Profile: Howard Shaw

Profile: Howard Shaw

He’s from Asia’s biggest cinema and property owning family. He’s a young man in a hurry to make a business out of being green. He runs the Singapore Environment Council and is organising a ‘green grand prix or G1′ for locally made eco cars a week before the Formula One Race in Singapore. Howard Shaw’s idea is to move away from the doom and gloom of climate change by creating awareness for the environment and emerging clean technologies.

Ken Hickson met with Howard Shaw in Singapore this week to discuss plans for the innovative G1 event as well as a host of educational and awareness raising activities he has underway for the Singapore Environment Council.

He has already taken the environmental movement further into boardrooms than anyone before him. Described as a “green crusader”, Howard is modest about his achievements but determined to get businesses on board to become more sustainable in a city noted for its high rise living, ever expanding shopping centres and high growth economy.

To provide greater insight into the man and his approach to his job as executive director of the Singapore Environment Council, we draw on this article which appeared in the Singapore Strait Times a few days ago:

Going deep-sea fishing with his family from a young age, Howard Shaw developed a love of nature.

Akshita Ninanda in the Straits Times (6 September 2010):

On a boiling hot afternoon, the air is still and heavy at the headquarters of the Singapore Environment Council (SEC) in Cluny Park Road. Even a short 10-minute wait is uncomfortable. Not a fan stirs to cool the corridors in keeping with the office policy of minimising energy consumption.

Stepping into executive director Howard Shaw’s office is a welcome relief. The noon sun streaming in through big bay windows is defused by blinds and air-conditioning turned on low. Cool water is offered in reusable tumblers. Rescued from heatstroke, I admire the view of the Singapore Botanic Gardens.

The only plant inside the office is a small perennial in a jar reused as a plant pot. To my surprise, Mr Shaw confesses: ‘I’m lousy with plants. I kill them.’

Another surprise: The 39-year-old says he spends much of each working day in meetings with corporate bodies and associations willing to adopt eco-friendly practices. His desk is bordered by neat stacks of paper and a tie on top ‘in case of emergencies’, that is, meetings that require him to dress formally.

‘We’re unlike traditional non-governmental organisations, which are placard- holders and fence-blockers,’ he explains. ‘In Singapore, it’s very much about engaging stakeholders and finding win-win solutions.’

An example is persuading local supermarkets such as FairPrice and Cold Storage to ask customers to pay for plastic bags. It not only cuts retailers’ costs but also reduces the use of these land polluters. Bring Your Own Bag Day was launched by the council and the National Environment Agency in 2008 and is now a weekly affair.

A similar win-win green scheme is certifying products that are eco-friendly. This accreditation gets manufacturers to do their part to conserve precious planetary resources and, in return, benefit from the growing market for green goods. This certification forms a large part of the work of the council, which was set up in 1995 to facilitate green causes locally.

The council works to make businesses, schools and members of the public more conscious of their impact on the environment and helps them take action. Activities include working with school eco-clubs to design water-treatment plants and recognising industries employing eco-friendly practices at the yearly Singapore Environmental Achievement Awards.

Mr Shaw joined the council 14 years ago and has been the executive director of the non-profit, non-governmental organisation since 2003. He says he earns a monthly four-figure salary.

The council employs a staff of 11 and charges for its accreditation work. However, it is largely supported by donations in cash and kind from the Government and bodies such as the Lee Foundation and Shaw Foundation. As an Institute Of Public Character, donations to it are tax exempt.

Fund-raising can sometimes be a problem for Mr Shaw. ‘When people think of SEC, they think, ‘It’s being run by Howard Shaw, so they don’t need money’. They are wrong,’ he says with a laugh.

The middle child of three, he is the younger son of Shaw Vee King, managing director of cinema giant Shaw Organisation and son of its founder Runme Shaw. Howard’s brother Mark is vice-president of the company, which was set up in Singapore in 1924 and soon expanded to making and distributing movies in various parts of Asia. Their younger sister is a corporate analyst.

The family business supports the council in kind, allowing it to hold fund-raising gala premieres of eco-themed movies such as Earth in April.

While Mr Shaw says he has little desire to enter the family business, he refuses to comment on whether he will ever leave his job at the council.

His first nine years were spent in Hong Kong, where his father ran that overseas arm of Shaw. Even though he played on movie sets there as a child and loved watching film crews stage explosions, he says he was always more fascinated by nature than the art of film. He puts that down to being allowed to keep pets and encouraged to spend time outdoors.

‘Even when I returned to Singapore in 1979, after school, I would get together with the neighbours and go catch guppies in drains. Or spiders. I’ve a lot of scars to show from those rambling days.’

The guppies were food for the fish he kept in a marine tank, set up with the aid of his maths tutor. ‘We spent a large part of the time playing with the aquarium and less with maths,’ he recalls.

Sent to boarding school in England at age 12, he spent his free time in Marlborough House in Kent climbing trees or observing pond animals and thinking of ways to transform his love of nature into a career. Those were the years of the recycling boom, as landfill sites were being depleted in the United Kingdom and the United States.

‘My mother told me, ‘You should go into the waste business, you could potentially make a lot of money.’ Those were the days when garbage men in Los Angeles were making more money than some lawyers,’ he says. His mother, Linda, 62, is a housewife.

After finishing his A levels, he signed up to do a degree in environmental biology at Oxford Brookes University. In between, he headed back to Singapore to do his national service, volunteering for the navy diving unit.

Aquatic activities held great appeal, given the family hobby of deep-sea fishing. But going underwater was an eye-opener. ‘If you think there are a lot of plastic bags on land, there is a sea of plastic bags under the sea,’ he says with distaste. ‘It was distressing.’

And more garbage floated down each day into their training area in the Strait of Johor, according to his then diving buddy James Han, now 41. ‘It is unimaginable, the whole seabed is covered with plastic bags. You can’t even get a look at the sand,’ says the marine industry executive.

According to him, Mr Shaw was not content to just complain. He devised a barrier to trap floating debris and made his fellow national servicemen use it.

‘It made a lot of difference to us,’ says Mr Han, who was not at all surprised when his friend went on to join the Singapore Environment Council after completing his degree.

It was a new operation at Fort Canning Park in 1996 when Mr Shaw came looking for a job. It was love at first sight, he recalls. The office used recycled materials in furnishing and equipment and often kept doors and windows open instead of using fans and electric lighting. ‘Everyone walked around barefoot. I thought, this is where I want to work, it’s like Bali,’ he says.

Mrs Kirtida Mekani, 50, was then the executive director of the council. Rather than relying on his resume, she gave him five topics and access to their little library and told him to write an essay on any issue he chose.

His composition about needing to get children to engage with nature at an early age won her over. ‘I believe in picking up people with a passion. I saw his enthusiasm, I knew I had to take him. He was hungry to do things, which is important,’ she recalls. It was only later that she found out that he was ‘one of those Shaws’.

His first assignment with the council was engaging with industries and developing what would become the Singapore Environment Achievement Award.

Family connections helped, he says, usually as an ice-breaker in meetings. ‘I’m always being asked why I’m not doing movies,’ he says with a smile.

In the beginning, he says, the award was just an added trophy for the meeting room, but as consumers became more aware of eco-issues, green ideas gained credence in industry.

The Green Label now seen on products from photocopiers to food packaging is one of the checks the council administers to inform consumers that such products are easier on the environment than others. The scheme was launched by the Government in 1992 but the council keeps it going.

This year, the council got together with the Singapore Contractors Association Limited to start certifying ‘green’ contractors. It is working on ways to accredit hotels, food courts and offices for their eco-friendly stance, looking at areas from building materials to energy consumption to whether employees recycle. The benchmarks used are set through consultations with international organisations worldwide.

Demand for such accreditation is going through the roof, Mr Shaw says, as consumers have become more conscious of what they are buying. Travelling executives choose eco-friendly hotels as part of corporate social responsibility, while consumers expect purchases to come in recycled packaging.

‘Today, these green labels are essential to export-based countries. Even places such as South Korea and Taiwan will ask about your green credentials,’ he says.

As an ambassador for eco-friendliness, he tries to walk the talk, while saying he is not as hardcore as he could be.

He owns two pairs of office shoes and wears them until they fall apart. He brings tupperware to hawker centres to take food home and drives a hybrid Toyota Prius, advising family members to do the same when their cars are ready for scrap.

‘We have a lot of monster cars in the family,’ he adds with a laugh. The owner of a folding bicycle, he cycles to work ’20 per cent of the time’.

In the SEC headquarters, air-conditioning is limited to the meeting room and some workspaces and not used on Thursdays. Mr Shaw says he often feels the heat and is full of admiration for the staff who stick to their guns.

At his home in Balmoral Park, where he lives with his sister, her husband and their grandmother, natural ventilation is preferred to air-conditioning and kitchen waste is composted for the garden.

The divorced father of two daughters, aged nine and 12, says his children keep him toeing the green line, scolding him if he leaves the door to an air-conditioned room open, for example. He shares custody of them with his ex-wife and does not comment on his current partner of four years, except to say that she shares his decision to eschew shark’s fin dishes.

While not strictly vegetarian, he limits his meat intake and avoids exotic foods, since transporting them adds to greenhouse gas pollution. Recently, he gave up tuna sashimi after learning that the species is being over-fished.

He is not the sort of activist who is constantly seeking a soapbox or sending fiery missives to the media. This often comes as a surprise to people, he says.

‘But I understand the Singapore way of doing things,’ he explains. ‘It’s about consultation, a lot of it is closed door. To present your request, you have to put up a good business case for it, put up a good social case for it, rather than just go to the press straight away. If you do that, the doors slam shut.’

He learnt the value of working with the system the hard way. This was the failure of Car-Free Day in 2000, an attempt to get Singaporeans to stop driving their cars and use alternative means of transport. ‘Addressing climate change, we have to talk about cars, that’s 20 per cent of global gas emissions,’ he says.

Unfortunately, the scheme received more criticism than support from the public. ‘I don’t think we realised what we were facing in terms of the mentality of the target group. We basically got a campaign from Europe and we lifted it and dropped it in Singapore. Dropped is the right word because it went down like a lead balloon,’ he says.

‘People wrote in saying ‘On average I spend $20 a day on owning a car and SEC is telling me I shouldn’t drive it.’ There were fears that the transport system would be overcrowded. Even then Acting Environment Minister Lim Swee Say was quoted as saying that it’s okay to drive on Car-Free Day.’

The scheme was replaced with Green Transport Week to promote ‘greener mobility’, but Mr Shaw found to his dismay that this only preached to the converted. ‘If you ask the average person about GTW, they’ll say ‘Huh?”

So, he says, to widen their outreach, the council is going with the zeitgeist this year instead of against it. They are organising a ‘green grand prix or G1′ on Sept 19, a week before the Formula One Race.

Contestants from schools and polytechnics will build cars from recycled plastic and wood and zip around the F1 track. Teams from tertiary institutions will have a separate race in eco-cars they have designed to run on solar energy and electricity.

The idea is to move away from the doom and gloom of climate change and create awareness of emerging technologies, says Mr Shaw.

‘We decided we needed to have a lot more fun with this to draw people from all over Singapore. After all, who doesn’t want to be part of the whole F1 Singapore Grand Prix season?’

Source: and

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