In school, you started a non-profit called Save That Pen. After that, you were with EDB. Before joining your family business, Ichi Seiki, an engineering firm, you worked for the international sustainability non-profit Forum for the Future. Can you tell us about your experiences?
Volunteers have been running Save That Pen for 11 years. The project started off as a little pet project with three friends in our final year of university, and we continue to do it. We each bring something new and unique to the work as our careers grow in different directions, so it has been fun to witness that. Through the project, I also learned more about the recycling infrastructure in Singapore.
The Singapore government uses a term called 3P – People, Public and Private stakeholders. A government official jokingly called me “Miss 3P”! Looking back, I’m glad I started my professional life with the government. I gained a holistic understanding of how Singapore works, and I’ve been able to make decisions even now because of that.
Forum for the Future was my dream job. My role was like a consultant, helping businesses achieve sustainability. It was unique. Even though you are there to guide them with important decisions, you will never know more about the business than those who run it.
You can do a lot of quantitative stuff, but the real value comes from working with senior management teams, and getting to ask tough questions. No matter how successful or powerful a person is, a third party who has your interest at heart can always add value.
Sustainability is such a buzzword these days. How can we tell the difference between real sustainability and greenwashing?
Sustainability is a never-ending journey. The goal posts always move. Many companies will claim that sustainability is in their DNA and that they have been doing it for years, followed by an impressive list of certifications.
In my opinion, if a company does not consider the next steps, and how far from a truly sustainable business they are, then that is a red flag. There is no perfection, so if they are super confident and act like they have “arrived” at sustainability, then I am inclined to be suspicious.
To believe in sustainability, do you have to be an optimist?
In the face of adversity, I’m optimistic that we can overcome and thrive in adversity. It’s the default human condition. Given the science available to us today, if we are all going to live for only 100 years at the most, it would be unimaginable if we did not work towards alleviating the worst impacts of climate change. It’s no longer about being a pessimist or an optimist, it’s about working towards the very survival of our species.
How do you balance doing good with business?
My father and I believe that to make money, your business should contribute to society. The definition of a positive contribution varies between generations. What made Singapore great in the 1980s is very different from what makes Singapore great now. It’s a constant dance now at work, but it’s constructive and beneficial for the company.
NG YI-XIAN ON WHY HE PICKED KIA JIEHUI
“I meet a lot of people who are passionate about sustainability, but not many people who are committed to making a difference in Singapore-based manufacturing. Jiehui inspires me to look beyond the here and now, to achieve what others label impossible.”