Up close & personal with Founder of Gift and author Chandran Nair

IT is difficult to pin down who Chandran Nair is, or to put in specific terms what he does for a living. Although born and having spent his teenage years in Kuala Lumpur, he is an internationalist. He is at home here in Malaysia, at peace in some remote Tibetan village and is able to thrive in any cosmopolitian city in Europe.

Professionally, much of his work and interests seem to revolve around social developments as he is a great believer in contributing to society, yet he neither considers himself an environmentalist nor a socialist. He helped build water and sanitation systems in poorer parts of the world and trained young people to be leaders. He founded a social think-tank in Hong Kong to advance thought leadership and was at one time, chairman of one of Asia's largest environmental consultancy. For more than 30 years, Chandran lived abroad - first in Britain where he studied chemical engineering, then in South Africa where he volunteered in development work building water and sanitation systems and living on a stipend.

The former La Salle student was recently in Kuala Lumpur, and took the opportunity to talk about his book Consumptionomics: Asia's role in reshaping capitalism and saving the planet, published by John Wiley & Sons.

Consumptionomics is a political book. It is a call to abandon the goal of realising consumption-driven capitalism across Asia and replace it with the objective of having an environment that we can pass on to future generations - one with rainforests, biodiversity and adequate resources, both renewable and non-renewable.

Yet, it is not just a book about saving the environment, nor is it merely about economics. “It is a book about the catastrophes - some of which are already upon us, and many more lie ahead - if the world, and particularly Asia, continues on its current trajectory,” which he says is not sustainable.

Chandran has condensed the art and economics of living in just over 200 pages. In many ways, his book epitomises all 54 years of his life. Because he has taken the less-travelled path, his perspective on many issues differs from many.

The seventh of eight children, his parents, like many Malaysians who belong to the first generation of migrants, had very humble beginnings. All eight children lived in one room but all of them had an education.

After completing his Form Six, he took a bank loan to study chemical engineering in Britain. One of his teachers had suggested that. At that time, that was a new field. He had some intereset in natural sciences and conservation and Britain and this choice of study seemed logical to a teenager.

“How many of us really know what we want to do, as a teenager? I was interested to get an education and hopefully everything would be okay,” he recalls. Chandran did not come home for four years. He neither had money to call home, nor to have a cup of tea during breaks. He did everything and anything semi-legal to survive in Britain and every summer he did all kinds of work, from sweeping the streets of East London, to cleaning toilets.

“I realised later that I was a lousy engineer. It is our education system; you have very little choices. The majority of young people are cajoled into wanting to be a doctor, a lawyer or an engineer. Many of these noble professions have been hijacked. Today, when I speak to young people around the world, I tell them to follow their heart. I tell them that the best job in the world has not been created. And the pursuit of education is not equivalent to the pursuit of salary. Education is the pursuit of knowledge and to satisfy one's curiosity. They should think about learning, enjoying life, making contributions and having fun.”

After his masters, Chandran founded the Global Institute for Tomorrow (Gift), an independent social venture think-tank to advance thought leadership. He wanted to redefine leadership beyond what he calls the hubris or arrogance from the business school of the world and the books produced by corporate leaders today, he says.

The whole subject matter of leadership and education hinges on three dimensions knowledge, the ability to communicate and empathy.

Education, for him, is about instilling knowledge while reaching out to the world around you and embracing values like respect and cultural sensitivities.

“In Malaysia, we have the opportunity to leverage upon this diversity. Unfortunately, not enough of this is being done in our education system. In my view, Malaysia is one of the most unique places in the world in terms of having three great cultures of the world (Malay, Chinese and Indian) and with that comes the great religions of the world (Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity). We should be creating the most vibrant society in the world.”

In late April, a week prior to our meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Chandran was in Gansu, China which borders Tibet. He was with ethnic minority groups the Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, Chinese Han, Taoist and Confucious Chinese groups. As he travelled along a 100-km stretch where scores of villages lie on both sides, he noticed that there were mosques every 2 to 3 km while the non-Muslim Chinese reared pigs. Different beliefs, but all co-exist.

“What struck me about the mosques was they had Chinese architectural features. We in Malaysia, should be the symbol of a multi-cultural society. Instead, we still seek to divide rather than to unite. The Chinese here need to learn from the Chinese in China, the Indians to learn from the Indians who live among Muslims, the Malays to learn from the Muslims of China, who live harmoniously with the non-Muslims and who adopt Chinese architectural features in their places of worship.”

“But Malaysians have become too rich too quickly, and with their wealth, they have become intolerant. Our education reinforces separateness. All of us are culpable and too many Malaysians complain. How many of us complain but don't do anything. If you do and you fail, then you can complain. This is the weakness of the middle class to take, to thrive and then to find seclusion in their little suburbia, usually based on race and religion. It is too easy to blame the government, we are part of the government, we are the people.”

Chandran's views are a result of the years abroad. He has seen and gone through the mill. After seven years in Europe, he was very clear he had no interest to live there. At 28, he joined the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, building sanitation and water systems by day on a stipend and playing the saxaphone in his free time in an African band.

“My parents were utterly dejected that I was not making money. I sat in the train for blacks and went to the theatre for blacks. Looking back, those were the most informative years of my life. I saw and learned a lot of things and I was outraged. Some called us terrorist sympathisers. I was on Nelson Mandela's side, so that is okay. Today, terrorist sympathesizers has a different meaning.”

These days, the best and brightest Asians aspire to go to the West. Chandran says he is not an Asian nationalist, but there is a need for people to expand and contribute to society.

“Making money is not difficult, making meaning is difficult and ultimately we have to make meaning of the life we have.”

His mantra: reach out with the hand of humanity. Be humble, watch the body language, live the moment and don't be scared.

Often times, he finds himself reminiscing about his young life in Malaysia to prove a point brought up in a Hindu home, devoted Sanskrit prayers at 7am to Lord Hannuman and Lord Ganesha, educated in a missionary school and said The Lord's Prayer yet, he feels no contradiction.

After school, he would walk pass the mosque and the imam would come and talk with him. When he sees men in long gowns with a beard, he does not see a terrorist. At the Chinese shops, he enjoys his char siew pau (pork dumpling). When he is in Istanbul, he makes sure he is staying in a hotel near the Blue Mosque.

“You cannot deny the spiritual soul within and the call to prayer. Hearing that call is communication and communion with history and the rejection of fear.”

“My parents were open minded. My mother would have classical Indian music at home and I would ask, what is that? What were we brought up with? The Beatles, Cliff Richard and John Wayne's movies, where the cowboys are the good guys and the ethnic American Indians, the bad ones. But who writes the history? Only the victors write the history.”

In the world of music, there is reggae from Jamaica and so many other forms of music. One is not intrinsically superior to another.

“There is a lot more out there but the media is not controlled by the Chinese, nor the Indonesians, nor the Jamaicans. But is there good music in Indonesia? You better believe me that there is. We need to de-Coca Colaise', de-McDonalise' our mind. We can be true internationalists then, so don't make your enemies mine.”

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