Eco Warrior

PIN Prestige, July 2016

Ruth Yeoh, A fourth-generation Executive at YTL Corporation, has made sustainability and conservation her raison d'etre, says Paw Cheng Jyh.

Her grandfather is YTL Corporation founder, billionaire Yeoh Tiong Lay, ranked the seventh richest Malaysian by Forbes with a net worth of US$2.4 billion. Her father is YTL Managing Director Francis Yeoh, often credited with extending the company’s reach beyond construction and into utilities, property, telecommunications and hospitality.

But Ruth Yeoh’s lineage has given her no airs — in fact, the 33-year-old executive director of YTL Singapore impresses with her down-to-earth affability.

The oldest among Yeoh Tiong Lay’s 27 grandchildren, she is used to being
addressed as “big sister” in Hokkien — a role Yeoh takes very seriously. It’s that same sense of duty she brings to her work as the head of YTL Group’s 40-member sustainability division, where she drives company initiatives that benefit the environment and workplace.

“We have many businesses that are [in] carbon-emitting industries,” Yeoh says. “So I felt it in my conscience to do more — it’s a never-ending crusade.”

The group’s recent resort development in Pulau Gaya, Sabah, for instance, demonstrates its commitment to the cause, with its plans for a reverse osmosis water plant, a greywater treatment plant and a heat exchange system to capture waste heat from air-conditioning for hot water. Besides supporting philanthropic corporate social responsibility efforts, the company is running hundreds of renewable energy projects in Java and Sabah to benefit off-the-grid communities and channelling waste materials, such as pulverised fly ash and copper slag, into YTL’s blended cement products.

On top of her day job, Yeoh finds time to serve as a board member of Kew Foundation of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, and Gardens by the Bay in Singapore, among other organisations. She also authored and co-edited the 2007 book Cut Carbon, Grow Profits: Business Strategies for Managing Climate Change and Sustainability with Dr Kenny Tang.

For her contributions to charities, including Save Wild Tigers, Reef Check Malaysia and the Gaya Island Resort Marine Centre, and keeping YTL companies accountable for their  environmental impact, Yeoh was named one of the three Singaporeans on Forbes Asia’s list of 40 heroes of philanthropy last year, along with Mohamed Abdul Jaleel, founder and CEO of MES Group, and the late Kwek Leng Joo, deputy chairman and executive director of City Developments Limited.

The conservation crusader, who joined YTL in 2006, inherited her tireless spirit from her large family. “They grew up in a small fishing village in Kuala Selangor — it’s humble beginnings,” Yeoh says. “There were seven in my father’s immediate family, including his parents and they worked together to this very day…my grandfather still comes to work at nine [o’clock] sharp in his 80s.”

How were you first introduced to the concept of environmental protection?

I saw how my father carried out his responsibilities as the eldest son. He always handled things with a lot of grace. That’s how my passion for conservation started, because I saw him conducting business in the right way. He acts on what he advocates, like developing only a third of our private island, Pangkor Laut Resort (in Perak, Malaysia), with the other two-thirds left as a millionyear-old thriving rainforest. On Pangkor Laut, I grew up surrounded by nature. There were birds everywhere and I used to walk barefoot on the sand while my parents worked, building the island.

You graduated from the University of Nottingham with a degree in Architecture. How did that lead you back into the family business?

My parents were always very supportive of whatever I wanted to do and practise. I love writing and painting, so I co-edited a book at 24 and went on to pursue an Architecture degree in university. My love of sustainable design brought me naturally into the scene of our Singapore office, where our local property development team sits and next door is our YTL Starhill Global Reit Team.

And why start sustainability reporting at YTL?

There were staff who were already working on that front and I call them “unsung heroes”. For example, in our power plant in Indonesia, I discovered that we had colleagues who would dive to monitor the ambient water temperature around the station. This wasn’t reported at all; I discovered it after asking around. I really wanted to consolidate [the information], so I made it a mission to publicise the things happening in the company and set targets for me, my division and the group.

Sustainability requires plenty of compassion and empathy for the environment around us. In all humility, I call myself the “humble housekeeper” at YTL because I honestly enjoy keeping our house tidy and in order. As the company grows in size, so will its carbon emissions. It makes sense to calculate, measure and report what we can and do our part to mitigate risk as responsibly as possible. It is honestly not hard to do if you have the heart and will to like what you do.

Is there a personal reason for taking on this role within the family business?

My great-grandparents, grandparents, parents, uncles and aunts built up the company from scratch. I make it a point to not take things for granted and that starts with the environment. They all grew up in a small fishing village, Kuala Selangor, so conservation was instinctive from the very beginning and it is no surprise that I work together with Reef Check Malaysia and Rare Conservation to grow coral nurseries, as well as increase fish stocks because of our own humble beginnings.

Are you influenced by your travels as well?

My love and curiosity for travel has brought me to several destinations with rich biodiversity, including the Amazon rainforest, the Galapagos islands, and Peru, where I trekked along the traditional Inca trail. I’ve had the chance to see how local communities live in harmony with the environment, protecting its rich biodiversity.

However, I’ve also witnessed the reality of deforestation. Ten years ago, when I was in the Maldives with my father, the corals looked different from how they do now. I go back and they are bleached, and it’s really because of global warming and pollution. It’s sad — [our children] will inherit a different world.

I get asked this question a lot: If the world is going to end, why bother to help it in the first place? I remember having a conversation with my father on this very matter and his reply was quite simply: “If you knew that someday, the ones you love will perish, does it mean you stop loving them?” This really woke me up and made me more determined than ever to march on fighting for the global and common good.

What are your own practices in daily life? As a mum, do you share these with your kids?

I cycle and I also recycle. I have a garden in my backyard where I try to grow my own food. I also take the time to teach my toddler about sustainability and the legacy associated with this. It is important to lead by example. I recently gave a talk at my three-year-old daughter’s class. I read books to the children about conservation and taught them how to put soil in pots and start planting. The best part was when my daughter began showing her classmates what to do. I told the teachers, jokingly, that I needn’t to be the one teaching this, as my daughter [could take over]. These are all things we do at home.