Environment champion walks the talk

Environment champion walks the talk
Ms Bhavani Prakash says she discovered her passion only at the age of 38, when she decided to use her skills for the environmental lobby in Singapore and the region.

THE year was 2003 and Ms Bhavani Prakash had just relocated from Dubai to Singapore with her husband and two children.

To many, she was the arche-typal young Indian expat.

Good grades in high school, check. Finance degree, check.

MBA from a British university. Managerial experience in a multinational firm, check.

The next logical step for her - or so she thought - was a career in banking.

After all, Singapore is a global financial centre and it looked like she was going to be here for a while.

She took her time to look around as her kids were still very young, taking up freelance work and penning course material for universities, among other things.

Then in 2008, Ms Prakash attended a seminar that asked its participants to visualise what they would regret not doing in this lifetime.

It was then that she finally realised that a career in banking didn't figure at all.

"It's like a kettle boiling. It boils and boils; then there is this point where the temperature switches, and water turns into steam," she says.

"I was 38 when I had that big wake-up call.

So I always say if young people don't know what their passion is - not to worry because I knew definitely only at the age of 38."

Inspired by her work as a volunteer tour guide at the Singapore Botanic Gardens' rainforests section, Ms Prakash decided she wanted to use her skills for the environmental lobby here in Singapore and the region.

"I used to end the Botanic Gardens walk urging visitors to 'walk the talk' and take some personal action towards the environment," she says.

So, fresh from her seminar epiphany, she set up Eco Walk the Talk, a public advocacy website that aims to raise awareness about environmental issues.

Today, Eco Walk the Talk - which was a finalist in the Singapore Environment Council's Asian Environmental Journalism Awards in 2012 - is just one of the 45-year-old's many projects. In 2011, she founded Green Collar Asia, a second sustainability portal, this time targeted at businesses.

Ms Prakash is also a TEDx motivational speaker, a green jobs recruiter and a professional trainer for a range of skills from leadership to mindfulness.

She maintains a Facebook page teaching people how to grow their own vegetables at home and has published an e-book called 50 Ways To Make Your Home Eco-Friendly.

Her latest project has been to develop, with the help of the National Environment Agency, a "sustainability toolkit" which is full of practical tips on how companies can better engage their employees in areas like corporate social responsibility (CSR) and also cultivate better work-life harmony.

Last year, she was named the Sony-Indian Women's Association Woman of the Year.

Googling "Ms Prakash" and getting pages of hits, it's apparent how much the blossoming of social media, blogs and portals has allowed individuals like her to amplify their voices and make their views heard in the new Singapore.

But Ms Prakash also credits the unique way that this country operates.

"Things have fallen into place so quickly because it is Singapore," she says.

"It's so easy to connect with people.

There are so many thought leaders flying into Singapore all the time and you meet such a cross current of ideas.

"Hierarchy is also not an issue here, unlike in a larger country like India or perhaps China," she adds.

"If you want to meet a CEO, the head of an NGO, even a minister... they are always present at events, and it's easy to just walk up and talk to them."

This is why Singaporeans should speak up more if they feel passionately about something, says the permanent resident here.

"If you see somebody throwing rubbish on the ground, stand up for it," she urges.

"Say this is my country too and I'd like to see it neat! If you don't find enough local produce in the supermarket, speak to the manager.

If you want plastics legislation to be passed, talk to your minister or MP.

Making your voice heard is an important step to be taken by all Singaporeans, however busy they are."

But does the average Singaporean even care about the environment, I ask her.

Singapore is changing, for sure, but public discourse in green issues still seems to be dominated by young middle-class adults.

"You'd be surprised, I have spoken to taxi drivers who are very knowledgeable about climate change," she replies.

"I've been to community gardens in HDB blocks and talked to aged women looking after the garden, passionate about urban gardening.

A recent survey showed that more than 60 per cent of Singaporeans care about the environment.

Bukit Timah Nature Reserve had to be temporarily closed because it was almost 'too loved'!"

But action has generally lagged awareness, I note, and ask her why she thinks that is.

"Singaporeans have a lot on their plate," she says, after a thoughtful pause.

"They worry about making ends meet, the kids' competitive education environment, their jobs, looking after aged parents... these are real issues.

Sometimes, even if you care, these issues become overwhelming and they are becoming increasingly overwhelming.

"There is no excuse for people not to recycle because they are too busy - I'm not saying that.

But there is something deeper going on and we need to structurally support people."

Still, people need to take action themselves to make their lives better.

"Singapore is a very consumerist society but the irony is that whenever you slow down to do some of these green things, like having a little urban garden, you find you stop chasing some of those things that make you busy," Ms Prakash advises.

"And slowing down can come from simple activities like connecting with nature, whether it's in your garden or community spaces, talking to neighbours, or just going to a park and re-connecting with yourself.

I would love for schoolchildren at least up to the age of 14 to have a real childhood where they can just play, enjoy and study, without an overdose of tuition and structured activities."

Ms Prakash would know.

Some of the most formative years of her childhood were spent in Zambia, where her father worked for a utilities company.

She would go with her parents to big hydroelectric plants which were often situated next to lakes and nearby nature parks.

"We would drive out to watch the giraffes, leopards and elephants and we had our own food garden where we grew corn and other greens," she recalls.

"I spent a lot of time outdoors playing with friends and just observing things around me."

That slow pace of life, she says, inculcated in her not just a healthy sense of curiosity, but also a resilience for life.

"Because you can always access that slowness at any point in time," she says.

"If I am very pressured and have a lot of work to do now, I can take a moment to return to it."

ignatius@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Mar 9, 2015.
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