At just 22 years old, Terese Teoh has made her mark on the local and global environmental landscape. 

In addition to serving as the President of Singapore Youth for Climate Action (SYCA), she was also the youngest candidate honoured with the 10 for Zero Award, presented to 10 youth advocates for their unwavering dedication to forging a future of zero waste and carbon emissions. 

But Terese’s achievements extend beyond the national stage. Last year, she was among a select group of seven Singaporean youths who attended the United Nations (UN) COP27 climate conference in Egypt, where world leaders converge to address pressing climate issues.  

Terese speaking at the COP27, the UN Climate Change Conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt last November. Image Source: Terese Teoh

Yet, environmental activism was not always her path of choice. 

Like many young Singaporeans, she aspired to become a doctor from the tender age of nine. So when she eventually chose to pursue environmental and political science at Nanyang Technological University, her parents were taken aback.  

Recounting her experience in secondary school, she said, “How or why is it that we learn in the classroom that excessive use of plastics is bad, but when I go down to the canteen, I’m just socialised into using it?” 

Driven by this internal conflict, she initiated a plan to introduce an eco-digester to her secondary school to reduce food waste. However, the demands of her O-levels forced her to put the project on hold.  

“I was dissatisfied that I didn’t see it through, and I just questioned myself. I have all these good results but like, what does it mean to me in the long run? I didn’t want to spend my JC life like that,” she explained.  

Terese volunteering at a Plastic-Lite Singapore outreach event where she spoke to the public about how plastic waste causes environmental issues. Image Source: Terese Teoh

Determined to make an impact, she began volunteering with Plastic-Lite Singapore when she was 18. It was also during this time that she and two friends organised a one-day event to teach elderly residents about the importance of reducing plastic waste.   

But the world of environmental work often yields intangible results. Despite her growing commitment to these issues, Terese experienced periods of doubt and disconnection. 

“I felt quite lonely because as much as my friends could empathise, they didn’t have the same sentiments. But then, how can I just not care and be so indifferent to it also?” she said, adding that she drifted in and out of environmental work for a year.  

In search of a deeper purpose, she came to realise that many environmental issues often led to social inequalities, making it crucial to address these disparities to achieve environmental justice.  

“That shift in perspective gave me more clarity because it’s not just for the sole purpose of the environment, but for all for the people who are living here and now,” she said, pointing out the plight of migrant workers who bear the brunt of Singapore’s rising temperatures working outdoors, due to climate change.  

In May this year, Terese embarked on a 2-month overseas internship with an environmental NGO in the Philippines. Image Source: Terese Teoh

Since this revelation, Terese has remained resolute in her efforts.  

While society often dismisses youth as idealistic, she remains unfazed. In fact, SYCA hosted its first in-person Local Conference of Youths last week where their recommendations will contribute to the discussions at COP28 in November.  

She said: “It’s about balancing idealism with pragmatic realities. Ultimately, climate targets are contingent on some kind of idealism so if we don’t have that, we are never going to meet any climate goals.” 

While she accepts that not everyone cares about the environment, she hopes to broaden the environmental discourse in Singapore to engage in more conversations about societal concerns. 

“From the apple we eat, to the land we stand on, to the phone in our pocket, everything derives from mother nature,” she said, “thus we must remember where they come from, the labour involved in their production and the associated environmental problems.”