Scion of conglomerate YTL Group and sustainability leader Ruth Yeoh knows all too well about the opportunities and challenges of transiting into renewable energy and championing environmental stewardship. She chats with Yanni Tan about her ever-expanding portfolio, and how the pandemic shook things up.
One cannot speak to Ruth Yeoh about sustainability without understanding just how wide and influential her remit is within her family empire, the Malaysia-based, multi-national and multi-sector YTL Group. While Yeoh is based here with her nuclear family and serves as the executive director of real estate firm YTL Singapore, she is essentially the driving force behind the whole group’s ESG (Environment, Social and Governance) vision.
The eldest child of Malaysian business tycoon Francis Yeoh and grand-daughter of late billionaire Yeoh Tiong Lay, Ruth Yeoh is a longtime philanthropist and environmentalist who has not stopped championing her family’s love of nature and community since her early 20s when she joined her family business.
The architecture graduate’s achievements in sustainability, among others, is an extraordinarily long list. At just 24, she founded the corporation’s Environmental Division, which later became the broader Group Sustainability Division, which she still heads. In 2006, she set up YTL-SV Carbon, a carbon credit consultancy, also led by her. In 2007, she published her first book on the topic. Over the years, she has also participated in countless global and company environmental initiatives.
With YTL Group’s expansion over the past two decades, it now runs nine business units from construction to technology to hospitality across three continents. All of them take direction, and inspiration, from Yeoh on ESG matters. She discusses the broad strokes her family business has taken, and highlights the leadership YTL Group has demonstrated in the post-pandemic world.
Tell us about your role and key focus.
I head Sustainability for YTL Group, and work closely with our core sustainability team members based in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, as well as with our important sustainability champions who sit on our Group Sustainability Committee regionally and internationally in the UK, Japan, Australia, Indonesia and Thailand. I provide leadership and guidance for the overall group sustainability strategy, which includes the four pillars of environment, community, workplace and responsible products.
Two key focus areas under environment are decarbonisation and biodiversity, which have always been high priority verticals for us. Balancing the interests of all stakeholders are a consistent (and necessary) challenge in addressing sustainability and is part of our strategic approach. It is also the reason why YTL-SV Carbon is such an important subsidiary and a key part of the group’s overall sustainability and decarbonisation strategy.
It was launched in the way early days before the whole Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) urgency kicked in globally, and has also grown to be one of the largest CDM players in Malaysia. Carbon consulting was a natural extension of the environmental division, being one of the quantifiable metrics measuring impacts, and in particular the way organisations affect climate change and global warming. It allowed us to build in carbon mitigation as a core part of environmental strategy both for YTL Group companies as well as the clients of the consulting company.
How has tackling sustainability and conservation evolved for you as YTL expanded its business internationally and into new business areas?
Many businesses have been urged to transition to renewable energy. In support of a low-carbon economy, YTL Group has implemented renewable energy integration projects across our business units to minimise our carbon footprint. As part of our renewable energy portfolio, our subsidiaries in Singapore, Indonesia and the UK have been installing solar photovoltaic panels at their sites, amounting to 1,591kWp to date.
As an effort to phase out fossil fuels, some of our business units have also switched their petrol vehicles for electric models. I am excited to share that we have recently launched the YTL Green Data Center Park, a visionary project initiated by YTL Data Center Holdings, a wholly owned subsidiary of YTL Power International. It is located in Kulai, Johor, and it will comprise 500MW of total data centre capacity integrated with an equivalent amount of solar power generation on 111 ha of land. It is the first hyperscale data centre campus in Malaysia to be powered by on-site renewable energy.
Currently, 72MW of capacity has already commenced on site and we will be co-developing another 168MW of data centre capacity with GDS Holdings, a leading developer and operator of high-performance data centres in China. Additionally, YTL Power International also acquired Dodid, which is a green hyperscale data centre with 12.5MW capacity in December last year. These are huge steps for us as YTL Power seeks to expand our infrastructure platform to build sustainable data-driven ecosystems powered by renewable energy, which can help meet Southeast Asia’s growing demand for cloud-based solutions and services.
YTL also entered the digital banking space in Malaysia. How does this new business figure in your sustainability vision?
YTL Digital Capital was one of five consortia to win a digital banking licence from Central Bank of Malaysia recently. Through digital banking solutions, we strive to contribute to nation-building and encourage greater financial inclusion. We believe that there are underserved and unserved businesses that do not qualify for credit facilities.
These small and medium-sized enterprises are expected to be key beneficiaries of digital banking as they form the backbone of the Malaysian economy representing over 97 per cent of overall business establishments while contributing approximately 38 per cent of Malaysia’s GDP. Overall, with digital banking solutions, we can extend financial services and facilities to these groups, while reducing our carbon footprint at the same time, since geographical barriers will be minimised and transactions will be fully digital.
Has the pandemic changed or accelerated any areas of focus?
The pandemic made us reflect on how we take care of YTL Group’s employees. One of our key strategies is to support our employees’ career progression and building a talent pool of future leaders at each level. During the pandemic, we accelerated our in-house and online training programmes to minimise the need for face-to-face interaction.
For instance, Wessex Water in the UK recorded 850 training courses, attended by over 8,000 employees back in 2020; they transitioned from the traditional classroom-led training to a more blended approach. In addition, YTL Construction also launched an initiative to provide training for head of departments and managers to achieve its three-year plan focusing on three main pillars of talent, technology and innovation.
The pandemic also gave us an opportunity to do more for the communities we serve, especially those who are underprivileged. As a group, YTL contributed RM461 million across the world in cash and in-kind support for Covid-19 relief since 2020. We also accelerated the e-learning process for over 450,000 students during mandatory virtual classes by providing 18 million GB worth of free mobile data, over 100,000 smartphones and approximately 14,700 online learning materials developed by FrogAsia and multiple content partners.
How do you see consumer needs and expectations changing in the hospitality and real estate sphere?
Consumers have grown much more environmentally conscious from the pandemic, as we witnessed how much our environment had recovered when lockdowns took place. Now, expectations for sustainable hospitality operations are higher than ever. Greener hotel operations – using less plastic consumption, more eco-friendly room amenities and sustainably sourced food for in-house restaurants – are more favourable to them.
In fact, Cameron Highlands Resort already has in place a Farm to Table programme to source ingredients from nearby local farmers. Continuing to embrace socially conscious, sustainable purchasing and create jobs for local communities, over 90 per cent of the food and ingredients used in our hotels and resorts in Niseko Village, Japan, is sourced from local farmers, fishermen and suppliers.
Moreover, we are well on our way to eliminating single-use plastic within YTL Group. We launched the Say No to All Plastic (SNAP) campaign in 2019 to assess the progress towards zero single-use plastic within our operations. To date, we have successfully reduced annual plastic consumption in our offices by 30 per cent, while our hotels have reduced plastic consumption by 18 per cent.
How do your resorts cater to this new breed of travellers who desire to dive deep into culture or nature?
Tanjong Jara Resort on the east coast of Malaysia has partnered with Lang Tengah Turtle Watch, a local conservation NGO to encourage hotel guests to participate in nest inspections, adoptions and releases of turtle hatchlings.
Meanwhile in Borneo, one of the region’s most popular travel destinations, Gaya Island Resort offers guests the opportunity to learn about Gaya Island’s natural environment through one of their signature experiences: 7 Wonders of Gaya, which includes a mangrove kayak tour, night walk and various wildlife sightings – all led by the resident naturalist from Gaya Island Resort Wildlife Centre. Gaya Island Resort Marine Centre, on the other hand, provides weekly conservation talks and outreach programmes that encourage guests to be involved in local marine conservation.
At Pangkor Laut Resort, guests can experience jungle-trekking, which brings them closer to the island’s biodiversity, as well as enable them to learn more about local conservation work on the hornbill and flying fox.
On a personal level, how are you continuing this legacy through your children?
Since my childhood, my father has instilled in me values that I carry to this day – faith, environmental stewardship, and the understanding of how to do business the right and sustainable way. I still recall how he took me to Pangkor Laut Resort to plant seedlings, as he believed in imparting practical lessons on environmental protection to me and my siblings at a very young age.
Now that I have children of my own, I teach them to have a sense of responsibility towards the environment and people, so that they will be able to learn the skills required to do the right thing and make a good future happen for the sake of themselves and future generations. Thankfully, children generally have the natural instinct to care for the environment and are not afraid of exploring. I have also given environmental talks and organised planting activities at schools, in the hopes of nurturing nature lovers.
My family loves nature activities, and my children and I participate in beach clean-ups. I am committed to conservation work because I was able to witness live corals when I went snorkelling as a child, but realise many from the current and future generations might not get the chance to do so, and to witness the spectrum of current species and biodiversity as we once did. I am reminded of the “starfish story” that even picking up that one starfish stranded on the shore and throwing it back in the sea makes a difference to that one starfish.
This story first appeared in the June 2022 issue of Prestige Singapore.