When Melissa Tan was little, she would often play with the neighbourhood kids, swinging on a branch and splashing into a swimming hole somebody dammed up from the stream. Growing up in Taman Tun, beside Kiara Hills where it was surrounded by natural greenery — back then, a wild and lush space still, her childhood days were spent sitting amidst nature’s lap.
Years later, Melissa, who was working in the consulting industry after earning a degree in Actuarial Science, wasn’t fully introduced to environmental justice until she decided to establish a weekly animal shelter volunteer program that she’d run for two years during her tenure. There, she’d expose hundreds of people and help them build a deeper understanding of issues like animal welfare so that they can be advocates too.
She has had many important stops throughout her career – including modelling. Reality show fans might already be familiar with Melissa, who had then appeared in Asia’s Next Top Model. As her social media presence grew, she started sharing about zero-waste living and environmental activism and connecting people to resources and ideas. This led her to where she is now: a prominent advocate for sustainability and climate protection.
FirstClasse had the pleasure of finding out more about Melissa’s journey to becoming an activist, the activities and initiatives that she had done, as well as her belief and wisdom in inspiring us to live a more sustainable life.
Tell us about your journey to becoming a climate activist and sustainability advocate.
I grew up caring deeply for animals and our environment. An environmentally-conscious child furiously recycling everything in sight. But there was so much that was not recyclable, especially with plastic. I just did what I could. One day, I heard about the zero-waste lifestyle and the idea of how we can refuse the creation of trash in the first place, preventing harm before it’s created. That was a lightbulb moment for me. It was so obvious, yet I could not see it until someone showed me. And it was like taking power back, being able to take action. I started to see my direct link to the world around me and how I can change that story.
So I started changing habits in everyday life, learning more, going down different rabbit holes and interconnected areas, reexamining and breaking habits in the cycle of excessive, irresponsible consumption. I shared about it on social media, and grew from there, connecting with people and throwing my voice and efforts behind the cause, collaborating with other passionate people. I saw how we can influence others to see and claim their roles in change as well so that together we can change the culture.
People are taking power back, with change rising from the grassroots.
Tell us more about the activities and initiatives that you have done to protect our planet.
I create content and speak for environmental issues and how to take climate action on social media. I educate on the climate crisis, zero-waste living and how people can take action and incite change in their circles of influence. I host community events and learning spaces for people to engage in solutions. I collaborate with other organisations and fellow activists on projects.
You’re a country coordinator for Fashion Revolution as well. What took you from that individualistic Zero Waste approach to getting involved with fashion activism?
I grew up as the fast fashion industry ramped up, and was drawn into the lifestyle of overconsumption – I wasted a lot of time and money buying things that didn’t make me happy and my wardrobe was always packed to the brim, yet I always felt like it wasn’t enough, like I had nothing to wear. My years working as a fashion model and living from a suitcase gave me a lot of perspective on our relationship with fashion. Some days on shoot, I could wear >100 pieces in a day. Over the years, I noticed the repetitiveness of pieces, the quality and discomfort of fast fashion mostly made from polyester, and the trends that were over as soon as they were made. Living from a suitcase, I felt liberated and found I dressed a lot better with my 5 outfits, rather than the 100s that overwhelm me in my wardrobe at home.
So I started reinventing my relationship with fashion to one that is more in touch with my sense of style, that breaks away from consumption, that pursues intentionality, circularity, and community – I started loving fashion and my (capsule) wardrobe.
As I learnt about the damage that the fast fashion industry causes, both to the people who make our clothes and to our environments, it reinforced my lessons and all the causes I care about. I started hosting community clothes swaps and saw people change their relationship with clothing as well, and eventually, when the role of Country Coordinator for the Malaysian office of Fashion Revolution came up, I knew it was right.
In February 2023, you joined the Antarctic Climate Expedition and were the only Malaysian representative in a group of 110 ambassadors, comprising climate experts, conservationists, activists, entrepreneurs and artists. What was your biggest takeaway from the expedition?
There is no room for half-measures. We need radical action. Ocean protection as the default, rather than the option to be proven, is a great example of how in a lot of areas with the environment, we cannot compromise and play along with the current system.
During the expedition, we witnessed unusually large and wet snowfall in summer, unusual rainfall, penguin chicks born too late to survive, rapidly retreating glaciers and iceberg calvings, the expanse of snow algae, and microplastics in every sample – both air and water. Even at the bottom of the world with no human civilisation, our human impact is staggering and our survival depends on us taking this seriously.
Great minds and willpower can do so much. But the crucial piece of the puzzle is the unified agreement towards a common goal and people setting egos aside and everyone approaching it as students and fellow creatives, not masters with solutions in their pockets. The climate crisis is not one we have solved before, and it is a deeply complex human problem.
We live in a digital world with easy access to information. Why do you think people are still not (as much as we’d want them to be) pro-environment in Malaysia?
Our surroundings often do not reinforce pro-environment values and it is not always obvious how we can translate awareness into action. People can often feel helpless and confused, limited to signing petitions and complaining on social media. I felt the same too, until I learnt about zero-waste living and taking an active role in the causes I care about.
Being a living example for others through your actions, speaking up and sharing ideas can encourage others to take action and accomplish more than staying at raising awareness about issues.
Can you recommend some relevant reads or podcasts that we should be reading and listening to right now?
One of my favorites is the podcast ‘The Angry Clean Energy Guy’ which gives you the reality of the structural gaps in our system in addressing the climate crisis. The perceived progress we see is often also a distraction, even a major stumbling block to truly transforming the systems we live in to one that puts our planetary and human health and our continued survival as the priority. It goes beneath the surface of greenwashing, ESG reporting, big announcements, carbon credits and so many different aspects of the climate space to reveal their inadequacies, and challenges us to not take things at face value.
What projects do you have lined up?
I’m currently working with the team for Antarctic Climate Expedition (ACE) in post-production for the Antarctica documentary. Following the inspiration of the ACE community who are deep into ocean conservation, I am also currently getting my dive license to open the door to more opportunities in that area. I am also planning to start a podcast from the network and friends I’ve made from the expedition and beyond.