Kwek Leng Joo: Singapore’s CSR pioneer

Kwek Leng Joo, a philanthropist and nature lover credited for driving the CSR movement in corporate Singapore and transforming the country’s building sector into a world-leading force, died on Monday aged 62.

It was a speech with bold ideas, delivered in his trademark soft, measured tones.

Addressing a large business audience at the International Singapore CSR Summit in August, Kwek Leng Joo declared: “Businesses have never before faced the moral challenges that they face in today’s global economy”.

It was to be one of his final speeches as president of the Global Compact Network Singapore, which organised the event. In a gentle but firm exhortation, he said: Companies must realise that their actions are open to scrutiny, and they must accept the reality that they have to be accountable to society. Responsible business practices must become mainstream.

In business and in personal life, Kwek – the deputy chairman of Singapore-listed property giant City Developments - devoted much of his time pursuing this ideal.

Over the decades, he had come to be known in Singapore’s corporate landscape as a CSR titan, driving the corporate sustainability movement with his big ideas and gentle yet persuasive approach. 

On Monday, aged 62, he died of a sudden heart attack in his sleep, leaving the local community stunned from the loss.

He is survived by his wife, two sons, a daughter-in-law and two grandchildren.  

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, in a letter to Kwek’s wife, paid tribute to Kwek as “a champion of the environment, leader of corporate social responsibility, and a fine photographer with a big heart”.

Kwek was just about to launch the Create4Good Fund the very next day at the Singapore University of Technology and Design – an initiative set up with a $3 million personal donation from him that funds student-led innovations that serve social and environmental good.

The Kwek family – including Leng Joo’s brother Leng Beng, who is CDL’s chairman – is listed as the second-richest in Singapore by Forbes magazine, with a net worth of some US$6 billion (S$8.5 billion). The family had built their wealth with businesses spanning finance to property and hospitality.

Born in 1953 in Singapore, Kwek carved a reputation as a shrewd businessman who understood the importance of corporate social responsibility, long before it became mainstream. 

In the long-term, my hope is for every home and workplace building to be carbon positive and climate neutral…This may not happen in my lifetime, but it is a vision that we can work towards.

Kwek Leng Joo, deputy chairman of CDL

He was appointed CDL’s managing director in 1995 and under his leadership, CDL published an official CSR statement in 1995, embarking on a journey that’s led the company to become one of the most sustainable companies in Singapore and in the world.

CDL was the first Singapore company to be listed on the world’s top sustainability benchmarks including the Global 100 Most Sustainable Companies in the World since 2009. It is also in the FTSE4Good Index, Global 100 Most Sustainable Corporates by Corporate Knights, and the Dow Jones Sustainability Index.

It is also the first Singapore developer listed on and included in the UN Global Compact 100, the top 100 leaders in CSR selected from more than 10,000 corporate members globally.

In a statement issued on Monday, CDL said that Kwek was a “dedicated advocate of CSR for over two decades” and his vision had established CDL’s reputation as a “leading green building champion and a forerunner in CSR”.

His work raised the bar for Singapore’s real estate industry and drove change for the building sector, the company said. “His pioneering green efforts for over 20 years have helped put CDL and Singapore on the global map of sustainability,” it added.

Indeed, Kwek had been instrumental in spearheading not just sustainability efforts at CDL but also in the wider building industry and business community in Singapore. He served as president of the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry from 1993 to 1997, and 2001 to 2005. In 2012, he was elected president of the United Nations Global Compact Singapore chapter.

In that speech in August, Kwek had painted a vision for the Compact to “advance sustainability in Singapore for global good”, noting that it underpins Singapore’s larger vision of becoming a liveable, sustainable global city.

He even advocated for the Prime Minister’s Office to consider adopting the organisation to accelerate the impact of their operations on the society and the environment at large.

A true pioneer

In an interview with Eco-Business in 2014, Kwek recalled the challenging environment during the 1990s when CDL was looking for like-minded partners in its sustainability journey.

This was during the days when the term ‘CSR’ was hardly heard or uttered in Asia.

“Back in the 1980s and 1990s, the building and construction industry was widely perceived to be destroying the environment,” he said. “It was very clear to us then that a paradigm shift was required and in 1995, we established our vision to ‘conserve as we construct’.”

The company started pushing the boundaries and explored ways to build sustainably, dragging the rest of the industry along with it.

In 2005, Singapore’s Building and Construction Authority launched the national green building certification scheme, Green Mark, in a move that recognized sustainable, green buildings as the standard that all property owners should strive for.

“I can safely say that sustainable development, environmental friendliness and best ESG (environmental, social and governance) practices have become second nature to our industry,” said Kwek. 

Today, there are over 2,500 Green Mark building projects in Singapore, with CDL owning the highest number. It has more than 70 BCA Green Mark properties, including 33 with Green Mark Platinum status.

In recognition of his contributions to conserving the environment, Kwek was conferred the President’s Award for the Environment 2015, Singapore’s highest environmental accolade, in October.

In September, he was listed on the 9th Forbes Asia’s Heroes of Philanthropy List.

The young were also close to his heart. He believed in inculcating an awareness among the youth so that they could become “future CSR champions” when they stepped into the workforce. Among the initiatives that sought to achieve this was the CDL-Young CSR Leaders Award, a competition that rewards tertiary students for coming up with innovative CSR projects.

Avid photographer and nature lover

Despite his many corporate responsibilities, Kwek relentlessly pursued his passion for photography. His favourite subject was nature but his interests included architecture, people and street scenes. Over the years, he held a number of solo and group exhibitions including ‘Tracking Memories’ (2011) and ‘Flora Exotica’ (2012).

He raised more than S$3 million through sales of his photo works and art books for various charitable and environmental causes over the years. 

In his latest photo project, Soul & Sensibilities, he collaborated with China-born master painter Lin Lu Zai and created a new art form combining photography and Chinese painting and calligraphy. The exhibition was held in October at the National Museum, and the sale of selected works and the commemorative art books raised S$550,000 for the President’s Challenge, an annual fund-raising campaign set up by S R Nathan, Singapore’s sixth president, to help charities. 

Just before his death, Kwek also pledged S$5 million of his own money to the Nanyang Technological University to promote CSR practices by working with students. The “KLJ CoLab4Good” is slated to open in early 2016.  

This vision of making social responsibility and environmentalism part of everyday life in Singapore has always driven Kwek, who said that while much progress has been made in the past two decades, the country is “still behind other Asian cities like Tokyo and Taipei when it comes to eco-habits such as recycling”. 

His passing has left his staff who knew him “heartbroken”, said Esther An, executive assistant to Kwek and CDL’s chief sustainability officer. 

“Mr Kwek had a very fulfilling and meaningful life and helped many, in particular the youths,” she said. “He was the kindest, most selfless, unassuming businessman and my mentor for 21 years. I will miss him for life.”

Minister for Foreign Affairs, Vivian Balakrishnan, described him as “the perfect gentleman” who was passionate about sustainability. “His humility, grace and generosity was inspiring. I was fortunate to have known and worked with him for so many years on some of his causes.” 

Kwek had hoped that some day, green buildings would finally become mainstream in Singapore – a dream he has harboured and laboured on since 20 years ago.

In his final interview with Eco-Business, he said: “In the long-term, my hope is for every home and workplace building to be carbon positive and climate neutral…This may not happen in my lifetime, but it is a vision that we can work towards.”

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