Speakers (L to R) Mr Gerard Ee, Ms Esther An and Mr Alex Soh at the Epoch Inspired Talk ‘CSR in Singapore: What’s the Next Lap’ Panel and Q&A Session at EcoWorld Gallery on Nov 3, 2016.
Effective from Jan 1, 2017, the Singapore Exchange (SGX) will require all SGX-listed companies to adopt sustainability reporting. Companies will have to stipulate all aspects of their environmental, social and governance practices in their first sustainability report, due 12 months from the financial year ending Dec 31, 2017. In view of this mandatory regulation, how should companies integrate CSR into their business models?
With the forecast of the economic downturn in years to come, how will it affect the CSR movement in Singapore?
These questions – and more about corporate social responsibility (CSR) – were addressed during the first instalment of our Epoch Inspired Talks series, entitled ‘CSR in Singapore: What’s the next lap?’ held on Nov 3 at EcoWorld Gallery.
Organised by The Epoch Times, and supported by partners EcoWorld, Averic, Challenger and French Cellar, close to 73 attendees were enlightened to an evening of inspiring talks featuring three speakers – Mr Gerard Ee, civil servant and social services champion, known for his work in restoring public confidence in the National Kidney Foundation; Mr Alex Soh, professional photographer and founder of the charity initiatives Project Road and The Rice Project; and Ms Esther An, Chief Sustainability Officer of City Developments Limited.
Kicking off the talk was Mr Steve Tan, Senior Sales and Marketing Manager of EcoWorld Group, the warm-hearted host that evening. He presented a lucid account of how EcoWorld Group, a Malaysia-based international real estate developer securing projects across the globe, has been an active proponent of the CSR movement.
The inaugural Epoch Inspired Talk, entitled ‘CSR in Singapore: What’s the next lap?’, was organised by The Epoch Times, and supported by partners EcoWorld, Averic, Challenger and French Cellar.
According to Mr Tan, its charity arm – EcoWorld Foundation – was established in 2014 with the aim of undertaking humanitarian projects to mitigate social issues in the areas of education and literacy, health and well-being, and poverty and lack of community infrastructure.
From 2014 to 2016, EcoWorld Foundation has raised about RM20.8 million (S$6.86 million). Most of this fund was used to subsidise the ‘Students Aid Programme’, a scheme in which EcoWorld sponsors the education fees of needy students in eight Malaysian states.
“We have sponsored close to 3,000 students,” Mr Tan said, and the programme is efficacious as “some of our beneficiaries eventually become our colleagues after [their graduation].”
Other than the student aid programme, EcoWorld has also advocated a relief programme that funded and deployed 150 staff in seven separate missions to rebuild homes and schools during the savage flood that occurred from Dec 2014 to early 2015 on the west coast of Malaysia.
‘CSR Is More Than Writing a Cheque’
“CSR is more than writing a cheque for a donation, but it involves big ‘involvement’,” explained Mr Gerard Ee, President of the Institute of Singapore Chartered Accountants (ISCA) and Chairman of the Charity Council. The youngest child of the late Dr Ee Peng Liang, Singapore’s Father of Charity, had also served as the President of the National Council of Social Service and National Kidney Foundation.
In his talk, Mr Ee alluded to Bank of China (Hong Kong) Limited (BOCHK) as an exemplar of an organisation that has successfully embraced CSR.
Mr Gerard Ee, President of the Institute of Singapore Chartered Accountants (ISCA), talks about how CSR is sustainable investment during our first Epoch Inspired Talk.
Like many corporations, BOCHK initially embarked on CSR by raising money and dispatching the donations to various charity organisations, he said. However, a few years ago, “the CEO realised that is not CSR itself, and decided to utilise the donations in more meaningful projects”.
Gradually, BOCHK evolved from raising money to involving their staff and some of their clients in their CSR field work.
“They started off by doing makeovers for people living in one-room flats,” elaborated Mr Ee. The bank went on to furnish two- to three-room apartments, to construct a conducive environment for children and their families.
“It seems the project touched their staff,” Mr Ee asserted. “It is meaningful (for a company) to incorporate CSR” as the staff will bring back to the office “that sort of emotions and feelings, the compassion and the empathy”, which would ultimately be an asset to the corporation.
The benefits that ensued from their commitment to CSR are employee retention and an elevated staff morale.
“They found out that all the staff who participated in this programme were doing very well at work. They started treating their colleagues even better, and tended to their customers the right way the bank would want them to.”
But CSR is not only about charity work, he stressed.
In Singapore, CSR came about with a focus on charity work, but more and more corporations are going beyond that. Mr Ee pointed out that the whole concept of CSR was derived to ensure that corporations do not just focus on their bottom line and “in the process, destroy the world”.
“It is this concept of telling corporations to act responsibly as far as the social aspect is concerned,” he said, stressing that it does not pay if manufacturers are making an abundance of money while polluting the environment and doing harm to Mother Earth in the process.
He cited the example of unethical farming, such as injecting durians, fish or vegetables with shedloads of chemicals for quicker ripening and longer shelf-life. “People are just driven by profits and do not really care about the harm they are causing indirectly,” he said.
“At the end of the day, people will fall sick, and it is not going to benefit the business,” Mr Ee emphasised.
“It doesn’t pay if one nation just ignores everything and pollutes the whole environment, while the other countries are trying hard to be green and save the environment,” he said, implying the reason for the implementation of the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
The 17 SDGs, which came into force on Jan 1, 2016, was spearheaded by the UN with the vision of transforming the world and building a better world with no one left behind. The goals include alleviating poverty, fighting inequalities, tackling climate change, and protecting the Earth.
“The country is not going to be sustainable if there is a high level of poverty,” explained Mr Ee. “It is not good for the development of the country, economically or otherwise.”
“If you look at a certain country, which is prospering year by year but with everyone having a problem breathing and everyone wearing a mask, is that the environment we want? Is that sustainable? Can you really live in such a country in the long term?” he questioned.
Among the 17 SGDs, education is the most imperative, Mr Ee opined, as “the first step towards developing the economy is to invest in education”.
“The 17 SDGs take into account the development of education, environment, health, and elimination of poverty. And all these are part of CSR,” he highlighted.
CSR Is an Investment
Mr Ee hopes that corporations can understand that CSR is more than giving out donations – it is not altruism, but a need to act responsibly, in a social way.
In Mr Ee’s view, it is an investment that will in the long run benefit the corporation.
“If you want to operate in a country that is emerging and has lots of potential, you have to make sure you do your part to help create a flourishing environment,” he said, and that encompasses “investments on the people’s health and education to create a marketplace for your product”.
For instance, if you invest in building schools, and train more people to move up the middle-income level, that will eventually create a business environment for you to thrive in, he said emphatically.
“If you are involved in it, you have won their hearts,” he affirmed.
When all is said and done, Mr Ee explained, “we will have a better world, and a more sustainable economy where everyone remains healthy, receives a better education, (and is) thereby able to afford your product, and the cycle goes on”.
2. CSR as Corporate Vision and Action
Environmental Sustainability in the Rising Green Economy
The guest speaker that night – Ms Esther An, Chief Sustainability Officer of City Developments Limited (CDL), a Singapore-listed international real estate operating company with a global presence spanning 94 locations in 26 countries – outlined CDL’s practices in environmental sustainability in the rising green economy.
“The world is fast changing. We have witnessed the ratification of the Paris agreement, the launch of Singapore’s first Climate Action Plan and the public launch of Sustainable Singapore Blueprint, there is real urgency for all to step up action to fight climate change,” said Ms An, after referring to the ‘triple bottom line’ or 3Ps of CSR – Planet, People, Profits.
As a forerunner in CSR, like other businesses, CDL is obligated to deliver profits to its shareholders and investors. However, “Without the planet and people, there will be no profits for businesses,” she said.
Ms Esther An, Chief Sustainability Officer of City Developments Limited (CDL), outlines CDL’s practices in environmental sustainability in the rising green economy.
“If we observe all these and integrate sustainability into our business, we will have a more sustainable market and environment,” she elucidated. “CSR is about making money in a responsible way.”
Ms An mentioned that all businesses have a place to contribute to the UN’s SDGs, and in particular the building sector, which utilises 40% of global energy and accounts for 30% of greenhouse gas emissions. There is hence the need to step up on sustainable practices.
In fact, UN Principles of Responsible Investment (PRI) held its first biennial conference in Singapore in September. It aims to promote responsible investment and responsible business practices as Asia is the core of change, and Singapore can play a key role. “If you want to attract responsible investment funds and get a share of those trillions of dollars, listed companies have to integrate sustainability into their businesses and operations,” she stressed.
Back home, Singapore has ratified the Paris Agreement and announced its carbon mitigation plan to reduce emissions intensity by 36% from 2005 levels by 2030, and stabilise emissions with the aim of peaking around 2030. It reflects Singapore’s support towards global efforts to achieve peaking of global and national greenhouse gas emissions in the shortest span of time.
“If the government commits to this target, corporations and individuals have to work hard to support it,” said Ms An. “Property developers and building owners are expected to work towards this target. They have to design and build properties that are energy, water and resource efficient,” she added.
Furthermore, Singapore’s Building and Construction Authority (BCA) has stringent requirements, known as BCA Green Mark Scheme. “This scheme was launched in 2005 and its certification level has become mandatory since 2008,” said Ms An.
‘Conserving as We Construct’
From using cutting edge prefabricated prefinished volumetric construction (PPVC) technology that enhances productivity and reduces pollution, to the creation of the world’s first green library at the Central Public Library, CDL’s exceptional two-decade long CSR journey has placed Singapore on the global map of sustainability.
“Conserving as we construct” – This is the ethos established by CDL’s late Deputy Chairman, Mr Kwek Leng Joo, a mentality that has been fundamental in helping CDL achieve various accolades for both the company and many projects we developed.
Being a frontrunner in the green buildings, CDL launched Singapore’s first eco-condominium, Savanah Park in 2003. The solar panels installed at the project Power the electricity of the clubhouse. In 2007, CDL launched Singapore’s first eco-mall, the City Square Mall at Kitchener Road. Its Tree House Condominium held the Guinness Book of World Record holder for the largest vertical garden for 18-months from June 2014.
CDL also applies its green commitment and expertise in various community investment projects. One latest example is the Singapore Sustainability Academy (SSA), a collaboration with the Sustainable Energy Association of Singapore (SEAS), it is supported by 4 government agencies and 11 industry partners. Located at City Square Mall, the SSA will be a valuable platform for the training and networking of sustainability professionals.
What is next for the developer who was ranked 10th amongst the Global 100 Most Sustainable Companies 2016 at the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this year? Moving forward, CDL’s CSR journey will be to “Create Future Value” for generations to come.
“This is our commitment for over 20 years and we will continue our sustainability journey and make stronger business sense of our ESG performance,” said Ms. An. “At CDL, we view our role as more than just a builder of living spaces, but also a developer of lives and communities.”
Educating the Young
The third speaker of the night captivated the audience with stunning landscape photos of beautiful Xinjiang, regaled them with colourful accounts of his travels, and kept them spellbound with heartbreaking stories.
In his talk, ‘The Journey of Hope – From The Rice Project in Sri Lanka to Project Road in Cambodia’, Mr Alex Soh demonstrated how he has used his photography skills to open up avenues for creative projects that make a difference in people’s lives.
As a professional photographer, his works brought him to many third world countries.
Mr Alex Soh, professional photographer and founder of the charity initiatives Project Road and The Rice Project, underscores the fact that CSR activities are not limited to local shores.
There is a saying: “If you travel with a lofty goal in mind, you will learn a lot from the experience.” Having gleaned a deeper understanding of life through his travels and community projects, Mr Soh realises he does not need much, as he already has far more than those who are less fortunate.
With this wisdom, he advocates educating the youth through such social projects to help them discover their lives. “It is better than scolding them a thousand times. And they will become a better person,” he said.
From The Rice Project in Sri Lanka to Project Road in Cambodia
Project Road arose from some Cambodian villagers’ simple yet compelling statement: “Give us a road, and we’ll know how to walk out of poverty ourselves.” In response to this, Mr Soh marshalled the Lion Club and four like-minded Singaporeans to raise funds and build a 3.7km road in Cham Resh, Cambodia.
The village head later told him, “You didn’t just help the people. You changed their lives.”
“How many times in your life are you able to save another life?” Mr Soh mused.
The Rice Project in Sri Lanka was conceived “after witnessing the tsunami in Sri Lanka”. He plunged into the initiative as he could not forget the devastating images he had seen in the aftermath of the disaster.
Mr Soh pitched his proposal to big corporations, such as Canon, and converted his idea into cents and dollars, in a business sense, in order for the brand to sponsor the project.
“I told them, by doing this project, there would be a lot of exposure for your brand as there would be thousands of people visiting the exhibition,” he recalled.
In Sri Lanka, his team delivered 17 tonnes of rice loaded in three trucks. “I have never seen so much rice in my life,” he said, harking back to those purposeful days.
He remembers one pack of rice spilling onto the ground during the distribution. Much to his surprise, the locals brought their buckets or cooking pots, and scooped the rice into their containers, together with the sand.
“At that moment, it tells me every rice grain counts,” he said with a solemn expression.
Upon seeing this heart-wrenching scene, an air of melancholy surrounded Mr Soh and the young volunteers who were with him. A young girl’s eyes started to water, and at that instance, he fathomed something had impacted her life.
At his exhibition in Singapore, a 17-year-old youth came up to him to express his gratitude: “Thank you so much for giving us a chance to come with you.”
“And this is how we educate our young people, to let them understand that we are more fortunate,” the activist remarked.
How Companies Can Embark on Community Projects
Mr Soh underscored the fact that CSR activities are not limited to local shores. He proposed corporations bringing their people abroad to help establish and stabilise the economy of neighbouring countries.
Involving your work teams in community projects regionally is a great opportunity for team-building, and a heart-stirring story that one would be proud to share, he said.
“You can do something of good value, and at the same time, build up a great team.”
Moreover, these projects will inform the public that your company is actually contributing back to society.
“Build a long-term sustainable project that will help the public associate your brand with, and put value to your corporation.”
“When I brought these young people there, it was not only about doing community work,” Mr Soh enthused. It was also a lovely retreat as he “brought them to different places, to the rainforests”.
“This is very important when you do such projects. You have to balance it,” he advised.
Companies can select projects that will leave an indelible impression on their audience. There are many avenues and they have to be creative, he suggested.
Mr Soh ended his inspirational talk by showcasing some arresting photos taken during his Rice Project mission in Smokey Mountain, the Philippines, in 2013. Smokey Mountain is Manila’s largest dumpsite, where the poor make their livelihood as scavengers, picking up whatever they can recycle from the grounds.
The undying human spirit that shone through those powerfully evocative photos moved the audience.
“When I first stepped into Smokey Mountain, I was enveloped in the smell of the garbage dump. Living in such abominable conditions, the kids could still smile in the photos,” he recounted.
“I saw them digging chicken (from those KFC places), and refrying those leftover chicken to be sold within their community at a very cheap price.”