Festival of Ideas 2023: Leaders in Sustainability

Reading Time: 6 minutes

By Chia Kei Yin (24S03C)

All photographs by Raffles Photographic Society.

A day filled with possibility, wonder and reflection, Day 2 of the Festival of Ideas (FOI) welcomed a series of sustainability experts eager to share their visions for a long-lasting future. 

The novelty of the FOI experience, which incorporated both the thoughtfulness of an academic dialogue and the lively atmosphere of a concert, made it exciting for speakers and audience members alike.

Ms Madhumitha Ardhavari’s opening speech

The evening’s proceedings began with an opening speech by Ms Madhumitha Ardhavari, a  sustainability strategist at Forum for the Future. She urged the audience to ask themselves a question: what are they passionate about?

For Ms Madhu, her passions lay with the earth. “Have we thought of our sand?” she asked, pointing out that many of us have not considered the environmental issues that arose from land reclamation. Given that 22% of Singapore’s total ground area is reclaimed, it is surprising that we barely consider its repercussions. 

Closing her speech with a series of thought-provoking questions, Ms Madhu asked, “What is a good ancestor? What legacy do we wish to leave behind?” Offering attendees insightful food for thought, Ms Madhu’s opening address set the stage for the rest of the evening’s sharings.

Panel discussion involving Ms Madhumitha Ardhavari, Dr Koh Lian Pin and Dr Andie Ang

Next, the panel discussion commenced, inviting Ms Madhu, Dr Koh Lian Pin (Director of NUS Centre for Nature-based Climate Solutions and NMP) and Dr Andie Ang (Senior Manager of Primate Conservation & Singapore Programmes at Mandai Nature) onstage to share about their work in sustainability.

The first main topic discussed was about finding the precarious balance between conservation and development, with panellists expressing the importance of involving both businesses and policymakers in this dialogue. 

“It’s so important to hear from different voices at once,” Dr Ang pointed out, adding that discussing varied viewpoints with different stakeholders allowed compromises to be formed.

Further, the panellists explained that society ought to care for both man and the environment. Ms Madhu noted that social equity was an important societal goal; everyone should have access to basic life essentials. At the same time, in our plans for technological advancement, we must also be aware of planetary boundaries, such as limited natural resources. 

During the Question & Answer segment, audience members asked about how to carry out practical action plans to tackle complex environmental issues. In response, Ms Madhu emphasised that before we even consider doing so, we first need to care about such issues.

“We must bring to light environmental issues that are not within economic prerogatives.”

Ms Madhumitha Ardhavari

Agreeing with a laugh, Dr Ang replied, “People must learn that not everything in nature serves you.” 

“We prioritise having voices heard in society, but we do not often consider those without a voice,” mentioned Dr Koh. Calling the audience to care about socio-economic issues, he wished to ensure that those without a voice are empowered to speak about their needs and express their environmental concerns.

“No one succeeds till we all succeed.” 

Dr Koh Lian Pin

Following the panel discussion, there was a short intermission, during which the audience could participate in an online poll: is the issue of environmental conservation new?

Mr Firdaus Sani’s sharing on local indigenous communities

Mr Firdaus Sani, Founder of Orang Laut SG, answered that question with a resounding ‘no’. As a 4th-generation Orang Laut, his family traces its roots to Pulau Semakau, which was once their home, and now Singapore’s only landfill.

Through a plethora of photographs displaying fascinating marine animals found at the Riau Islands, along with detailed descriptions of indigenous fishing methods, Mr Firdaus’ strong connection with his cultural heritage shone through. 

“These are Semakau’s protectors,” shared Mr Firdaus, explaining that in the past, the locals believed there was a spirit protector for each part of the island to safeguard the wildlife. This system of protectors dictated that only a select number of families could fish in certain areas, preventing overfishing.

Although Singapore’s indigenous community cares deeply about their natural co-habitants, Mr Firdaus observed that environmental conservation discourse often does not consider indigenous voices, expressing the hope that they would be consulted on environmental issues in the future.

Ms Nichol Ng talked about her journey in founding Food Bank Singapore

After Mr Firdaus’ insightful sharing, the Ignite Talk started off, where speakers shared their ground-up approach to handling environmental issues. Ms Nichol Ng, Co-Founder of Food Bank Singapore, shared about how she founded Food Bank Singapore.

When she was in her 20s, Ms Ng took up the mantle of Group CEO of her family’s food distribution company X-INC. 

She and her brother soon observed that there was a large discrepancy in Singapore’s food distribution: on one hand, food waste in Singapore was prevalent, but so was the lack of accessibility to food for underprivileged members of the community. 

Hence, they decided to start Food Bank Singapore, a charity which collects excess food from food suppliers and re-distributes them to the underprivileged. Due to the general lack of knowledge regarding food banks at the time, they had to jump through many hoops—enduring arduous legal processes and dispelling misconceptions.

“[Eleven years ago], Singapore had the most expensive cars, most expensive housing, but did not know about food banks.”

Ms Nichol Ng

The task of tackling excessive food waste is as colossal as the massive quantity of food wasted every year, but through “education and advocacy”, Ms Ng believes that as a society, we can do better. 

Her charity reflects this philosophy—the Food Bank accepts volunteers as young as 5 years old to “instil sustainable thinking into the young”, who can educate and campaign in their schools as well.

Ms Jasmine Tuan commenting on how she founded Cloop

Next, Ms Jasmine Tuan, Co-founder of Cloop, took to the stage. She introduced herself as a “shopaholic”—liking fashion because she could express herself through her clothes, and because it was “fun”. However, now she laments that “fashion is not so fun, because of [the existence of] fast fashion and ultra-fast fashion.”

Highlighting the exploitation of textile workers and the environmental damage caused by fast fashion, she questioned the audience, “Have we ever thought of who made our clothes? [Or about] the chemicals put into the making of our clothes?”

Along with a business partner, Ms Tuan founded Cloop, a community wardrobe and thrift store that operates by an honour system: second-hand clothing are donated and swapped for free, and if customers wish to pay, part of the proceeds are donated to “good causes”. 

Additionally, Ms Tuan raved about how thrift stores offer a vast array of “beautiful, preloved clothes” that make fast fashion’s “cookie-cutter and cheap” designs pale in comparison.

Musician Kin Leonn’s performance

As the day’s events came to a close, Singapore-born and London-based musician Kin Leonn, also known as the “ambient boy from Singapore”, captured the audience in his moving performance of ambient music, which included self-composed pieces from his EP. 

Featuring sounds of nature and accompanied by a light show spanning across the walls and sloped ceilings of the Albert Hong Hall, his music soothed the audience’s souls and brought a serene end to Day 2 of the Festival.

Interested to know more about the Festival of Ideas conducted as part of RI200 celebrations? Look no further— read on to find out!

Festival of Ideas: Thinkers in Society

Festival of Ideas: Pioneers in Innovation

Festival of Ideas: Pulling Back the Curtain

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