Conversations with John Joel Seow

By Denzel Chen and Ryan Tan

When it comes to protecting the environment, we’ve all heard the rhetoric – everyone has to play their part. It’s no surprise then that public engagement and education on environmental protection has been one of the biggest areas in the environmental sector.

Waterways Watch Society (WWS) is an environmental non-profit organization that was formed in 1998 with a mission to bring people together to protect our waterways. As a special, independent volunteer group, WWS has rolled out programs and established sustainable partnerships with passionate individuals, schools, community groups, companies, and government agencies. Though WWS would be unfamiliar to the average Singaporean, its efforts to inspire stewardship and care for the environment have been well recognized; the group has been presented with the Inaugural Presidential Environmental Award (2006) and the Honorary Watermark Award from PUB (2007) amongst other things, and is a representative in key environmental networks like the Ministry of Environment and the Water Resources Water Network Committee.

So what exactly does being in such an organization entail, and how have they established themselves in the environmental big picture? That’s where we headed down to one of their bike patrols and had the chance to meet John Joel Seow, who filled us in! Clad in their own polo shirts with authority cards hung around their necks, they sure are a public presence.

John: We’ve been around for 19 years and are quite under the radar. But despite having no marketing, we still get a lot of work requests, because our main business is educational workshops and programmes. People will come in and do kayaking and cycling, and they’ll learn more about the area, its heritage, and so on. For example, a lot of people don’t know that Kallang used to be home to a gasworks facility, or that the reservoir they’re in is actually a water catchment area – a source of drinking water for the nation! That’s something even kayakers and dragon boaters out there don’t know.

We’re doing quite a bit to improve education – one of the things my boss (Eugene, founder of WWS) has been trying to do is to incorporate environmental components into training courses for kayakers in the area. For instance, by telling them how the rivers in the vicinity used to flow out to the open sea, but with the construction of Marina Barrage in 2008, the area is now a freshwater reservoir contributing to one of our 4 national taps. People don’t make the link between everyday life and the environment; I think it’s important that we let them know how significant the environment is to our lives.

Unfortunately, many people have the common notion that WWS just cleans up the environment, but it’s a lot more than that – it’s also about engaging and educating the public, and letting them draw the link for themselves that their actions have very tangible impacts on the environment. People usually look at the environment and, because it’s relatively clean, there’s the perception that nobody is littering, but in fact, lots of people are littering! It is just that we are cleaning up after. Visitors think Singapore is a clean society, but it’s actually a cleaned city instead. WWS really is about bridging the gap between the community and the environment, and cultivating a love for the environment.

Our members come from all walks of life. Some of them work in PUB, NEA, and other relevant government agencies. Some are teachers who will help spread the word amongst their colleagues. Many of them are tertiary students who also want to help out their CCAs or clubs.

Nowadays we do realise the value of marketing ourselves. Though we had social media presence all the while, starting this year we’ll have a more active approach to publicising ourselves, including posting weekly Facebook updates like articles, pictures of our programs, or even interesting things that we picked up.

John: I’m the Programme Manager, which entails quite a wide job scope. On one hand we organise internal activities for members, such as weekend patrols, and sometimes there’s ad-hoc events like setting up a booth for World Water Day. On the other hand, I work on revenue generating programmes as well, such as assembly talks, educational programmes, cycling and kayaking clean-ups, Coney Island nature trails, and so on. Our clients include corporations that might want to carry out activities for their staff as part of the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives. There’s an educational aspect to it; they come and have fun, learn a bit more about the environment, and go home happy. Some schools also engage us to organise their Values-In-Action (VIA) activities with us. However, as we’re an NPO with only 3 full-time staff, we need to wear many different hats, so I frequently conduct the weekday programmes with the other staff, and our volunteers take over when they come in over the weekends.

John: My career path has been quite unconventional. When I was a kid, my dream job was to be an orchestra musician. I worked very hard to try to achieve that, but over time, my priorities changed. When I was in university, I took up water sports such as sailing and kayaking, and that was when I realised that the waters in Singapore are actually quite dirty – both the reservoirs and the open sea! It was a very real problem, and it affected my enjoyment of being in the water. It is not fun to capsize in dirty waters! I was concerned that the water was so dirty, because I had the initial perception that Singapore was a very clean country. So I did some research and I came across WWS. I thought it was interesting way to volunteer, and joined them as a member in 2014 to see how I could help. It so happened that WWS had just started r programmes, and since I already had a kayaking background, I helped out in that particular area.

John: Not at all! A lot of people spend their lives having one particular interest or passion, but for better or for worse, I have too many interests. I love music, I love the outdoors, and I loved what I studied in university. I majored in linguistics and multilingual studies – it is a very broad discipline which covered many different aspects of language – grammar, structure, history, sociological impacts, and even computational applications. But I fulfilled the typical stereotype about arts majors – I had trouble finding a job. I spent a year finding my first full time job, eventually going into healthcare operations in a public hospital. It was an interesting environment, but I felt no passion for the job. Disillusioned, I resigned after about a year. While looking for another job, I worked part time at WWS for a while, before being offered to convert to a full-time position. I had some initial reservations because it involved taking a pay cut, and I did not have a lot of support from my parents. I asked a few of my friends for advice, many of them told me that if I had passion and interest in this field, I should go for it – the pay is secondary. It’s very idealistic way of thinking, to be honest, but I suppose the world needs idealists to bring about change. I have had to make adjustments in my lifestyle to cope with the pay cut, however. Since starting work here, I have never taken an Uber or Grab. I frequently cycle to work in Kallang from my home in Toa Payoh, using the Park Connector Network (PCN) that runs along the Kallang River. It’s good exercise, and at the same time it allows me to observe the condition of the river. If I spot anything of concern, such as excessive litter or pollution, I can just take a picture and forward it to the relevant authorities.

If you take up a job in this line, forget about earning the big bucks. You’ll have a job and a stable salary, but it is definitely under the median for university graduates. That being said, you do gain many non-monetary benefits; non-routine work, free exercise and a chance to meet many people from all walks of life.

WWS is a non-profit society; we do not have commercial interest in this area. But if you wish to set up your own business in this field, there is definitely a lot of potential in areas such as recycling and waste management. Some of the organizations that we work with include social enterprises such as Better Trails, Green Boulevard, commercial waste management operators such as Veolia and Ban Seng Engineering, and government agencies such as NEA and PUB.

Strictly speaking, the environmental industry is not a big industry at all. But an advantage we have so far is that we get to link up with many other industries. Many organisations come to engage us for long-term partnerships – the Ministry of Finance has an on-boarding programme for new hires, part of which involves participating in a river clean-up with us. It’s easy to engage and convince our participants because our message is simple, relatable and frankly speaking quite common-sense; everyone knows that we should not litter and that we should use water responsibly.

Yes. Every week I’ll conduct programmes for a wide range of participants, from pre-schoolers all the way to working adults, and they also appreciate the message that we’re trying to spread. Participants that belong to the pioneer generation know how dirty Singapore was in the past. After having lived through the transformation first-hand, they can appreciate the significance of our message. It’s very satisfying when people tell us after the programme that they learnt so much and enjoyed themselves. I would say passion really stems from the non-monetary satisfaction of this job. I think sometimes we are too caught up with the rat race that we don’t stop to think what kind of positive impact we are making in this world. In this work environment, I get to meet a lot of like-minded people that share the same values, and we end up doing something good together.

I think one thing that is really lacking at the moment is legislation with regards to environmental protection. Jane Goodall came to Singapore recently to give a lecture, during which there was question raised on the unsustainable use of plastic bags. In response to a suggestion of imposing a tax on plastic bags (a long ongoing debate), Minister Desmond Lee, who was present, said that policy changes on plastic bags are coercive and can be done, “but everyone has to go out and advocate this kind of lifestyle (of not using plastic bags)”. So while the government is aware that the problem exists, in terms of tangible actions and implementing legislation, there is definitely room for improvement.

Firstly, there aren’t many jobs available in this area, and even fewer which pay well. If you are to go into this line of work, you should really have the passion and the drive without expecting much career advancement. Although we should not really focus on the remuneration when applying for such jobs, it’s still something to consider because you still need to receive fair compensation in order to support yourself and to be financially independent. I have had to make some sacrifices, but I never had to skip meals because I did not have enough money. Some of these lifestyle changes can be for the better, whether for your health, your wallet, or the environment. If your contract permits it, you could also consider engaging in part-time work, such as giving tuition, to supplement your income.

There are relevant university courses such as environmental science and environmental studies that are available, but these are not compulsory in this field of work. You would definitely need an inquisitive mind, the ability to multitask and communicate with a wide spectrum of stakeholder, the willingness to keep yourself updated with the latest news and current affairs, and of course, passion, passion, and more passion!

Follow your passion! Do some introspection and examine your priorities, and make sure money is not the basis of all your career decisions. Consider how you feel you can contribute to the community rather than how much money you can make out of the job.

Leading/Living the Vision and Values: We should always lead by example when convincing other to change their consumption habits, and developing habits like. not littering, refusing plastic bags and straws.

Initiating Action (Initiative): This boils down to taking ownership of your work and being able to follow through with new ideas and ways of doing things.

Energy: Being in a fast-faced work environment, having the mental willpower to endure long hours and large workloads is essential.

Managing work (Includes Time Management): As with any other job, making good use of your limited time is critical to ensure that things get done promptly and efficiently.

Strategic Decision Making: Having the foresight to plan ahead for the long-term development of the organisation.

Formal presentation: This is very important as we have to deliver our presentation in a clear, succinct and entertaining fashion.

Communication: Good communication skills are essential when dealing with various stakeholders from different backgrounds.

Safety Awareness: Much of the job is done outdoors and there is a certain element of risk involved. It is critical to prioritise safety to make sure that no harm comes to the participants.

Continuous Learning: Keeping abreast of current affairs helps us to ensure that the content we deliver is up to date.

Valuing Diversity: Many of our volunteers come from all walks of life. To ensure that we retain them, we have to respect the diversity and leverage on their individual strengths and talents in the best interests of the organisation.