Conversations with Kia Jie Hui

By Shania Sukamto and Elysia Tng

Kia Jie Hui is the Senior Sustainability Advisor at Forum for the Future (Forum), a nonprofit organisation that works with businesses to offer advice on sustainability strategies. Forum was founded in the United Kingdom (UK) about 20 years ago and Jie Hui was a founding member of the Singapore office when it opened here over 4 years ago. Her work involves running workshops on sustainability for senior management teams of major industry players and takes her across Asia to wherever the business’ key operations may be located.

JH: The physical reality is not that different from any other office-job. I spend much time each day in front of my laptop, replying emails and looking at documents! Forum has 4 offices – London, Singapore, Mumbai and New York. I work on a lot of cross-office teams with colleagues in our Mumbai and London offices; For example, I am managing a project in Odisha, India on the role of decentralised renewable energy in the energy mix for Odisha, which has a lot of coal as a coal-producing region, by 2030. However, since Forum’s office is located in Mumbai, I work through an affiliate in Delhi to reach the government and central administration. So, when I’m working on this project, I spend my day replying email correspondences with the office and affiliate, calling various people up, and preparing information for our meetings. In a month, I also run about 3-4 sustainability workshops for senior management teams for businesses across Asia, mostly in Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong. To increase the overlap with the UK time zone, I don’t work a 9-5 job, my official hours are10-7.

Working in sustainability can get depressing, as we are constantly reminded of the gravity of the challenges we face as humanity. When we engage with our business partners, we don’t talk about sustainability only as ‘doom and gloom’, emphasising instead that sustainability is really about having long-term view of your business beyond an immediate 1 to 3-year horizon. It is about the long-term sustainability of the business, not just about being more environmentally and socially responsible, which is critical, but also about looking at how the company can be successful in the future, given a 10- to 20-year timeframe. For businesses, it is about evaluating the value that their product or service gives to humanity in the long run, and how they need to change to prepare for and embrace the future. Sustainability shouldn’t be viewed as the enemy of business – it should be the path to success for business in the long run. We do future scenario planning, looking at the possibilities scenarios that might arise in the future, and research long-term trends in certain sectors or socio-political or technological trends that businesses might not look at on a day-to-day basis: For example, how would something like increased migration of refugees due to climate change affect a real estate or logistical business?

JH: I graduated as a Business School student in 2009/2010, and back then nobody really thought of sustainability as a career option. It just wasn’t a mainstream profession – unless you were in environmental sciences and looking directly at things like water technology, or a related area of engineering. Other options would be to conduct biodiversity or environmental impact assessment studies, for instance, but most of the work was focussed on ensuring compliance with regulation, rather than engaging in consultancy-type work.

I started out in the government, in the Economic Development Board (EDB). EDB looks at creating jobs for Singaporeans by attracting leading global businesses to set up in Singapore and works with local companies to bring their solutions across the region and the globe. I think I vaguely knew that I wanted something that would have a bigger impact, as many people do. In a way, that’s what government jobs are when you look past the day-to-day drudgery and see the bigger picture; you’re called public servants because your job is to serve the public, and contribute positively to society. My role in EDB was in communications, and my portfolio was the emerging area of sustainability: clean technology, renewable energy, environment and water, green buildings and logistics. In part I was assigned the portfolio because I expressed an interested in the subject matter. It’s technically possible to do a communications job without caring much for the subject matter, but in this situation, it was a good match for me.

JH: I had 6 different mailing lists telling me about this job. I knew about Forum’s work in the UK from my time at EDB, the job description looked like my dream job, and it was just appearing multiple times in my inbox through different channels. So I thought: sure, I’ll just apply for it. I wasn’t even looking to change jobs!

JH: I would say I’m lucky in that all 3 places that I’ve worked at – government, family business, and then now Forum – have drastically different culture and environment, so I’ve gotten to experience a spectrum.

Government was very “Singaporean”. Naturally, the job was focussed a lot on Singapore and Singapore’s interests, but it was interesting in that because we are so small, our domestic plans all need to consider the international scene. EDB has a very vibrant and cosmopolitan culture because of the nature of the work, and my colleagues were all very driven and ambitious individuals. It’s interesting that my work now in sustainability leads me to work more with a lot of the other parts of the government that are more inward-looking – like the Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority (AVA) and National Environment Agency (NEA) – people who work directly on the day-to-day mechanics that makes Singapore tick as a city. My job at Forum exposes me to different governments across Asia and Europe, and knowing how other governments work certainly makes you appreciate that we have one of the best governments here in Singapore. In my personal experience with public servants here, they do want to get their job done well, because they care and take their jobs seriously. I respect this, even if I sometimes disagree with the approach or the level of bureaucracy involved. In terms of culture I did feel that there was perhaps an emphasis on being ‘smart’ in the government, but my personal view is that smarts need to be complemented by high emotional quotient, especially when you’re in a managerial role. I also felt that there’s a certain kind of lifestyle that is more encouraged than others – setting up a family by a certain age, for example, and that family is the main thing one should prioritise apart from work. Things may well have changed since my time in government, but I felt there was little room to say that you have priorities in life outside of family and work.

My experience in the family business was very important for personal growth, because I felt the experience reflected a reality that is close to the hearts of many Singaporeans. It made me seriously contemplate the risks of many of our policymakers not having the direct experience of facing up to the pressures of having to make ends meet, and supporting the employees who rely on the business for a living. As my father’s daughter it was also about witnessing first-hand what it means to be a good employer. The work environment was very traditional, emphasising values like humility and loyalty. Many small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) in Singapore were founded in the 70s or 80s and became successful in a certain way. External conditions in Singapore have changed very quickly, but many SMEs continue to be managed in the manner that got them their initial success. It made me understand why SMEs have a hard time hiring talented people of the younger generation. I believe the successful SMEs will be the ones that become open enough to take in new people, and allow them room to transform the businesses to meet the needs of today.

My current work environment at Forum is very liberal for Singapore standards. On the British and American political spectrum you would consider most people in my organisation “left-leaning”. Most people overwork because they love and believe in the job, but at the same time there is a lot of emphasis on and respect for work-life balance. If you are looking for a purpose-driven job, this is probably the ideal work environment. But there’s also a higher level of uncertainty, in terms of demand for and social acceptance of our work in the long run, which affects financial sustainability. There is also a lot of travel involved, which makes it harder for someone who wants to set up a family, for example.

Ultimately, I don’t think any workplace culture is strictly right or wrong, it depends on what you are looking for at that moment in your life trajectory– and right now, my current workplace is a very good fit with what I want, so I’m happy.

JH: I would say adaptability: Forum’s office in Singapore is still considered quite new – you could say we’re just coming out of the start-up phase. And the market for sustainability services is still relatively new here – in a way we are shaping and forming the market. My job title says I’m an “Advisor” but I can’t just work at one thing:  I need to adapt to various roles – and this goes for everybody on our team of 7 people. So, you need to be adaptable in doing your work and your knowledge acquisition methods.

JH: In secondary school (I was at Nanyang Girls’ School), I was in Girl Guides. And recently I went for the wedding of one of my Girl Guide juniors – after probably 10 years or so – and we realised that in planning for camps, we used excel sheets to plan budgets, at a time when nobody else was doing so. Indirectly this sort of exposure probably helped us along the way. Every CCA with a leadership and event planning component would be a good start to picking up and training this skillset. For my current job, I would say the most important subject from secondary school day is English Literature. It was the one subject in my time that really made critical thinking a key component in the curriculum.

In university, I started a lot of projects that suited my interests and in universities students have so much access to resources: you can get mentors, you can get funding, and most importantly, you can afford to fail. I started the ‘Save That Pen’ project in university with 3 friends. We wanted to just start a small movement: collect used and unwanted pens, get the bookshop to sponsor refills and pass the pens to groups headed for overseas or local community projects. We started in just a small clubroom and then the newly formed NUS Office of Environmental Services supported us in scaling up the project across the whole of NUS. And 2 of our members who graduated and became teachers, led the design of a Save That Pen School Starter Kit so that schools could run it on their own. With the support of Young NTUC and NEA, we have worked with over 30 schools. In total it’s been running for 9 years now.

JH: Young NTUC supports the ‘Save That Pen’ project I mentioned above, as they have a focus on the environment. The team there has really helped to support us in outreach to schools, recruiting young adults as volunteers, and continue to support us in expanding our programme now to include education on why our current waste system does not actually allow for pens to be recycled once they can no longer be refilled or used – pens have too many component materials like plastic, metal and rubber all in one, and it is too labour intensive to manually disassemble them. We want to discourage corporates from making bulk purchases of non-refillable pens to give out in things like freebies or goodie bags. So ‘Save That Pen’ was the beginning of my relationship with Young NTUC. When they were looking into having younger, mid-career mentors to help with their career programmes, they approached the ‘Save That Pen’ team and that’s how I got on board with them in this role.

JH: People who look seek me out as a mentor are driven in their career in a different way because of our shared interest is sustainability. One thing I do share is not to necessarily expect to find a “dream job” as their first job. Often the criteria people have is a job with purpose, that is challenging and exciting, gives you the right level of responsibility, etc. – that’s very difficult to find in a first job! Rather, look at whether the role can be an opportunity for them to learn about something they really care. Unless, they are ready to make the decision and commit to taking the risk of going into social entrepreneurship. It is an option but is it very risky. And there’s some hype surrounding start-ups now that you need to be careful to manage.

JH: I’m not the best person to ask about this probably. I was invited to apply for an internship with EDB in my final years in university. At the end of the internship they offered me a job upon graduation. So I had that lined up. I did have a number of interview experiences that went well and not so well, but I’m very aware that doesn’t measure up at all to the type of pressure people feel in a prolonged search for a full-time job.