Dr. Yasmin Rasyid
Sustainability Director, Lendlease
Text by Ellfian Rahim
Sustainability has all the trappings of a “buzz” word. You’ve heard it encouraged by global organisations, bloggers, artisans, and environmental activists alike. But as Dr Yasmin Rasyid has proven, it can also be a personal philosophy that benefits humanity. After all. sustainable
living means prioritising natural and renewable resources instead of creating excess waste and depleting environmental resources. And since the beginning of this not-so-new millennium, she has been a committed force towards this ideal.
Prior to her present role as Sustainability Director at Lendlease – the multinational construction, property and infrastructure giant – here in Malaysia, she’s had years of experience in championing environmental causes.
Previously, she served as Scientific Officer (1998-2001) and Communications Officer (2001-2003) for WWF- Malaysia, and Head of Research and Development (2003- 2005) for Profound Vaccine. She then founded the non- profit EcoKnights in 2005, aiming to assist communities in the areas of sustainable development. Later, she also co- founded urban farming concern Poptani in 2015.
“But ‘sustainability’ is quite a new term. In practise it has always been around… I grew up in an outdoorsy environment. We had a big garden at our house in Ipoh and weekends meant going to some waterfall nearby. My grandpa ran a pharmacy in Lumut, so many weekends were also spent there beachcombing,” remembers Dr Yasmin fondly.
“Biology quickly became my favourite thing as it was the only subject matter in school one could associate with being outdoors. I’d experiment a lot whenever I find myself in a green space. When my father got me a biological surgical set, I would actually go around doing experiments on dead frogs and insects that I’d pick up somewhere.”
“When I was at Duke University, in the U.S. pursuing my biology degree, I’d spend a lot of my summers at the university’s marine lab honing my interest in the environment further. But then I was still looking at the environment with a nature-based or conservation-based focus. The more practical side of me naively thought ‘Hey, what kind of a job am I going to secure back home if I switched to marine biology…?”
On hindsight, this allowed her to pursue education in a difffferent level. “I mean, I ended up studying for a second degree there in religion – I thought it was a nice balance to my otherwise science-based quest for knowledge.”
She’s also thankful of past mentors in her life. “But they’re not necessarily specific individuals that I’d call up for advice. These people whom I look up to are not ones that I meet very often either. I do like to listen to TED and Spotify podcasts on a diverse range of subjects, depending on what kind of game that I have, I always try to listen to an authority on the subject to try and lift myself up.”
“I also enjoyed reading about Ikigai – this roughly means ‘reason for being’ – a Japanese concept referring to something that gives a person a sense of purpose. But I’m also now reading Billy Summers by Stephen King. Suppose I read fiction as a means of escaping from the day-to-day (laughs)?”
She was also quick to point out her interatrial family background. “My grandpa is a mamak (Indian-Muslim), while grandma was from mainland china. There’s also a Javanese-Thai mix on my dad’s side” But she also remembers that back in the 1970s and 80s, interatrial marriage was not as trendy as it is today. “There was still a lot of prejudice and even discrimination because we were different.”
Then later on, her parents separated and this added another layer of social prejudice for her. “I guess at the time, being children of divorced parents, my brother and I were stigmatised, as people believed that we would be nobodies considering that we didn’t have family support in the traditional sense…”
Fortunately, these became the challenges that pushed her to go above and beyond in her life. “Right now, I am quite pleased to have managed to attain a certain level of education, achieved some prominence in a chosen field and involved in something that I strongly believe in. Suppose being resilient has been an important part of my life’s principles,” she says in reflection.
“Now, my visibility is growing with my current role, being a director in a public-listed company – effective governance comes from the highest levels you know! So, if one were to address sustainability effectively, it needs to begin in the boardroom.”
Dr Yasmin is also heartened by the fact that the last 10 years has also seen more transparency and accountability of corporate governance in sustainability. “There’s plenty of high-level uptake from the government to corporate businesses on Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) principles. This ensures they have the right social licence to operate in society.”
She believes that this has been inevitable as shareholders and investors are a younger bunch these days who are more aware of the impact companies make on the environment. “So, there’s pressure everywhere in the corporate sector about sustainability, not to mention market pressure as well from consumers!”
Now, she points out that people want to work with, or invest in companies that are ethical morally or keen to create social value for society. “I feel there is an awakening now with this evolution of businesses moving towards being profitable while making positive impact to the environment and associated communities. It’s quite exciting to see that huge demand escalating today where corporates are really pressured, but I think it’s good pressure. I mean, companies can’t operate in silos anymore – they have to be an open book. The public now demands that sort of accountability!”
With a smile, Dr Yasmin then says that her own family has also completely accepted her sustainability influence at home. “They see what I do and are very supportive of my efforts. So yes, we do the basics like harvest rainwater, compost our food waste, minimise all wastage. My two teenage girls do find it hard to control their shopping urges but as long as the packaging’s recyclable, I guess I’m ok with that! One of them even has a sustainable fashion business right now – she sources for leftover fabrics, buys stuff from thrift stores, redesigns it, and sell it online…”
Coming back to her professional duties, Dr Yasmin believes that grit and resiliency are the most important tools of her trade now. “You have to know when things don’t work, you have to recognise it and not give up as you continue finding solutions to these concerns. I have to influence many business heads to take important decisions and make financial sense at the same time, all while reducing our carbon footprint.”
She also realises that now, her biggest challenge lie in the fact that people have different levels of understanding, acceptance and knowledge when it comes to sustainability. “So, it’s a mix of daunting and exciting when you have to get into the psychology of people to figure out what works best in dynamically different situations and surroundings. But you know what? I wouldn’t have it any other way!”