Sustainability As A Legacy

Ruth Yeoh is an Executive Director at YTL Singapore Pte Ltd and Director at YTL-SV Carbon Sdn Bhd, YTL’s in-house carbon credit and clean development mechanism (CDM) consultancy. But above all, her passion is about looking after the environment.

Ruth Yeoh has an impressive list of activities that she is involved in, mostly sustainability related. She is a member of the Board of Trustees of Reef Check Malaysia, and an investment committee member of the Asian Renewable Energy and Environment Fund (AREEF) investing in clean technology and renewable energy. She was once a member of the Family Business Network Asia, and the Business Council for Sustainable Development Malaysia.

She also conducts planting activities and environmental talks at her children’s school to cultivate a love for nature. For her contribution as a Board Member (2015 to 2018) to Gardens by the Bay, an orchid breed Papilionanda Ruth Yeoh was dedicated to her and she was also awarded the Ministry of National Development (MND) Medallion for Distinguished Service in 2019.

She is the eldest in her fourth generation family business, she started and now heads Sustainability for the YTL Group of Companies, where she reports and consolidates her organisation’s sustainability activities through writing its sustainability annual reports close to around two decades now.

Ruth has written for both the Wall Street Journal Asia Edition and Financial Times, and has co-edited a book on climate change entitled “Cut Carbon, Grow Profits: Business Strategies for Managing Climate Change and Sustainability”, published in 2007.

About her growing up years, she tells WOMAN that she has been blessed with parents who care enough to spend time coming home to have dinner with the family. Yeoh says, “Dinner conversations even to this very day are focused on sharing experiences of our personal lives and reinforcing invaluable lessons from our Christian faith.”

She cites her late mother, a Hong Konger, was an inspiration because in the prime of her showbusiness career in Hong Kong, she quit and moved to Malaysia to settle down with her father and to start a family. Her father is of course the well-respected Tan Sri (Sir) Francis Yeoh.

Yeoh credits her mother as a great help to her father and the family business by supporting local artisans in the local furniture and art industry. She says that her mother’s keen eye for beauty can still be seen in many of the YTL properties today.

“Ultimately, my father always taught me and my siblings to believe everything has to be earned through diligence, persever- ance, grit, commitment and dedication. Being genuinely caring and compassionate is a strength. My father taught me that sustainability should become a legacy.”

That is why the location for this shoot with Yeoh could not be more appropriate. It is the very lush 3 Orchard By-The-Park, a luxury 77-unit freehold condominium that is located close to Singapore Botanic Gardens and the Orchard Road shopping belt.

This award-winning boutique development has sustainability design features and gardens with conserved mature trees in line with YTL’s commitment to sustainability and protecting the green environment. The property is designed by renowned Italian architect and designer Antonio Citterio famed for his design of Bulgari Hotels and Resorts in Milan, London and Bali.

Why is sustainability so important to you? How did your interest begin and how has it evolved?

I was taught environmental values by my parents from a very young age — faith, environmental stewardship and the understanding of how to do business the right and sustainable way was something my father instilled in us from the very beginning. He acts on what he advocates, such as developing only a third of our private island, Pangkor Laut Resort, whilst the other two-thirds are left to remain as millions-of-years-old virgin rainforest.

It was also at Pangkor Laut where I experienced one of my very first encounters with nature. One of my fondest childhood memories includes planting seedlings and plants along its shores. This early experience planted an idea in me that I wanted to do more and so began a lifelong commitment to making as much of a difference as I possibly could to protect this beautiful Earth and God’s creations.

As part of my ongoing long-term mission to be more responsible and caring towards the environment, I started the Environmental Division when I was around 24-years-old, which later became the broader Group Sustainability Division.

I look back and remember wondering why the Group was doing all these great things in sustainability and yet nobody at the time reported these formally. As a result, I decided to articulate and report on all the good things we were already doing like a story with a good beginning with a mission in data collection and setting sustainability targets for the Group in the process.

I wrote the first Sustainability Report for the Group in 2006 and simultaneously started forming a Sustainability Team as well as a Group Sustainability Committee. I would like to think there was some foresight in this because I did this in 2006 before Bursa Malaysia (Malaysia’s Stock Exchange) made it mandatory for all companies to report on their sustainability activities subsequently from 2007 onwards.

Moreover, our first Sustainability Report won the “Best Social Reporting in an Annual Report” at the ACCA Malaysia Environmental and Social Reporting Awards (MESRA) that year. All this keeps me on my toes because I get to know what every subsidiary within the company is doing, as they report as a team on all things related to sustainability — from climate change, energy efficiency to conservation and community projects. We also have a carbon consulting subsidiary, YTL-SV Carbon Sdn Bhd, which helps to calculate our carbon footprint in-house and also helps other companies do the same. It also helps companies and project developers register and monitor voluntary and compliance carbon credit projects.

I formed a Group Sustainability Committee comprised of Sustainability Champions within each of the business units across our global footprint, and we meet to share and have discussions on what we can do better in terms of sustainability. After all, it is our sustainability champions who help the group innovate and lead change in the sustainability space, and we are thankful to have champions in YTL Group who are passionate about driving change for good. The company has a strong sense of purpose and people like to work for what they stand for.

YTL’s focus on sustainability is not new as your grandfather the late Yeoh Tiong Lay started it back in 1955 and your father continued. What are some of the valuable lessons you learned?

I personally believe that sustainability:

1. Has everything to do with stewardship. I’ve learned how God created the earth and you cannot ignore the diversity and wonders of creation all around us.

2. Is about survival. If you don’t take care of the earth, there won’t be an earth left for us to inhabit. It is as simple as that.

3. Is about responsibility. How we treat the earth, the people and our environment matters, and this is what really determines the fate of our future, which ultimately is in our hands and the hands of our children.

My great-grandparents, grandparents, father, uncles and aunties grew up in a humble fishing village of Kuala Selangor where the natural environment is both revered and respected. I admire that sustainability is practiced as a lifestyle, especially in more remote villages. That, and they built this company up from scratch through sheer hard work, blood, sweat and tears, so I learned never to take things for granted.

YTL started as a humble construction company, but today it has grown to include properties, hotels and resorts, cement, utilities, communications and so much more. Even in the early days when YTL was still a small construction company, it built more affordable and bigger-sized housing for the community which contributed to Malaysia’s nation-building at the time.

Since our humble beginnings in 1955, sustainability sits at the heart of our approach to business. In every business, we seek to create long-term value for all stakeholders and we aim to produce world-class products and services at competitive prices to the global market. We are fully committed to being a responsible corporate citizen and we strive to bring positive changes as a force for good and making a good future happen by protecting the environment, improving the lives of communities, empowering our people and embracing the marketplace where we operate.

“how we treat the earth, the people and our environment matters, and this is what really determines the fate of our future”

With more focus on women empowerment issues in what ways has YTL support gender equality?

The empowerment of women is a strong driving force in both my personal and corporate life. On a personal level, I am currently serving on the board of United Women Singapore (formerly known as The Singapore Committee for UN Women Singapore) for a number of years now. United Women Singapore (UWS) is a local non-profit organisation with an Institution of Public Character (IPC) status. It advances women’s empowerment and gender equality, and is on a mission to unite women in Singapore to empower them and build a pipeline of women leaders for the future across sectors of society with the vision of realising a gender-equal society.

Its flagship “Girls2Pioneers (G2P)” programme aims to inspire and encourage young women and girls to explore and pursue careers within Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields, and has benefitted over 26,000 girls between the ages of 10 and 16 since its inception in 2014.

UWS’ annual “Gender Equality Impact Awards” recognise men, women, and organisations in Singapore who have championed initiatives to advance gender equality and empower women in the workplace and community. It actively collaborates with other women’s groups and community partners to raise funds for their charitable work and beneficiaries through campaigns and fundraising initiatives throughout the year. Its yearly ‘Buy to Save’ sale event also promotes sustainable fashion and responsible shopping whilst raising funds for its key initiatives.

I also co-founded the Recyclothes Group together with three other Founders (including my sister, Rebekah), a sustainable fashion and social enterprise that raises funds for charities in Malaysia and which promotes the circular economy. Our vision for Recyclothes embraces sustainable fashion with a conscience. It is a social enterprise bringing fair equality to all women to dress for success and is accessible to all, closing the loop in fashion and disrupting biases for second-hand clothing items.

On the corporate front, YTL Group has over 13,000 employees globally, of which 29% of our workforce is female, reflecting the nature of our business activities, especially in the cement manufacturing, construction and utility sectors. We aim to foster greater female representation in the so-called male-dominated industries.

We created an initiative called W@Y (Women at YTL) which brings a key focus to empowerment, awareness and advocacy of women’s careers, gender diversity, among others. “W@Y” is YTL’s very own women’s network. This seeks to support women across the organisation helping them grow and reach their full potential. Through its various initiatives, it aims to bolster confidence, raise competency in the workplace and foster a spirit of camaraderie among the female workforce.

Through all our various initiatives, we achieved three things — namely to bolster confidence, raise competency in the workplace and foster a spirit of camaraderie (or sisterhood) among the female workforce.