“Taking action by yourself can also inspire others to do the same": Toh Hui Ran '17
Toh Hui Ran (she/her/hers) is currently working and farming at All Green Learning Centre, located at the fringe of the UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site Kao Yai National Park in Nakorn Ratchasima, Thailand. She graduated from Yale-NUS College in 2017 as an Environmental Studies major.
Hamid: Thanks for agreeing to the interview! Could you share what have you been up to since graduation, in terms of the non-profit or social impact initiatives or organisations you’ve been involved in?
Hui Ran: For a while I helped out with Food Rescue SG, an initiative where volunteers collect and redistribute food that is going to be thrown away to people who have a demonstrated need for it. I was involved at the early stages. At the time, we just went up to the vendors and tried our luck! I did that for about a year when I was still in Singapore.
Now I’m in Thailand and work for All Green Learning Centre, a non-profit organisation founded by my family that does non-profit social and environmental work in the region. We work on many different projects: some infrastructural ones like building clinics, where we might work closely with the villages; others where we provide health or forest fire equipment. We’re also involved in projects that involve ecosystem restoration and reforestation, and we test sustainable technologies on a localised scale to see if it can be useful for ourselves or for the people in the rural areas. Such technologies may be particularly useful in a future food or energy crisis as these things can be used off-grid.
I also do some farming and try to grow a good amount of my family’s food. Still working on that.
Hamid: One of the things I wanted to ask you about was your job before you came to All Green Learning Center. So that’s City Developments Limited, right?
Hui Ran: Struggling. (Laughs.) Yeah.
Hamid: (Laughs) I think for me what’s interesting about your journey is that you started in a space that most of us would think of when we imagine what working in the non-profit sector, or being involved in cause-based work, would look like. For a while, you worked at City Developments Limited (CDL) in Singapore, before moving to Thailand to work at All Green Learning Centre. While there might be similarities between the two, the work you do now is more localised but also tightly integrated into the area that you are based in. Change happens quite directly for you. What made you switch?
Hui Ran: In CDL, I worked in the corporate sustainability department, on communications and events management. So it’s not like non-profit work, or a social enterprise. It was solidly sustainability within a corporate setting. So corporate first, then sustainability.
I did communications and reporting related to the company’s sustainability measures, to various ends, whether that was to fulfil international standards, or to promote the idea that sustainability can be profitable. I also organised events that were sustainability-related like roadshows, talks, conferences, or charity-style events, like, for example, organising a sale of second-hand goods using a venue space provided by CDL.
There were two main motivators for the switch: The opportunity itself was not something that I had to look for, because it was my family’s thing. It was just right there. I only needed to decide if I wanted to take it up.
But I was wondering if I wanted to do something that was very localised. And ‘localised’ is an objective way of saying it but in my head I thought it was low-impact and small-scale. At the time I was thinking, “The company is so huge. It’s literally worth billions of dollars. Why would I give up this opportunity to potentially make an impact in the scene, to go to Thailand?” The work in Thailand did look meaningful but I was wondering if it was too ‘small’ for me.
Why would I give up this opportunity to potentially make an impact in the scene, to go to Thailand?” The work in Thailand did look meaningful but I was wondering if it was too ‘small’ for me.
But after six or seven months into the job, I began to feel disillusioned with what I was doing. By that time I had a lot of opportunities to observe the wider corporate sustainability scene, and I realised that while the work we did had a lot of potential impact, a listed company also has so many stakeholders that they are accountable to, such as their shareholders, board members and staff—in addition to the environment—which was not always prioritised.
I also realised that my department’s ability to influence the inherent sustainability of the company’s business model was minimal. The business model is to basically turn a profit by either constructing more buildings or profiting off existing buildings. But this doesn’t really make sense in Singapore because the building would then be torn down and rebuilt, not because there was anything structurally wrong with the building, but because there’s not enough land. And this is not anyone’s fault. The company is so established and there are many parts that you must work through to make tangible changes. And the people you need to work through these changes also have a stake in the whole thing. So, I was like, kinda sian, right? So I thought maybe I should quit and do something else.
The second motivator was when I went to a meditation retreat in Thailand after, I think, a year into the sustainability job. My parents went to this meditation centre, and I just tagged along. And it was a good thing because it was very head-clearing. I came out of it better understanding myself and the motivations behind this internal conflict of whether to stay or leave. Perhaps I had certain ambitions with the job, thinking that I could do it and work my way up to a respectable position. But I also knew that if I didn’t do something I really liked then I’d be quite miserable. I also personally felt—and I still do—that if I believe in something, if I feel like some change needs to happen or something is worth doing, I should do it myself.
If I believe in something, if I feel like some change needs to happen or something is worth doing, I should do it myself.
So the conflict of the decision came from me not knowing what I wanted to do with myself. It was very much an internal thing, not necessarily to do with CDL as a company. The bigger questions were, “What do I want to do with my life? What’s important to me? How do I spend my time in a way that doesn’t make me feel miserable?”
Hamid: It sounds to me like you were trying to understand your own motivations towards work, and how you wanted to spend your time. And I think this is useful for people who are working in the non-profit sector. I am sure there are people who think about this because they care very deeply about the issues that they are working on.
We talked about this a little bit already, but I wanted to know if you have anything else to add to this point. Some people might say that the biggest impact you can make is usually in the role of the regulator, or funder or legislator, instead of someone who doing the everyday work. Do you think this is true?
Hui Ran: I feel like the idea that you must reach a certain position to do something… that’s kinda sad, right? You can do something with yourself at any point in time. Obviously, there are some tangible constraints in people’s lives that would prevent them from taking certain steps, but you can do things even without it being connected to the notion of having to be in a certain position.
Even if it’s not as intellectualised as my own motivations, it nevertheless comes from a very similar place, which simply put are driven by questions like “What am I doing with my life?” or “What is my contribution to the world?”
I feel like I saw this in my own parents, who have been doing this for a while. They are very action-oriented and what I learned from them is that taking action by yourself can also inspire others to do the same. When I was in Thailand, I also saw people who would convert their family’s land into an organic farm or a forest. And this is rooted in their desire to do something with their lives. Even if it’s not as intellectualised as my own motivations, it nevertheless comes from a very similar place, which simply put are driven by questions like “What am I doing with my life?” or “What is my contribution to the world?” You don’t have to be a big believer in charity or social equality. It’s not like one must try hard to be a nice person. In the people I’ve observed, it came from within—and by that, I don’t think they think to themselves that they want to be influential and then act upon those intentions. It was something that came from within themselves in a sincere way, that then moved them to act. It’s fundamentally quite simple but I guess hard to grasp, but I feel like that’s more important than thinking that I need to have influence before I can do stuff.
Hamid: I was just thinking that it’s easy to lose sight of why you are doing what you do, and to think of it in terms of how it’s going to help your career or personally benefit you, when in fact it’s really about trying to speak your own values back to you in a way that can then help you understand what types of work would resonate with you.
Hui Ran: I gave a couple of interviews that were similar in tone or direction as what we’re doing now. For some of these interviews, it was hard for me to explain the gist of why I am in Thailand and doing what I’m doing. Maybe some people might try to understand it as the desire to do some charity work or certain inclination towards a certain cause, when in fact it is a lot more internally driven.
Hamid: What advice would to have for someone who was in your shoes 3 or 4 years ago?
Hui Ran: Try to understand what it is that you really care about. It’s different for everyone. Go and try a bunch of stuff that you’re interested in, and let it happen organically. It’s important to be open to understanding how we connect to different things, instead of feeling like we should be doing charity work, or a specific type of work connected to a cause.
It’s important to be open to understanding how we connect to different things, instead of feeling like we should be doing charity work, or a specific type of work connected to a cause.
Hamid: Last question. What are you reading now?
Hui Ran: Fun question! I started two books recently—and it may be noted that my reading isn’t usually so intellectual. I just alternate between fun books and ‘smart people’ books. I finished a fun book recently, so now it’s more intellectual. I’m reading Larissa MacFarquhar’s Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help. I don’t usually like to read books like this but while reading it I thought it reflected some of my motivations for being a “do-gooder”, and it was a good opportunity for self-reflection. The other book is The World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond. This is a lot more anthropological and anecdotal, but the writing style is simple and accessible.
More information about Uthai Forest, an ecosystem restoration project run by All Green Learning Center, can be found at their website. Hui Ran also frequently shares about their projects on her personal Instagram account (@merrmish).