A GIFTed man
“I’m debating Jim Rogers (Singapore-based American author and investor) in Vladivostok. Food is not a commodity. That is the first thing I’m going to say. Food is food.”
That is how Nair — founder of Global Institute For Tomorrow (GIFT), environmental consultant, author, entrepreneur, advocate, sportsman and one-time musician — opens the conversation. There is very little preamble.
Rogers made a name and fortune by investing in commodities, including things like wheat and corn. Nair’s goal, it seems, is to test the boundaries of generally accepted knowledge.
He takes a second to explain that he has been invited to Vladivostok — along with Rogers — to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum in September, and then launches a monologue on the challenges ahead of the world and the importance of finding new ways to tackle them. Traditional Western-led thinking is not going to cut it.
A short, athletic man in his 50s, Nair was born in Malaysia of Indian parents. He studied chemical engineering in the UK and worked there for a few years before moving to Swaziland, where he spent five years working on water sanitation projects.
He then moved to Thailand where he got a Masters “from an Asian institution” and, subsequently, led one of the largest environmental consulting firms in Asia, turning a company of some 10 people in Hong Kong into a multinational of 500 with 20 offices in 12 countries.
He is also a handy hockey player and managed the Hong Kong hockey team for seven years, taking it to the Asian Games in South Korea in 2002. He played for the Malaysian under-21 team and still keeps it up in a second division team.
He plays the saxophone too and once played in and managed a band in Africa. He did not make a career of music although he still plays the sax. One of the lessons he drew from the stint is somewhat oblique.
“When I was in the band, I was managing it. I always say, if you can manage musicians and spokespeople, that is the best (business) training you can have.”
He has traveled extensively and has worked in Asia, Europe and Africa. He moved to Hong Kong more than 20 years ago.
“I was 32 and running an engineering firm in Thailand,” he says, explaining the relocation.
It proved to be less than rewarding, personally, and he decided he “didn’t need the hassle”.
So he moved to Hong Kong. In a few short years, he found himself running an environmental consultancy and coming to grips with the fact that he had a voice, a range of views and liked to share them.
“I had become much more outspoken about the issues I cared about,” he says. “The consulting arena was too narrow for what I wanted to do.”
Since launching GIFT in 2005, Nair has built his life around the idea of providing an independent point of view on a range of issues. Through editorials, press releases, speeches and debates, he is constantly pegging away at the list of issues he considers to be of fundamental importance: Environmental sustainability, intellectual honesty, a strong government, the impossibility of consuming our way out of trouble, the need for a more Asian outlook in global development, the slavery to Western-led thought.
“I grew up believing white men didn’t dig roads because my father worked for white men who lorded it over him,” he explains. “It was only when I landed at Heathrow Airport that I saw that they do, in fact, dig roads. It (the opposition to being led by the West) is deeply rooted.”
Nair feels the current Western-led approach to economic growth will have dramatic — and mostly negative — consequences. In his 2011 book Consumptionomics: Asia’s Role in Reshaping Capitalism and Saving the Planet, he makes it clear that pushing for a billions-strong class of Asian consumers is not the way to go.
The main message is that Asia, now home to well over half the population of the world, cannot hope to follow Western-style consumer societies. Ultimately, it will be up to governments to set the limits.
He believes that blatant consumption is not an intrinsic right.
“I go around saying that (having) a car is not a human right. If you’ve lived in Asia you would know that we need more cars in Asia like I need a hole in my head,” says Nair. “We have created urban nightmares through car ownership... This doesn’t mean that mobility isn’t a right, but mobility means public transport.”
“(The) quality of life is not about your big screen TV or your mobile. It is about access to resources and basic infrastructure… irrespective of political systems. There are not enough (resources) to go around.”
GIFT, which aims to be an “independent social venture think tank”, emerged as a vehicle through which he can provide an alternative view and continue pushing his ideas forward. GIFT is best known for its management training programs. Young executives travel to Asia, find a project they see as having potential, and develop a plan to grow it.
However, this is only part of what Nair does.
For several years now he has been working on building “Asia’s first social investment fund”, Avantage Ventures. The goal is to raise between $70-80 million and invest directly in areas like food, sanitation, low-cost housing, public health and education. Nair says it has taken time but Avantage now has a couple of firm commitments.
“We are trying to get enlightened investors who can see a different future to create a creative social investment fund,” says Nair. “All we are trying to prove at Avantage Ventures is that Asia has to create its own different models.”
He has other projects on the go as well. At the top of the list is a book that will highlight the 100 poorest people in the world, or the 100 poorest people in a number of countries. It is an intriguing project, one that he wants to release to contrast with annual lists of the 100 richest people in the world.
It is hard to agree with everything Nair espouses but mindless acceptance is not what he is after. Much of what he says and does is aimed at stirring debate. Several billion new consumers will, without a doubt, have a visible and significant impact on the planet. This is the time to figure out how to address this challenge.
“My years in the environmental sustainability arena made me feel that many of the arguments around the environment and sustainability were written out of the perspective of the West,” he says. “(They are) shaded, tainted. (They are) very different from what you would see if you looked at the world from the point of view of Asia and its population.”
Nair’s own kinetic energy, apparent even when he is sitting down, makes it hard not to listen to him — and he’ll keep pounding until one does. And he is getting his message across. He is a frequent speaker at some of the most influential business forums in the world.
“My point is intellectual honesty before everything else. I want to have a more honest discussion,” he says. “I want to take the rhetoric and turn it into action. People are clamoring for a more honest conversation.”
Founder and CEO, Global Institute For Tomorrow (GIFT)
2011: Publishes Consumptionomics: Asia’s Role in Reshaping Capitalism and Saving the Planet
2008: Co-founds Avantage Ventures, a boutique investment advisory company aiming to raise up to $80 million to invest directly in initiatives that address basic needs like food, public health and education
2005: Launches GIFT, an independent think tank that explores various issues while providing consultancy and training services
1991-2004: Director at Environmental Resources Management, an environmental consultancy that grew into a multinational
1987: Receives his Masters in engineering from Asian Institute of Technology, Bangkok
Goal ahead: Creating Asia’s first social investment fund.
Favorite conversation topic: Let’s talk about the world that we are trying to shape and what it looks like.
Favorite idea: We need institutions. What do institutions do when you have so many people? You need rules. And I would deliberately say tough rules.
Pet hate: I don’t suffer fools gladly and I’m not good at being number two.
Mission: (I want GIFT) to be private and independent because I (want) us to have a voice. I have a big mouth and I know that if I take money from company X, I can’t say anything.
Born: In Malaysia in 1954