GEW2021 interview: the mind behind the investing in others for sustainable futures

Kay Luan Tay, the recent Vice Chancellor of the International University Malaya-Wales and author of three book on Social and Business Sustainability has wide but unique experience in managing and delivering value across both commercial and non-commercial enterprise. A strong advocate of public accountability and equality he has been successful in improving awareness and understanding on such concepts within the sustainability space. Felicity first met Kay Luan in a teaching conference in Wales, 2019, and for a second special edition GEW2021 ‘the mind behind’, share an in-depth conversation.

You have a varied career background Kay Luan, which includes immersion in the financial sector; in what way have your roles influenced your aspirational design for shaping education for sustainable futures?

I started my career with a non-profit organisation that provided key experiences to develop communication, managing diversity and influencing skills. Thrown into the deep end, I was given the research opportunity into global concerns for food and energy security, and the issues centered around gender, pollution, and deforestation. As a programme officer, I shared and co-ordinated research findings. Despite being a relatively inexperienced graduate, I was keen to produce reports that would be widely read and have impact. I also took every opportunity to build a robust and diverse network of individuals and institutions.

My interest in sustainability continued throughout my career, although it oriented towards developing people and organisational strengths. Years on, in the post-Enron, my sustainability interest heightened alongside the required environmental and social reporting transparency. But I wanted to have a more significant impact on my immediate business and social community. Consequently, I repositioned the concept of corporate sustainability through a series of thought and technical leadership activities in the office of the Asia Pacific countries in which I was operating. I also became a regular columnist on sustainability leadership covering social and environmental issues. This helped me raise awareness of carbon emissions, ecological damage and livelihood risks of water, land and resources, such as highlighted in The Stern Report on Climate Change. 

These events have shaped my thought and influenced my subsequent actions, including hosting a conference on the role of banks in climate change. Riding on institutional support the concept of doing of good business, and expansion of concept of social responsibility were well articulated across the activities I was directly or indirectly involved.

Using any spare time, I took the opportunity to publish three paperbacks on social and business sustainability topics toto keep the momentum going beyond discussions at coffee tables. I still have more ambition to influence education to translate global sustainability matters into academic learning. 

Kay Luan, is your sustainability journey rooted in a deeper underpinning philosophy? 

The Brundtland Report of 1992 stated that “something is sustainable when it meets the needs of the present without comprising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. To be genuinely sustainableI share the belief that we must all inculcate the attitude “what has been borrowed must be returned” and be fully mindful of even the unintended consequences of the waste we contribute through our production and consumption. Many of us grew up with the linear model where growth is taken for granted, and not realising the waste we produced. Fortunately, today, there is growing realisation that the concept of sustainability applies to all processes and activities. My own sustainability philosophy is that it must be a balanced journey. If we are to succeed in challenging the conventional social and economic theories, we must capture the people’s imagination change is good and can be inconvenient at times. As I articulated in my ‘Sustainability is the Future’ book, the consequence of ignoring the basic principles of sustainability is that we run the risk of uncontrolled climate change, waste pollution, and more pandemics. If these risks are not managed and addressed, there will be significant unintended consequences to the basic elements of the support system. The most basic of steps for sustaining the system is ensure the support system to livelihood is protected, this includes access to water.  

In short, the principles of sustainability underpin the need for economic, social and ecological models to continuously evolve. Attention must be also directed to the political and institutional dynamics that often contribute to the problems.

Which critical skill or competence have you most relied upon in life, Kay Luan? 

I had a strict upbringing where rules had to be respected, and that the values of helpfulness, empathy and honesty must be embraced and applied. To translate these values to practice, I remind myself and others our purpose and values that make a difference. Ultimately, I want to leave behind a lasting positive legacy. I believe empathy and helping others are key. I have been very open about my own career journey but have observed too many who fear uncertainty and change. I sometimes use the characters from Wizard of Oz to get people to own up and face their challenges of the truth.  I also I believe in the importance of self-awareness, and the ability to relate to others, and integrity. I have a favourite saying “If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. If you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime”.  

Who has most inspired you on your own ‘learning’ journey? 

In my younger days, I was a fan of Charles Handy because of his easy-to-understand narratives of the world, which still apply today. For me, both his books – The age of Unreason and The Empty Raincoats are classics. I have been influenced by many thought leaders across the disciplines of economics, sociology and political science. However, we have gone past the age of Drucker, Jack Welch even redefined the relevance of EQ, and now  we have entered a more holistic and green-centric period. I embrace many sustainability champions like David Attenborough, but the real test is whether leading country leaders will walk the talk, and do what they promised

Kay Luan, what are your aspirations for ‘education for sustainable futures’, and are there any specific authors or theorists you would draw on to support this endeavour?

My aspiration for education is to continue to incorporate the much-needed values into continuing education, including working adults from boardroom to shopfloor. Conventional theories of economics and society must be freed of orthodox theories. We need to get out of the narrow view that the purpose of business is to maximise profits. The ideas that resources are unlimited, shareholder value is only profit, and that people are production factors must be replaced. Entrepreneurship studies have been seen to be the alternative solution to solve the twin problems of unemployment and poverty. The further incorporation of sustainable development must be adopted with speed now to deliver an improved educational offering and impact a new generation of students. The university education cannot focus on the end piece of paper upon graduation. Universities must be multi-dimensional and adopt a bottom-up approach. Acceptance of the concept of harmonious entrepreneurship will serve as the impetus towards more effective applied research and action opportunity from a sustainability perspective.

There are so many excellent books to call upon; I call to mind Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything, Thomas Piketty’s Time for Socialism and Raghuram Rajan’s ‘The Third Pillar’.

How important is technology to the advancement of sustainable futures?

Technology is critical—accessibility cuts across borders and in real time. For example, the development around blockchain technology to support green supply chains that include tracking and measuring the use and recycling of resources in production is an efficient driver towards reducing the use of water and emission of greenhouse gas and waste. The technology enables better connection with wider stakeholders across supply chains. In many ways, through its recording in its ledger of all movements in its supply chain of activities, blockchain technology has made it easier for organisations to be more transparent. The sharing of information has helped networked corporations more easily support sustainability activities.

Kay Luan, you are exploring corporate involvement in community development; why is this an important topic for you and how does it link to your overall sustainable futures agenda?

Over time, organisations have placed more significant attention on impacts and influence when managing their community development. Corporate involvement in community development has become more of a social obligation to its local stakeholder’s community, not least because corporate social initiatives greatly benefit corporate reputation. There is growing evidence that business corporations have accepted that there is much to be gained when corporations recognise that they have a role in sustainable development, including community development.

And finally, in what way does the concept of Harmonious Entrepreneurship resonate with you and your ambitions for sustainable futures?

Harmonious entrepreneurship as a concept can potentially impact the lives of many and their immediate world in a variety of ways. These potentials resonant with the things I do and the people I engage across the communities. By integrating these philosophies, practices and purposes, we together can make a difference. 

We can no longer accept traditional entrepreneurship practice without noting its social and environmental implications.  Lessons have been learnt from global issues such as COVID-19, unequal progress, climate change, and inequity. Harmonious entrepreneurs are at the forefront of executing real change in promoting and putting first the very elements of our communities. 

The inter-connectedness of these pressing concerns and issues demands us to adopt a more holistic view of social entrepreneurship and actively pursue economic progress without harming the fragile environment and social fabric.

One of my objectives is to spread the word; by promoting and convincing many of this concept. We have in place, with the Harmonious Entrepreneurship Society, the opportunity to generate human and social capital within a workplace culture that respects humanity and is in harmony with the environment. We stand a better chance of achieving equity and enablement towards a society founded on empathy, humanity, and empowerment by enabling this. 

These are also in line with current trends and movements towards an ESG environment. Such momentum is likely to be accelerated with many governments making a commitment towards embracing zero carbon policies and society while fulfilling the SDG goals. 

Thank you so much Kay Luan, for spending time with me today and sharing in your inspiring sustainability journey.


‘Mind behind’ interviews, by Emergent

Linked blog: Introducing Kay Luan Tay

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