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Hong Kong-based chief executive has tomorrow on his mind

Hong Kong-based chief executive has tomorrow on his mind

Originally published at the South China Morning Post on December 3, 2016.

Chandran Nair has always been drawn to Asia and issues of development. Born in the multicultural melting pot that is Malaysia, Nair grew up exposed to a wide mix of cultures including Hokkien, Cantonese and more.

“I could even swear in Hokkien,” Nair said. “I was eating char siu bao at three years old, and I was eating with chopsticks very young.”

Now founder and CEO of the Global Institute For Tomorrow (GIFT), an independent pan-Asian think tank based in Hong Kong providing executive education, Nair has built a decade-long career in sustainable development and dedicated his time to analysing and explaining the Asian region.

Author of the book Consumptionomics: Asia’s Role in Reshaping Capitalism and Saving the Planet, he is also the creator of a photo book project called The Other Hundred highlighting stories of people across the world and serves as a speaker at international gatherings such as the World Economic Forum in Davos and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.

With issues surrounding sustainable development becoming increasingly important in Hong Kong, Nair sits down with the Post to discuss his views on the city’s future path and how we can tackle the challenges coming ahead.

How did you become interested in sustainable development in Asia and how did you get to where you are now?

I was born in Malaysia, which is a very multicultural society. Then I went to university in the UK, I worked in London for a few years. I’m a biochemical engineer by training. Then I went to Africa because I was interested in development, and particularly in political development in southern Africa, so I became involved in the anti-apartheid movement. I got work with an international voluntary organisation to build sanitation and water supply systems. Carrying a Malaysian passport at the time, I couldn’t go into South Africa because Malaysia didn’t recognise South Africa. But I also played in a band part-time, so I used to travel illegally into South Africa with the band when we were invited to do concerts.

That development experience, and my own childhood experience of coming from a non-wealthy background made me very much appreciate issues of poverty alleviation, inequality and sustainable development, which go beyond environmental protection. I went and did a masters degree in environmental engineering in Bangkok because I wanted to come back to Asia to be close to my parents. Then I worked for about three years in Thailand. After five years in Bangkok, I was headhunted by [consultant] Environmental Resources Management (ERM) and moved to Hong Kong.

How did GIFT come about?

I’ve been in Hong Kong for over 20 years. I first came to Hong Kong to run a large consulting company, ERM. Using Hong Kong as a base, we opened the first office in China – in fact the first environmental consulting company in China in the early 90s. I grew the company into 20 offices in 12 countries across Asia. We did a lot of work in Hong Kong for the government, many private companies etc, and then used that to branch off into the region. In about 2004 I got out of consulting to start GIFT in 2005. GIFT was established as a pan-Asian think tank. The idea came to my mind because I felt that as we entered the 21st century, many ideas on the future of Asia, development, were essentially coming out of Western schools and think tanks. I wanted to create something that over time would hopefully encourage others to believe in the idea that we need new ideas coming out of Asia. This particular region will shape the 21st century.

We created a think tank that did not take donations, because in a way I think if you take donations or funding, you kind of can’t think. You’re constrained by the interests of your donors. The way is to take these ideas and to encourage them into the largest economic entities in the world – companies – and also into governments and NGOs too. Most of the executive education in the world today is provided through the lens of the Western experience. It doesn’t make it wrong, but it is, I would say, challenged by contemporary developments of our time. It also does not reflect the new world order. I think this part of the world needs to give voice to those new narratives, free of ideology.

In Hong Kong, there’s a lot of talk about the lack of opportunities and upward mobility for young people. Recent studies showed that 40 per cent of people want to leave the city. What are your thoughts on this?

Young people leaving Hong Kong would be a tragedy. They themselves would miss Hong Kong. I know Hongkongers who leave and they yearn to come back. I know the quality of life might be better somewhere in a small city in Canada, but my God it’s boring. The issue for Hong Kong is how to keep people here who want to be here. But how can people be here if they live in 300 square feet? They can’t. That is a sustainable development challenge. If you’re in Germany and you’re a plumber, you can buy a house with a garden and have a life. It’s a life. People are not looking to be billionaires. People are not looking to be a software engineer, and this is the myth. But you could work at a nice restaurant, it’s a decent job, you work 10 hours, you go home, you have a place. I think that is the social commitment, the economic challenge we must provide.

Do you think there are adequate opportunities for young people?

All countries, depending on the point and curve of development, are faced with unemployment. So, of course, the government and businesses must create new jobs. But I think that the biggest challenge is the sense of home. And let’s not forget, a 30-year programme of creating homes would create a huge amount of jobs in Hong Kong. Not just construction jobs, but a whole set of industries.

Imagine new space for young people to do things. Disaffection is replaced by positivity. And you need positivity and confidence to create new jobs. They are created by entrepreneurs, and entrepreneurs have to feel positive. When a lot of attention is paid towards a negative thing, guess what happens? Morale goes down, you have people leaving. People don’t believe in the future. I mean cities and countries are built around a belief in the future of the next generation. If the next generation and all the politics is saying the city is doomed, and you feel that even if you work you cannot get a house, you think: I want to leave. The obligation of the leaders of the community is that we must sort this problem out. That issue needs a radical solution and at the moment we do not have radical ideas.

What advice do you have for young people?

One of the things I think is missing in Hong Kong is constructive platforms for young people with diverse opinions to come together to engage in debate and constructive ideas. And I don’t think that the young generation should believe that the older generation will create those platforms. The older generation is entrenched. I think young people should create platforms for constructive engagement. We’ve been running this [Young Leaders Programme] and the idea is to create a virtual think tank of the young.

The principle idea is to bring together people from the three sectors of society – government officials, civil society and business. And every year we find a complex policy issue that can be resolved through them working. We’re facilitating an [environment] where people can argue and give different opinions but then finally say what we’re going to try to do to solve the problem. This then creates positive energy. Positivity and confidence is very important for people to believe in the future. And we want to build this into an institution in Hong Kong.

We do this all around the region. Companies send them because more and more young business leaders are getting separated from their realities because they think everything is on the screen. But you need to go out. This is what I want Hong Kong companies to do, but at the moment I’m saddened to say that they do not believe in this sort of thing. It’s more about – you work hard here, we extract as much as we can from you, we don’t invest in you. But it’s investment in people, particularly at a time when people are disillusioned, is what we want to do.

Young people in Hong Kong should travel more around Asia. Not just focus on China like most businesses do, but the Asean region and India. Hong Kong people should know these places. The learning really is in our backyard, in these countries. I also encourage Hong Kong young people to be bold and to go see the world.

Can you talk about sustainable development in Hong Kong?

I was the person who led the study commissioned by the Hong Kong government in 1997. The Hong Kong government commissioned a big piece of work called Sustainable Development for the 21st Century.That created a lot of debate and discussion, but it also resulted in a key recommendation: the development and establishment of the Sustainable Development Commission and Sustainable Development Unit.

At that time, the main issue in Hong Kong was air quality. The key point of sustainable development is the political will to take action. It’s the alignment of political objectives with economic imperatives. If you look at air pollution, one of the things would have been electronic road pricing. Till today we don’t have that in Hong Kong. That would have been one of the issues that would have taken Hong Kong to a new level, completely revamped urban planning, etc. But lack of political will and vested interests did not let that happen, and still does not allow that to happen.

The second issue would have been the marine and country parks. The country parks issue is a more complex one now because we have a choice between the whole housing crisis and preservation of country parks. This is absolutely a political decision that at the moment no one is willing to make. The most important sustainability initiative taken by the Hong Kong people was the building of the MTR. Hong Kong is very lucky to have probably one of the most efficient transport systems in the world.

What do you see as some of the biggest challenges to sustainable development in Hong Kong?

From a sustainability point of view today, Hong Kong’s biggest challenges are on the social element of sustainability. It is the housing issue. Because ultimately, the access to decent housing for younger people who will build the future of this city is, in my view, the biggest sustainability challenge of our time. It requires strong political will to essentially decide on the value of a departure from the previous norms and rewriting some of the rules.

I think if Hong Kong society continues to constantly undermine the government, we’ve got a problem. We can’t solve these problems. We’ve got to come together to do that. Not everyone can argue that every bit of green space needs to be protected. I think the disenfranchisement of the next generation is the biggest issue. We’ve got to do something.

In Hong Kong, I think one of the conundrums now is the view that the problems of Hong Kong are all about the election of the chief executive, we need more democracy, freedom from China. I’m not sure that the biggest social problem of Hong Kong, which is housing, is going to be solved by more democracy.


What is your favourite place to travel to in the world, and why?

The great city of Isfahan in Iran, and Havana. But the world is full of beautiful places. The things I avoid are five-star hotels and luxury holiday resorts. They’re not the real world.

I know you’re anti-social media, but if you had to pick one popular social media platform to use, which would it be and why?

None. Let’s just say I would rather die, because it’s uncool.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

That there are no short-cuts. You have to work hard, believe in something and help others.

Do you have any phobias?

Too much meat on a plate – I’m vegetarian. And too much luxury at one moment.

Name one thing on your bucket list?

It’s an art project I have which is to get 25 unknown artists – painters – from around the world to depict in large paintings the state of the world, and for that exhibition to travel the world.

If you could meet one person, living or dead, fictional or real, who would it be?

I think I would like to have met Muhammad Ali. Though he walked two metres away from me when he came to box in Malaysia, I didn’t say hello to him. Also, the great Asian leader Ho Chi Minh.

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