18 Nov 2020 – Purpose Series (Chia Boon Chong, Singtel Group)

We are pleased to feature Chia Boon Chong, Director of Group Sustainability, Singtel for November’s instalment of our Purpose Series. The Singtel Group is Asia’s leading communications group which provides a diverse range of services, including fixed, mobile, data, internet, info-comms technology (ICT) and digital solutions.

Here are some highlights from the 30-minute conversation, which was moderated by Lars Voedisch, IPRS Full Member and Managing Director, PRecious Communications.

Lars: What do you do as Director of Group Sustainability in Singtel?
Boon Chong: Sustainability is a very broad term and encompasses every facet of the business. My role boils down to how to make the business a sustainable, responsible and ethical one. And how to have a positive impact on all the things we do for our stakeholders, the community and environment. As the Sustainability Group lead, I see myself as a leader and influencer. We work with the business and bring strategy down to the operational level, show them the way and guide them.

Lars: How is Singtel looking at the topic of climate change and what are you doing about it?
Boon Chong: Singtel does not run factories and are not a huge emitter of carbon. However, more than 90% of our carbon footprint comes from our networks, base stations and data centres, which are booming as we are doing more cloud computing now. It’s about balancing our business growth and carbon footprints.

Lars: How is Singtel looking at the role of sustainability in the context of the whole value chain as a large company with a lot of investor relations?
Boon Chong: Sustainable supply chain management is a complex topic. Singtel has more than 6900 suppliers worldwide. It’s about how we manage our suppliers so that they are also behaving in a responsible and ethical way to all their stakeholders, their employees and of course the environment. It is not an overnight journey. We work very closely with our group procurement function which owns the relationship with the suppliers. We will facilitate and try to push them towards working with suppliers in a more sustainable fashion. For our suppliers’ code of conduct, we also incorporate human rights, environmental clauses to make sure our suppliers behave responsibly.

Lars: How much are Singtel’s shareholders driving sustainability from the perspective of investor relations?
Boon Chong: Over the past few years, I am seeing increasing interests from investors compared to the 2010-2015 period. Investors now are very interested in our sustainability efforts, especially climate risks and carbon footprint, suppliers, data privacy and human rights. The TCFD (Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures) started a framework for financial institutions to talk about their portfolio’s investment, the risk of climate change which affects their portfolio and value. So how are we managing our climate risk, then? We are one of the first companies in the industry to look at the TCFD framework. We expect to start disclosing financial data relating to climate matters soon.

Optus, our subsidiary company in Australia, has more climate risks compared to us in Singapore because of natural disasters such as cyclones and bush fires. How will that affect insurance premiums, for example? A lot of financial data surrounding natural disasters is the type of climate risks that investors are interested in. I remember there was a bad incident of floods in Singapore several years ago. One of our exchanges in the east was affected by the flood and that is climate-related in a way – how do we make sure our operations are not affected by floods?

Lars: How do you balance the issue of showcasing your sustainability initiatives without seeming like you are trying to hard-sell and “green washing” your efforts?
Boon Chong: I always have that fear as it is a fine balance. If you do a lot of good things and you don’t communicate, then nobody knows all the good things that your company is doing. But if you go overboard, you can be seen as being boastful. We must strike a good balance. We use LinkedIn as our main social media platform.

Lars: Could you describe some examples of such sustainability initiatives?
Boon Chong: The most obvious cases are community-related – staff volunteering, working with social service agencies and heart-warming stories with great pictures.

In comparison, technical areas such as Science-based carbon reduction targets for companies are harder for the general media to understand. Only environmental-related media groups – and there are not many – will understand what the total carbon footprint of an organization is. It is always a challenge as there are many great things happening in this area, such as renewable energy, how companies are trying to reduce their carbon footprint and trying to go green. These kinds of stories are harder to put out in the market.

Lars: Singtel’s business’ credo is about connecting communications. How do you look at the impact on society as a market leader?
Boon Chong: We are in the business of communications and connectivity. We connect people and help them to communicate. Because of our core business, there are 3 things we look at for sustainability.

  • Carbon footprint – more than 90% of our carbon footprint comes from our networks, base stations and data centers. How then do we minimize our carbon footprint?
  • The digital inclusion/ literacy of our customers –This is especially so for the more vulnerable seniors – how can they prevent themselves from being scammed, when even working adults are susceptible these days?
  • Digital citizenship and online safety for youth and children– Children as young as two-years old have access to tablets, devices and mobile phones. How can we better protect them from online cyber danger? We are looking at game and device addiction, cyber bullying and online privacy. We look at ways to educate them and their parents. It is important for parents to understand the dangers and how to look out for tell-tale signs of these risks.

Lars: What do you see is the relevance of IPRS in the industry today?
Boon Chong: There’s a key role for PR professionals in the industry – to help spread the word and communicate the sustainability story in an easy-to-understand manner to the community.