To many, the underwater world might just be one of the most magical places on our planet. And for those who have picked up the skills of scuba diving, an otherworldly realm awaits their exploration. Some may dream of floating weightlessly with gentle turtles or watching clownfish joyfully darting among colourful corals. Others chase the adrenaline rush of coming face to face with sharks and their razor-sharp teeth.
But the reality of diving is that it is less of an escape from terra firma than one might imagine. It is actually quite impossible to escape humankind’s unwelcome footprint even at the deepest corners of the Earth.
“When you are in the water, it is a rare dive where you don’t see some kind of human impact or something left behind, like shoes, household appliances, nappies or sanitary pads,” says Kathlyn Tan, director of family-run Rumah Group and its philanthropic arm Rumah Foundation, where she leads its environmental portfolio.
The certified Padi Divemaster and freediving athlete, who used to travel around the world on diving trips in the pre-Covid days, adds: “It is really confronting when you see the amount of rubbish that ends up in the ocean.”
Diver On A Mission
These sobering experiences have spurred her to assume the mantle as an advocate for marine conservation. Besides championing causes like coral bleaching and shark conservation, she also wants to shine a spotlight on less popular aspects of conservation like waste management, which she is aware is not a “sexy” topic of conversation.
But Tan believes these issues need to be addressed. She cites a study by Pew Trusts that found that 11 million metric tons of plastic enters the ocean each year, a number that could potentially triple by 2040 if nothing changes.
And as someone who has personally witnessed the environmental impact of marine waste, she is driven by a strong sense of responsibility to help raise awareness and contribute to the furthering of this cause.
Ahead of our face-to-face interview, she sends me a quote by legendary oceanographer Dr Sylvia Earle, which has inspired her dedication to environmental conservation: “Why is it that scuba divers and surfers are some of the strongest advocates of ocean conservation? Because they’ve spent time in and around the ocean, and they’ve personally seen the beauty, the fragility and even the degradation of our planet’s blue heart.”
Tan says she will never forget her heart-wrenching experiences of diving among decimated corals in the Philippines — the tragic collateral damage from the disruptive practice of dynamite fishing, where explosives are used to decimate large swathes of the ocean floor so as to harvest fish for consumption.
“In my 10-plus years of diving, I’ve seen marine ecosystems decline with my own eyes at places I have visited repeatedly, such as a dive site near Malé, Maldives, and parts of Indonesia,” she says.
The scientific facts, she adds, emphasise the urgency of taking action to reverse this damage. For instance, studies show that 90 percent of the world’s marine fish stocks are now fully exploited, overexploited or depleted, and the world could lose all its coral reefs by the end of the century.
“My eyewitness encounters make my relationship to the ocean and marine life very personal, and as a diver — of which only a small percentage of people are — it is my job to talk about it.”
Making An Impact
Tan walks the talk too — both in her personal capacity as well as professionally — through her stewardship of the family office’s environmental portfolio, which comprises impact investments and grant making. She has been with the family business since 2011 (in 2019, it consolidated its activities under Rumah Group and Rumah Foundation) and has set a goal of contributing to the return of a “healthy, vibrant ocean”.
“It’s important to us that what we do reflects our values as family members. And as a family, it is natural for us to have a long-term vision over a short-term one, which means embracing sustainability should be part of our DNA,” the 33-year-old says.
In recent years, the environment portfolio’s impact investments span a range of conscious industries including alternative proteins, waste management and nature-based solutions. For instance, she spearheaded the Rumah Group’s involvement with Circulate Capital, a fund which focuses on reducing ocean plastic through disruptive technology and innovative waste management companies.
The Foundation also works with like-minded non-profit groups like Conservation International. They are collaborating on an eco-tourism project on Atauro Island in Timor-Leste to support turtle conservation efforts and improve access to trekking routes to support its fledgling tourism industry. The goal is to contribute to the protection and enhancement of Atauro’s natural attractions and improve the community’s financial support and stability.
In 2018, she also assumed the role of corporate marketing director of Singapore public-listed GYP Properties, the same year it was rebranded from Global Yellow Pages, where she drives its community and sustainability initiatives. Her father, Stanley Tan, is GYP Properties’ chief executive officer and the Rumah Group has a strategic investment in the company.
In Dad’s Footsteps
While she is a relative newcomer to philanthropy and environmentalism, with just a few years of experience under her belt, the seeds for doing good were planted by her father from a young age.
The elder Tan is a prolific humanitarian who is well known for placing equal emphasis on business and volunteering. He spends half his time on community causes within Singapore and beyond its shores. He also sits on the boards of many charities, including his current positions as chairman of the South Central Community Family Service Centre and co-chairman of Asia Philanthropy Circle.
His willingness to give, his daughter believes, has been shaped by his rags-to-riches story — his first job was making soya milk for 5 cents a day as a five-year-old — where he spent his youth helping to support his brothers and sisters.
“My father grew up with almost nothing and perhaps that’s also why he’s so generous — he is giving back for what he did not have. Ever since I can remember, he has placed equal importance on both business and volunteering, using the former to finance the latter,” she observes.
She recalls the time she received an Edusave bursary, an award for doing well in examinations, at the age of eight. “My father told me I should decline it so that it would go to someone else who might need it more. That’s the first lesson he taught me that I remember about the meaning of giving,” she says.
His lifelong devotion to giving back has certainly rubbed off on Tan and her older sister Kristine, who is also involved with the Rumah Group. “He has shown me that you can have a foot in both worlds, and make time to be impactful in both,” she says.
It’s A Water World
Even her off-duty life centres around her aquatic passions. With travel restrictions in place for most of last year, Tan has taken to honing her freediving skills in the competitive sphere. She currently holds the Singapore freediving National Records for Dynamic with Bi-Fins and Dynamic No Fins, both of which involve swimming underwater without coming up for air. The weekend before our interview, she had just set the latter record of 104m — slightly more than twice the length of an Olympic pool.
Her love for diving also brought her and husband, Thomas, together. With a laugh, she reveals that she had met him on a dive. And till today, many of their trips revolve around diving. “Often on a dive boat, you will see just one spouse who dives. So having my husband as my dive buddy has allowed me to explore the ocean more, and that has changed my life,” she says.
Thomas, whose day job is in shipping and logistics, has also helped shape her interest in marine conservation through his own passion for the environment. “At home, we read books on marine biodiversity — he really brought this awareness to my life. I am thankful that we believe in the same things and are aligned in our values,” she says.
And there’s more. Tan is also the co-founder of Coastal Natives, a Singapore-based non-profit that works to spread environmental awareness, besides being an ambassador for international non-profit organisation Project Aware. The latter is a citizen science programme that works with volunteer scuba divers to pick up and record the marine debris they come across on their dives. This data can be subsequently used to inform policy change among businesses and governments.
The Future Of Food
Just like how diving led her to marine conservation, Tan’s own diet has sparked her interest in the burgeoning industry of alternative proteins. She has mostly adhered to vegetarian and vegan diets at various stages of her life since she was 15 and while at boarding school in Australia, where her surprise at the volume of meat the students were served during meals led her to stop eating meat.
These days, besides being largely vegan — she has a sweet tooth and occasionally indulges in desserts made with dairy products — she is also making investments in alternative proteins.
Given her affinity for marine life, it is not surprising that she is particularly interested in the development of alternative seafood as a viable solution to overfishing.
One of the funds that the Rumah Group has bought into is Big Idea Ventures, which has a portfolio of alternative food start-ups such as Phuture, a plant-based substitute for pork; Karana, which makes a meat substitute from jackfruit; and Shiok Meats, a cell-based seafood company.
She says: “I really think alternative proteins are starting to see a big boom now. So I hope that as more people embrace a plant-rich diet, this sector of agtech will get increasingly prevalent, as we move into the future.”
With the growing swing towards sustainability, Tan believes there is much to look forward to.
“I think it has been very encouraging to see how swiftly governments and businesses have been able to adapt given the will in the face of Covid-19, and seeing sectors like alternative proteins and ESG investing soar in popularity during this time,” she says.
“Plus, many more people have become increasingly conscious about health, wellness and issues like climate change over the past year. With more committed and authentic people working towards a brighter future, it reminds me that there is always hope.”
Art direction by Catherine Wong, photography by Darren Gabriel Leow, fashion styling by Daryll Alexius Yeo, makeup & hair by Angel Gwee, photography assistance by Eric Tan, styling assistance by Phua Yue En, location courtesy of Dusit Thani Laguna Singapore
This story first appeared in the March 2021 issue of A Magazine.