Ruth Yeoh, a fourth- gen­er­a­tion ex­ec­u­tive at YTL cor­po­ra­tion, has made sus­tain­abil­ity and con­ser­va­tion her Rai­son d’être, says Paw Cheng Jyh

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Ruth Yeoh, a third-gen­er­a­tion ex­ec­u­tive at YTL Cor­po­ra­tion, has made sus­tain­abil­ity and con­ser­va­tion her rai­son d’être

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 downto-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.

“I make It a point to not take things for granted and that starts with the en­vi­ron­ment”

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.

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