tingkat Heroes and is collaborating with her university and secondary school, food stalls, retailers and civil-society organizations to bring about a huge change in use of disposables by ~10,000 students. Jeremy is looking to create Skillsfuture courses that the public could sign up for, to learn about various aspects of climate action in Singapore context. Lastrina is starting a reading club (need to learn more about this myself). 

For me, I am working on an “Environmental Day” in my neighborhood. Besides that, I am also talking to artists to see how we can convey climate stories in a way that people can really understand right away (still exploring).

Q: What is your typical day at COP? Are there any topics you are following in this COP? Can you highlight some similarity and/differences between COP23 and your previous cop?

A: I have attended COP21, COP22, and COP23. Each COP has been a hugely different experience for me.

COP21

I wanted to follow negotiations and was very frustrated when I couldn’t understand what they were discussing on, and especially so when they can “quarrel” over the same paragraph for an entire afternoon. I started going to side events and realized that a lot of what I do at the workplace is being showcased at COP21, just by other organizations. I was especially thankful that farmers were there (first COP that farmers got to represent themselves), indigenous people were there, tribal leaders were there…

I was especially thankful to Mel Low, fellow Singaporean from Energy Studies Institute, for helping me to understand what was discussed, and leading by example on what a youth actively following negotiations can achieve. I was especially happy that I helped my team and other Singaporeans to connect with and learn from our local negotiators. I was also thankful that I talked to random people in the bus etc, for many of these people are from places I may never have heard of or thought to connect (e.g. Ministers), and learned so much just by interacting with them, listening to their stories, and capturing their 1-min videos.

COP22

I was busy working on projects for my day job and wasn’t able to fully participate in the ongoings of COP22. There was so much I missed! I was really thankful to speak on behalf of UNEP-DHI on water projects that were carried out in Africa region. This was one of the few opportunities that helped me to try to understand how my work / personal interest can sometimes collide, and support one another. Because of this, I connected more with the Africa leaders

COP23

I was still a little unsure of what I wanted to focus on really. I decided on the first day to follow a series of APA discussions, as limited passes were available at the RINGOs daily meetings. RINGOs is a “home base” of researchers, scientists, educators. Although SYCA is about youth empowerment, we are also about inclusivity and following areas that are your personal strengths/passions. I felt that I wanted to give RINGOs a try as they fit better with my sense of work/personal identity. Turns out, although the other Observer organizations also have passed to the APA discussions, RINGOs was the only constituency that encouraged people with passes to give back by taking notes. My initial notes were not that great, they put it up on RINGOs website anyway. Other RINGOs members told me how useful the notes were, especially if they were not able to attend the session. This helped me to want to go to the discussions, take good notes, understand what is discussed, and share with others. I realized that although I still don’t know everything (and sometimes do go into the wrong rooms), I had come a long way from when I first started in COP21. The note-taking also sparked an interest in draft interventions on behalf of RINGOs, and in particular, to present at the APA closing meeting. The drafting process, which included reading and contributing to other interventions done on behalf of RINGOs worldwide, was one of my major highlights for COP23.

At all 3 COPs, we met with the Singapore negotiators and Minister. I’m still trying to learn how best to engage them (as we didn’t want them to meet us, only to have yet another coffee shop chat). I feel encouraged by the interactions we have, and also how Singapore has positioned herself to take climate action seriously from 2018 onwards.

Q: What are the key messages you would like to share with youths in general?

A:  Growing up and even up to my mid-20s, I had no clue on what I wanted to do with life. I was merely following the crowd. If my friends like steak at a certain restaurant, I would want to go there too. If there was a leather bag that a popular girl in school was carrying, I wanted an exact same too. This was quite ok for a while until it came to a point – I realized I was not living to the values I hold to be important, I felt my voice to be not important. So even though I had friends, I felt I didn’t have anyone to truly turn to. Taking climate action is one of the “what” I chose to do, after realising what I hold important to me. There is still a way to go. I may have started 4 community initiatives, but there are so many more things to learn, to be, to unlearn.

Everyone is on a personal journey, and where you are at right now is OK. Understand what you hold important, where you want to be, and know that there will be roadblocks ahead that you can and will overcome. Have the resources you need with you, and have good relationships with people you meet. No matter what, remember your health comes first! I realized this the hard way last year when my health really suffered. It is a huge challenge to live to your “responsibilities” and other commitments you may have. Take care of yourself, be a leading example of what it means to truly live a sustainable life starting with you and the steps you can take to move forward.

Content and Media Provided by Cuifen Pui

Edited and Arranged by Xiandi

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