IIMPACT 2014: Speech in front of PM Lee Hsien Loong and industry leaders

As an alumnus of IIM Calcutta, I was one of three speakers to give a talk at the gala dinner of our Global alumni event IIMPACT 2014 held in Singapore on 22nd August 2014. The theme was ‘I am the change’ and I covered the ‘Transform’ section of the sub-themes ‘Create, Transform, Disrupt’.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was the guest of honour at the event, which was also graced by the Chief Minister of Telengana K. Chandrasekhar Rao, the Indian High Commissioner to Singapore Ms Vijay Thakur Singh, Former Indian Tennis Player Vijay Amritraj, TED founder Richard Saul Wurman, apart from several notable CEOs including Piyush Gupta of DBS Bank, and other industry leaders.












(Photo Credit: Organisers of IIMPACT 2014)

Here’s the video of the speech:


Here was the transcript of the speech on the topic of Transformation and Sustainability:

Dear Prime Minister, guests and friends,

I’d like to say thank you for the opportunity to share my message today. It was Mark Twain who once said, ‘The two most important days in your life – are the day you are born, and the day you find out why.”

If I were to go by that logic – India would be the place of my birth, and Singapore the place of my rebirth, for it was here that I found my true calling and purpose in life.

But it was most accidental. When I came to Singapore 11 years ago, I thought I’d be continuing a career in finance, but most unexpectedly, ended up guiding at the Singapore Botanic Gardens in the rainforests section.

I’m not sure how many of you know – Singapore is the only other city in the world, apart from Rio de Janeiro in Brazil to have remnants of ancient primary rainforests within city limits. (That could be a great tagline for Singapore Tourism Board!) The biodiversity of a small island like Singapore is incredible. For instance, there are more plant species on Bukit Timah hill, than in the whole of North America. For the first time in my life, it came into my awareness that tropical rainforests which are so rich in biodiversity and that have taken millions of years to evolve, are being rapidly destroyed- for things we consume in seconds such as tissue rolls, soap, shampoo and cookies – stuff we buy in supermarkets every day. And we are collectively responsible for this massive ecological destruction as consumers of products, as companies making these products, and as governments setting and implementing rules.

Our planet came with a set of instructions that every single species respects, except of course, us humans, and we are meant to be the most intelligent. These are pretty important rules – don’t poison the air, water and soil, don’t overexploit resources, don’t destroy ecosystems, and for heaven’s sake, don’t meddle with the delicate thermostat and make the planet hotter than it should be.

The turning point for me really came in 2008, when I sat on a metaphorical rocking chair. It’s a thought exercise that I invite each one of you to try out when you have a quiet moment by yourself..in your home or office. As you sit on that imaginary rocking chair near the imaginary end of your life, what is the ONE thing you’d regret NOT doing in this lifetime? (Repeat) What is the ONE thing you’d regret NOT doing in this lifetime?

For me the answer jumped out with immense clarity. I’d regret not doing everything I could, knowing what I did about the state of the earth, to create massive awareness, and encourage each one of us to take action. And it is this journey of the last few years that brings me in front of you today.

I believe there is ONE thing that is really important for transformation to happen if we have to shape a better future for all.

And that one thing is OWNERSHIP – Transformation happens when we take ownership for our lives and the issues around us.

Of course, it really easy NOT to take ownership.

Apathy is one reason saying ‘I don’t care or I can’t be bothered.’

Busyness is another reason – a classic symptom of this age and age. “I’m too busy with work, too busy with family, too busy with facebook!”

The third killer of a sense of ownership is helplessness – “I’m too small to make a difference or I don’t know how to. It’s the system – my shareholders won’t change, my government won’t change, my neighbours won’t change, my family won’t change.” One thing I hear about often in Singapore, especially for sorting out waste segregation and recycling, “My domestic helper won’t change!”

The thing is – there is no one else in the world we can change but ourselves.When we take ownership, WE change. We become role models. People respond, they see us take action, they see a living example, and they say, “Hey…if he or she can do that…surely so can I.”

Many of you here are CEOs of companies, industry leaders…or CEOs of your own homes. You’ve probably realised by now, that merely telling others what to do seldom works. Empowering them to make choices and decisions often does.

When I go to a supermarket with my children and they pick up something from the shelves – say a cola, candy or chips, they ask me, “Can we buy this?” I never say yes or no. I simply smile and ask, “ Have you read the labels?” Chances are, more often than not, they’ll read the labels, and quietly put the stuff back on the shelf, because they realise that the artificial colourings, flavourings and preservatives are not stuff they want to shove into their bodies.

Taking ownership starts with a sense of curiosity. “What do those ingredients mean? What is it that I’m putting inside myself? How does it affect my health and that of my family? Where do the raw materials come from? How are these manufactured? How does this treat people and the environment thousands of kilometres away?

Raise your hands if you have own a mobile phone. This seemingly harmless device has metals whose mining causes civil conflict and extinction of gorillas in the Congo basin of Africa. Its e-waste at the end of life, makes the environment and people sick in countries like Ghana, Pakistan and India. It has even caused factory workers to commit suicide in China. According to the Guardian UK, the top 3000 firms in the world cause $2.2 trillion dollars of environmental damage. This really means about a third of their profits are not rightfully theirs because they have externalised these costs.

I’m sure you’d agree that there are far more sustainable ways of making a phone or any product for that matter. It requires that companies take ownership for social and environment impact, because it is the right thing to do – not just because it is mandated by some authority. Corporate social responsibility is not about making money and then giving to philanthropic or social causes. It’s about making money the right way the first time.

And not to forget – Good business is also good for business. It leads to product and process innovations and cost savings from efficient resource and energy use.

Ethical and sustainable business practices also increase trust. I’m currently working on a project being funded by the National Environment Agency on how companies in Singapore can engage their employees around sustainability. Ultimately people – whether it’s employees or customers or suppliers or other stakeholders, they will trust doing business with responsible companies.

The question I’m often asked is – what does sustainability really mean? It’s tempting to get lost in a lot of jargon…but sustainability to me is interchangeable with the word empathy. Empathy comes from the realisation that we are all one. Empathy comes from a deep understanding that we are all interconnected in an intricate web of life that we are very quickly unravelling, and we need to act with a great sense of urgency. There are tremendous challenges ahead for humanity…and no single government, no single company, no single NGO, no single individual can do this alone – however each one of us can make a difference, and collectively can make a massive difference….if we choose to move into the space of curiosity and empathy, and move out of the space of apathy and greed.

If there’s one thing that I’d like you to remember from my talk today – it’s the one realisation that our children and future generations will thank us for. And here it is – this finger. Everyone please raise your forefinger like this and repeat after me…

We have only ONE planet

Now turn your finger to yourself and say…I take ownership to make a difference.

Thank you!


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