“Wisdom begins in wonder” is a quote often attributed to ancient Greek philosopher Socrates – and is something that has resonated deeply with journalist Audrey Tan.
This keen curiosity about the world around her, coupled with a great love for animals, was what inspired her to become an avid advocate for animal welfare and environmental issues.
At age 20, she got a puppy from a puppy mill, but it came riddled with illnesses, such as kennel cough and parasites. Ms Tan says: “His condition prompted me to read up about the horrible conditions in the mills. That was what later got me involved in volunteering with NUS PEACE (People Ending Animal Cruelty and Exploitation) and Mercylight Animal Rescue and Sanctuary Limited.”
A voracious reader of National Geographic, she also found herself drawn to the publication’s coverage of lesser-known aspects of nature.
Inspired to pursue a journalistic career, she then applied for, and was awarded, the Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) Journalism Scholarship for her undergraduate studies in social sciences. Upon graduation in 2013, she joined The Straits Times and was assigned to the environment beat.
Today, the 32-year-old is the publication’s assistant news editor as well as its science and environment correspondent.
According to Ms Tan, when she first started as an environment reporter, climate change and sustainability were hardly the hot button topics they are now.
“At the time, many people advised me to switch beats for ‘prominence’. It was discouraging,” she says. “Thankfully, I could pursue my passion at ST.”
In 2018, she decided to enrol in the Master of Advanced Studies in Climate Science and Policy at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, California, one of the world’s leading centres for global earth science research and education.
“Climate science and policy was an area that was not really talked about then, but I had a feeling it would soon change,” she recalls. Her studies were sponsored by a second SPH Journalism Scholarship.
That would prove to be particularly prescient when, just a year later, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong reiterated in his National Day Rally speech the importance of Singapore contributing to global sustainability efforts. In 2021, the Singapore Green Plan 2030 was launched to help chart the Republic’s way towards a more sustainable future and help fulfil its commitments under the United Nations’ 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda.
Over the course of her work, Ms Tan has travelled extensively to put together investigative pieces on the illegal wildlife trade in the Golden Triangle in South-east Asia and the El Nino climate phenomenon, and covered events such as the 24th Conference of the Parties (COP24) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
One of the biggest challenges of her job continues to be about finding ways to get more readers to care about global issues.
“Compared with other countries, Singapore is not as affected by climate change as it has the resources to generally adapt to it. So, we experiment with presenting stories in different formats such as cartoons and podcasts, or linking climate change to issues we care about, such as how it affects the food we eat,” she explains.
She is particularly proud of the Green Pulse podcast series, which she kick-started in 2018, covering COP24 using just her mobile phone. She continues to host the series today, along with the newspaper’s climate change editor, covering topics from biodiversity conservation to climate change.
Hope for the future
Climate change coverage is not all doom and gloom though, Ms Tan is quick to emphasise. Having interviewed scientists and conservationists who are making a difference, as well as young people who are actively speaking up about sustainability, she sees a glimpse of hope ahead.
Says Ms Tan: “Systemic change needs to happen, but I also believe it is important to highlight how the individual can contribute, so we don’t feel disempowered.”
To future journalists looking to make an impact, she offers the very same Socrates quote that continues to inspire her after all these years, adding: “Writing is just a small part of the job – you need to have wonder for the world and the people around you, so you are always hungry for more knowledge.”