A Partnership Sustained by Scarcity

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The Southeast Asian island nation of Singapore, home to 5 million people, is famous for being clean, orderly and safe. It’s also a place of bustling diversity, with nearly 40 percent of its population foreign-born. Stroll along the main roads, from the busy shopping strip of Orchard Road to the landscaped Victorian-era Singapore Botanic Gardens, and you’ll see residents from China, India and Malaysia, as well as legions of tourists and businessmen from across Asia, checking their BlackBerries and snapping photos. Or walk along the downtown streets, beneath towering skyscrapers, and you’ll pass small churches, Hindu temples and mosques within a few blocks. What makes Singapore a desirable destination for such a dynamic mix of people to live, work and visit is not only its booming economy, which grew a remarkable 14.7 percent last year, but the fact that Singapore has managed to grow in a way that hasn’t left the Lion City feeling uncomfortably crowded, or chaotic.
In terms of urban studies, Singapore’s success as a city is quite remarkable.
— Marian Chertow
This is remarkable when you consider its geography. As with all island nations, land, water and other natural resources are scarce. Formerly a shipping hub controlled by the British East India Company, Singapore severed ties with Britain to join the Federation of Malaysia in 1963. Two years later, it became an independent country. In 1965 its population was under 2 million. The country’s growth in the past half-century—adding some 3 million people—might not seem remarkable, except for the fact that Singapore covers just 241 square miles. (By comparison, the state of Rhode Island is home to just 1 million people today on 1,200 square miles.) With more than 18,000 people packed into each square mile, Singapore boasts the world’s second-highest national population density—topped only by the tiny Principality of Monaco. Enlightened urban planning, therefore, is a necessity.
 
As you might expect, Singaporean officials, business leaders and educators today think a great deal about sustainability, or the most effective ways to use and reuse their limited natural resources. It’s little wonder, then, that over the last decade professors at F&ES and the National University of Singapore (NUS) have found each other stimulating intellectual partners. A series of personal friendships, which began when an F&ES graduate returned home to Singapore to develop the environmental, health and safety programs of his family’s company, has led to an ongoing dialogue among a small but dedicated number of faculty members at F&ES and NUS. While Yale University and NUS have recently announced plans to establish a new undergraduate college in Singapore, F&ES already has a long history in shaping and stimulating thinking about environmental management in the booming Asian metropolis.
Jessen
Heinrich Jessen
Heinrich Jessen ’95 was born in Denmark but spent his adolescence in Singapore. In 1895 his grandfather founded a shipping and trading company in Hong Kong that migrated to Singapore in the 1960s, where it grew into the diversified manufacturing, engineering and distribution conglomerate Jebsen & Jessen, with 45 subsidiaries. Jessen, however, wasn’t immediately certain he wanted to go into the family business. After finishing his secondary education, he studied business in England for a year, then one day “woke up and felt, this is not all that I want to do with my life.” He left England to work for the World Wildlife Fund in Italy. That experience solidified his interest in the environment, and he went on to study biology in George Washington University’s undergraduate environmental studies program. After a stint as a field biologist in Papua New Guinea, he returned to Singapore with a new vision: helping his family’s company develop environmental, health and safety practices. “At the time, environmental management was just emerging as a concept in Southeast Asia,” he said. So in 1993, Jessen packed his bags for New Haven and started classes at F&ES.
 
His time at F&ES was “intense … my peers as much as my professors kept me on my toes,” he recalls. After graduating, Jessen moved back to Singapore to put his degree to work. He became Jebsen & Jessen’s first environmental, health and safety officer, helping to put in place standards for the storage and transport of hazardous chemicals, like cyanide, and quickly getting the company out of the business of exporting furniture made from tropical hardwoods. A year later he recruited Michael Toffel ’96, who worked with Jessen for three years. “My job was part figuring out what our policies and procedures should be, part auditor and part consultant,” said Toffel. Despite the hectic pace, the role brought great satisfaction. “It was very fulfilling to start something almost from scratch,” he said. Toffel, who lived for three years in a neighborhood known as Tanglin—“a lovely wooded area near rows of 100-year-old restored Chinese row shops”—had a hand in everything from bringing packaging processes “up to an international environmental standard” to developing detailed emergency response plans in the event of a chemical spill. “Previously, emergency planning had been a version of ‘hope for the best,’” he recalled.
Michael Toffel
Michael Toffel
By the late 1990s, there was a growing awareness in Southeast Asia of how, in Jessen’s words, “manufacturing and distributions operations have significant environmental consequences and risks.” More companies based in Singapore recognized that in order to compete in the global marketplace, with environmental regulations tightening in Western countries and increasing consumer demand for “green” products, they needed to pay closer attention to the environmental impacts of their factory operations; packaging and shipping protocols; and storage and disposal of chemicals.
 
A handful of faculty members at NUS, which is Singapore’s oldest and largest university, began to investigate the possibility of establishing a new program to train future environmental managers. Chief among them was Lye Lin-Heng, an NUS associate professor of law (and currently a visiting associate professor at F&ES). “There were a lot of scattered classes on the environment at NUS, but no formal core,” she said. “I had the idea that environmental engineers should understand how environmental law works and that environmental lawyers should understand a bit about science and engineering.” Lye wanted to create a new master of science program in environmental management (M.E.M.) that would not only impart technical skills, but also teach students to think broadly about environmental management. Her colleague, Malone-Lee Lai Choo, a professor in NUS’s School of Design and Environment, shared the same vision: “We conceptualized a new program that would approach the environment as more than just science and technology,” she said. “We were quite clear that the students who would come out of this program should also have a business and policy perspective. We wanted to create leaders of environmental thinking for the future, not just to train technicians or managers.”
Marian Chertow and Lye Lin-Heng
Marian Chertow (L) and Lye Lin-Heng (R)
As it happened, Lye and Toffel met at a conference in Singapore. Lye mentioned her desire to create an M.E.M. program at NUS, and Toffel told her he had recently graduated from an interdisciplinary graduate program much like what she envisioned. He then offered to introduce her to one of his former professors and mentors at F&ES, Marian Chertow, Ph.D. ’00, associate professor of industrial environmental management. In the spring of 2000, Lye was on sabbatical at Harvard and took a train to New Haven to meet Chertow. The two became friends, and in 2001 Chertow signed a memorandum of understanding representing Yale and formalizing her role in advising on the design of NUS’ new M.E.M. program.

Partnership Inspires Other Exchanges

The NUS and F&ES partnership has provided the foundation for other exchanges. Three NUS professors have been invited as guest professors at F&ES and one of the faculty members involved in founding the M.E.M. program, Malone-Lee, has since launched the Centre for Sustainable Asian Cities at NUS. “If you address environmental issues upfront, at the planning stage,” she explains, “you can avoid some issues,” such as problems managing sewage or waste disposal, “that would occur downstream after development is complete.”
 
So the center launched a three-year research program on “urban metabolism,” focused on the flow of energy and materials in an urban environment. One of the principal investigators is Chertow, who is drawing upon her extensive experience researching industrial ecology in other island settings, such as Hawaii, where she documented how facilities within a large industrial park had found creative ways to share and reuse waste (for instance, a power plant there now uses a variety of nontraditional fuel sources as alternatives to coal, including petroleum-based products being thrown away on the island of  Oahu—tires discarded by car rental companies and used motor oil collected at gas stations). In Singapore, the researchers will study one former industrial area that’s now being redeveloped, the Jurong Lake District, to trace how and whether waste materials, from metals to minerals, can be similarly reused or recycled. The aim of the project, supported by a $400,000 grant from Singapore’s Ministry of National Development Research Fund, will be to develop a set of recommendations for development.
 
“In terms of urban studies, Singapore’s success as a city is quite remarkable,” Chertow said, citing in particular its characteristic combination of high-density development and cleanliness. Singapore “gives us a pretty positive vision of how things could be in the future,” she said. In other words, if you believe, as Chertow does, that the inevitable growth of cities in the 21st century is not environmental problem, that well-planned cities should be viewed as part of the solution, then Singapore today is an inspiring case study. 
 
It’s not only in the field of environmental management that educators in Singapore have felt lately that change is needed. The status quo model of higher education in much of Asia, which emphasizes test-taking and strict professional tracks, has come under scrutiny by government officials, economists and university presidents across the region, including in Singapore. Today there’s a growing interest in retooling undergraduate and graduate education to stress critical thinking and problem-solving skills. That ambition is accompanied by a willingness to seek out, and learn from, new partnerships.
 
And so, last spring, Richard Levin, president of Yale, and Peter Salovey, Yale’s provost, announced an agreement with NUS to co-found a new liberal arts college. “We hope it will become a model for Asia,” they wrote. The new college will be located adjacent to NUS’ campus on the urban outskirts of Singapore. Its governing board will include an equal number of members appointed by Yale and NUS, and the degrees will be issued by NUS. The curriculum will include a required course on influential historical texts, with comparative examples drawn from both Eastern and Western canons that might, for instance, pair readings from ancient Chinese philosopher Sunzi’s The Art of War and Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince. Moreover, the college will be residential—recognizing that many of the most enlightening conversations in an undergraduate education happen in dorm rooms and cafeterias, not only in lecture halls. The first class of students will enter for the 2013-14 academic year.
 
Although the new Yale-NUS undergraduate college will not be directly connected to the M.E.M. program, there’s little question that the past decade of faculty exchanges between NUS and F&ES has created high expectations and laid the groundwork for increased exchanges between Singapore and New Haven. It has been, in Lye’s words, “an inspiring synergy.”
The same year, NUS’ graduate program—modeled on F&ES’ own M.E.M.—was offered for the first time and enrolled about 30 students. Professors were drawn from seven departments, or “faculties,” as they’re called at NUS: science, economics, design and environment, business, law, engineering and medicine. At NUS, the concept of an interdisciplinary graduate program was itself novel. “Originally a lot of logistical work went into trying to get the different deans to buy into the goals of our program and to allow staff to teach,” said Malone-Lee. Another important focus of the program was on teaching problem-solving skills, also a fairly novel notion in Singapore, where learning has traditionally involved a lot of rote memorization; heated classroom debate was all but unheard-of. “A lot of courses are very hands-on,” she said. “We give students challenging scenarios to create plans for. They have to come up with a proposal, and then we critique their ideas in class and raise potential problems.”

Chertow became directly involved in teaching one of the core classes, a seminar on business and the environment. For several years she traveled to Singapore to offer the course, but today she co-teaches, with two professors at NUS, via video conference. The one year she was unavailable to teach, Chertow asked Toffel, an associate professor at Harvard Business School, to step in for her.
 
In keeping with Singapore’s reputation as a melting pot of the Pacific, NUS’ new M.E.M. program has attracted a diverse class each year, including students from the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Myanmar, Japan, China, Thailand and Vietnam. “One of the great assets, for me, of teaching at NUS,” said Chertow, is that “I really enjoy that exposure” to various regional perspectives and approaches. Students bring different assumptions based on their backgrounds and experiences. For instance, Singapore’s famed emphasis on orderliness and cleanliness—purchasing chewing gum is illegal—may strike outsiders as Draconian, but as Chertow’s students there have pointed out to her, it’s easier to understand when you’re forced to consider the climate. When you’re in the tropics, if you leave the trash out for even a few days, it will quickly start to rot. And chewing gum left on the sidewalks would remain a gooey mess. Firsthand experience of a place makes a huge difference when thinking about urban planning, she said; her students are able to share with her, and with each other, their experiences of growing up in various countries across Southeast Asia and beyond. The M.E.M. program now enrolls between 40 and 50 students each year, and its graduates have gone on to take roles across Asia in government, nongovernmental organizations and the private sector.
 
Now the chair of Jebsen & Jessen, Jessen maintains informal ties to NUS. He sometimes makes available his company’s industrial sites for NUS graduate students to conduct research. “The idea of field trips, of examining real-world problems outside the classroom,” he said, “is definitely something borrowed from F&ES.” For his part, Jessen is aiming to transform his family’s 115-year-old business into a beacon of sustainable business practices. Among his current goals: “We’re working to be the first carbon-neutral company in this part of the world.”
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