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Claire Chiang: business owner, activist

The co-founder of Banyan Tree Holdings shares on bootstrapping, and conservation.

In a way, Claire Chiang has always lived by the ethos of conservation. As a young girl, she would retrieve the short used pencils that her five elder brothers discarded. She tied them to rolled-up cardboard so they became long enough to hold, and continued using and sharpening them until there were only fingernail-long stubs of graphite left.

Life in Singapore in the 1950s and 1960s wasn’t easy. Space and resources were always scarce for her extended family of 10 living in a two-bedroom shophouse on Race Course Road. Everything had to be used and reused until it wore out.

As the youngest child and the only girl, Chiang begged the local clothier to sell his leftover cloth for S$1 so she could make her own dresses. Sometimes she and her grandmother scavenged for discarded nylon packaging-tape which they weaved into baskets to hold their belongings, because there weren’t enough cupboards.

But Ms Chiang believes her awareness and respect for scarcity prepared her for her work as co-founder of Banyan Tree Holdings and chairperson of the Wildlife Reserves Singapore Conservation Fund (WRSCF).

Ms Chiang, 67, started Banyan Tree with her husband Ho Kwon Ping in 1994 with their first resort in Phuket. Today the luxury group has 49 hotels and resorts, 64 spas, 76 retail galleries, and three golf courses in 23 countries, and is known for championing social and environmental efforts. As Banyan Tree marks its 25th anniversary this year, there are plans to plant 25,000 trees around its resorts, on top of the half a million trees already planted; and support 4,000 disadvantaged children in 25 schools around the world.

Meanwhile, the WRSCF celebrates its 10th year of supporting the conservation of several endangered native wildlife species in Singapore. These include the Singapore freshwater crab, Sunda pangolin, banded leaf monkey, leopard cat, long-tailed macaques and local butterflies.

What persuaded you to be involved in animal conservation?

In a sense, conservation has always been part of my DNA before it became a popular movement. I think many people in pre-independent Singapore understood its importance. But then Singapore developed and became wealthier. And the idea of scarcity vanished.

When I became a member of the Conservation Advisory Panel of the Urban Redevelopment Authority (2004 – 2010), I realised the importance of conserving the legacy and heritage of our city so that people have a window into our past. And that strengthened my understanding of these issues.

When we started the first Banyan Tree in an abandoned tin mine in Phuket in 1994, we were unaware that we were embarking on a conservation project for the area. We were committed to rehabilitating the land, spending US$200 million to develop the infrastructure and surroundings for a place that no one wanted. And though it was a huge investment, we are still reaping its dividends after 25 years.

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We didn’t think of ourselves as environmentally-conscious, we weren’t that clever. We just thought that if we were going to build this resort, we had to build it responsibly. We had to respect the land and its people, find a way of working and operating it so it would bring us profit without destroying the land.

To what extent has that ethos been embraced by other Singapore enterprises today?

When I was the president of Singapore Compact for Corporate Social Responsibility (2004 – 2010), I realised that many enterprises still saw the concept as dichotomous: You either conserve or exploit; you cannot do both simultaneously. But responsibility must be embedded so much within the business. You do it just because; you cannot simply be thinking of the money you want to make.

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Similarly for Wildlife Reserves Singapore (or WRS, which currently manages the Singapore Zoo, Night Safari, Jurong Bird Park and the River Safari), we needed an arm to look closely at the rehabilitation of our biodiversity. Not because WRS had money, but because it is intrinsic in the role of a zoological institution to progress from being just a menagerie or amusement park to becoming a conservation, research, education and entertainment hub. Through the WRSCF, we’ve created a platform to nurture young scientists, get the seed grants to do research and conservation programmes, and raise the NQ (Nature Quotient – like IQ or EQ) of Singaporeans, particularly young children. We think there’s an NQ deficit in Singapore.

An NQ deficit? That’s interesting. How might it be redressed?

We have a steady flow of children coming to our parks every day. We’ve been educating them about the need to respect the environment, so that when they grow up and become entrepreneurs someday, they will not hurt the environment while pursuing profits, and not exploit nature’s resources without giving something back. All children love animals. But we’re helping them see that they have an active role to play in ensuring the safety and survival of these animals.

Again, when I was doing Singapore Compact for Corporate Social Responsibility, I did a workshop with 50 Singapore companies about climate change. That effort fell flat. I was told, “This is not a business concern. You should go and talk to environmentalists instead.” But we’ve managed to make some significant headway in convincing businesses to see that profit and sustainability are not necessarily opposing processes, that they can adopt what’s called a blended business model that champions these different values. It’s hard work, of course, but it’s a business imperative today.

Besides WRSCF, you’ve been involved in over 20 corporate, government and non-profit organisations over the years, including chairing the Singapore Book Council since 2014 and being a Nominated Member of Parliament from 1997 to 2001. I’m curious how you managed to fit so much into a day.

To be honest, I don’t sleep that much. I’m a five-hours person and I’m happy with that. The way I see it, if I sleep for just five hours, I still have 19 hours. So that means I can work for 12 hours, spend four or five hours with my family, and still have a couple of hours to myself to do Pilates or play mahjong. I have a daily checklist of things to do and I’m not happy when I don’t get all of them done.

But recently my husband gave me a book called Why We Sleep which says that everyone needs 8 to 9 hours, because it is in the later part of those hours that you get your deepest, most crucial rest. Five hours, it seems, isn’t enough. So I’ve been depriving myself of proper sleep all these years, and I’m trying to remedy that.

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This article was originally published in The Business Times.