Young eco-warrior is first Malaysian at Sustainable Development Impact Summit

Siew is unit lead for corporate sustainability with Sime Darby Property, and one of 15 people selected from all over the world to attend the upcoming Sustainable Development Impact Summit to be held in New York in September 2018. Photo: The Star/Samuel Ong

His affable and humble demeanour belies the fact that he is a champion of many causes; chief among them is sustainable living.

At 32, Dr Renard Siew Yung Jhien holds a PhD in sustainable value chains from Cambridge University and the University of New South Wales (UNSW).

In 2013, he was selected as one of 15 international scholars to attend the PhD Academy at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. He has published works in many international refereed journals and, in 2014, won a Highly Commended Paper award by the Emerald Literati Network.

(The Emerald Literati Network recognises and rewards the efforts of Emerald authors, editors and reviewers. England-based Emerald Publishing promotes new ideas that advance the research and practice of business and management, health and social care, education and engineering.)

Last September, Siew was selected to be a Climate Reality Leader under the Climate Reality Project movement founded by former US vice-president Al Gore.

“The Climate Reality Project is about advocacy and raising awareness of climate change. People talk a lot about climate change but how do you translate that into something actionable? That has always been the missing (piece of the) jigsaw puzzle,” said the youthful-looking Siew.

Siew (seated, front row, fourth from left), with former US vice president Al Gore and the other Climate Reality Leaders, in 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Photo: Renard Siew

Recently, Siew was among 15 people chosen from 7,000 youths globally to attend the upcoming Sustainable Development Impact Summit (SDIS) which will be held in New York on Sept 24 and 25. The SDIS is held in line with the United Nations General Assembly.

This is the first time that a Malaysian has been selected for the SDIS.

“I feel honoured that Malaysia has been given an opportunity to sit at a table with some of the world’s leaders, movers and shakers. I am excited about it and definitely looking forward to being there,” said Siew, when met for an interview recently.

The 15 persons are part of something known as the Global Shapers community, with Siew being one of the curators for Global Shapers Kuala Lumpur. Global Shapers is a non-profit organisation affiliated with the World Economic Forum. There are hubs across 380 cities that run different projects in their local communities. Individuals selected as curators are those who have already done great work and are seen as leaders in their own community.

The group of 15 will be assigned different streams, with Siew’s being “Designing Science Targets for United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals”.

“The idea is to put out a paper that perhaps countries worldwide can all think about and find ways to mobilise action towards achieving those goals,” said Siew, who holds a degree in civil engineering from UNSW.

“Right now, looking at the goals themselves, and the aspirations that have been set, there is still room for improvement, as not all of them are based on real science or hype data.

“Some of them are based on gut feel rather than something objective and quantifiable. For example, say a goal of reducing poverty by 20%, how do you actually derive those values and statistics?” queried Siew.

Siew is one of 15 people selected from all over the world to attend the upcoming Sustainable Development Impact Summit in New York. Photo: The Star/Samuel Ong

Inspired from young

Siew’s paternal grandmother was a great influence in his life. With both parents working, Siew spent a lot of time with his grandparents while growing up in Kuantan, Pahang.

His grandmother would read him Unicef newsletters and they would also watch National Geographic – her favourite show – together.

“I remember that whenever The Great Migration came on, she would ask me to sit on her lap and we’d watch it together,” recalled Siew, whose grandmother is now 82.

“My grandma is a very resilient woman and very green at heart. She was a great cook and had her own vegetable patch in Kuantan. She was one of those who recycled her stuff and practised waste segregation even back then when people were still burning trash in the open.

“She certainly had a huge influence on me and on what I wanted to do as a career,” said Siew, whose father is a businessman while his mother works in a bank. His younger brother is a lawyer.

Currently, Siew is the unit lead for corporate sustainability with Sime Darby Property. He first joined Sime Darby Holdings in 2010 as unit lead for environment under the environment, safety and health department.

“My current portfolio involves the planet side. So what we do is manage and monitor our carbon, water and waste footprint. We also have a programme that focuses a lot on biodiversity called TREE, or Together Restoring Earth’s Environment. For that, we have an ambitious aspiration of planting IUCN Red List tree species across our townships.

“The thing with IUCN Red List species is they need a lot of care, especially during the first three years of their lifespan. That is one of our main challenges,” said Siew.

Malaysia is one of the world’s mega diverse countries, ranking 12th globally, according to the National Biodiversity Index.

“If we are not careful, the resources that we have will eventually disappear. We all have to do our part in preserving our environment,” he emphasised.

As a young leader, does he find today’s youth inspiring?

“There has been a huge shift. These days, we see youths stepping up to the plate. People always say, youths are the leaders of tomorrow, but I beg to differ. I think they are the leaders of today, and they are actually leading discussions and dialogues. Even at COP21 (the 21st Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change), we have sent youth reps to engage in dialogue with world leaders,” asserted Siew.

“Where youths are concerned, I think they are very creative and have a lot of different ideas on how they can (make a difference). We need a strong support system from the Government and the corporate sector, and need to find a way to work alongside youths.

“Social enterprise is a huge thing these days and it is mostly championed by youth groups. They are the ones coming up with innovative ideas to upcycle materials, how to change the way we live, and even how to use media in the most creative ways. We need to see more of that.”

At the end of the day, Siew added, sustainable development is “like a nexus and it’s all interconnected”.

“For example, as a property developer, we cannot just think about developing buildings. We have to consider the wider communities as well.

“So to make a community truly sustainable, we have to consider continuity in terms of water supply, make sure waste management is well taken care of, find solutions to deal with the domestic solid waste we produce, and also think about the so-called invisible, neglected community, which includes the elderly,” he explained.

Siew’s grandmother used to be a very active person and was out and about often. “But as she aged, what you see is that she goes into a cocoon where she is afraid of going out, for safety reasons,” he said.

Lack of accessible public transportation was another issue, and the octogenarian also had a fall sometime ago due to an uneven road pavement.

“There was no voice for the elderly citizens – and that was something I wanted to champion.

“But if you ask me which issue is my priority, I think sustainability has a holistic, systemic perspective as people, planet and prosperity are all interlinked,” said Siew.

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