When not underwater and enjoying the mesmerising diversity of marine life, Kathlyn Tan works above ground trying to protect and restore the ocean.
In addition to being a world-class freediving athlete who held the Singapore national records for both Dynamic Bi-Fins and Dynamic No Fins last year, she’s also a certified PADI scuba divemaster since 2017.
As she explains, underwater life is “much like looking into space; it gives you a perspective and makes you realise how all things are connected, and how humans are just one piece of a complex web.”
She credits her passion for the ocean to memories of her earliest dives. “We entered an underwater cliff completely covered in vibrant corals in beautiful bright colours! Meanwhile, tiny marine creatures explored the reef’s nooks and crannies as they went about their lives. All this magic made me realise how much there is to love and protect.”
Tan also witnessed first-hand the sheer volume of marine pollution—everyday items such as plastic bags, food wrappers, cutlery, clothes, toys, personal care products—and their devastating impact.
And what is the leading pollutant in local waters? ”Plastic bottles of less than 2 litres!”
Tan’s encounters and observations serve her well in her role as a director at Rumah Group and Rumah Foundation, which encompass the family office established by her businessman-father Stanley Tan. Here, she also works alongside her husband Thomas Riber Knudsen, an expert in supply chain management.
She joined the family office in 2011, and since 2017, she has been responsible for the philanthropy and impact investments of its environmental portfolio. Nature-based solutions, wildlife conservation, fish welfare, alternative proteins and circular economy are some examples.
Last July, she also became director of Communications & Sustainability at GYP Properties. At the publicly listed real estate developer — Rumah has investments here — she is responsible for the development and improvement of environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG).
It is an opportunity, she feels, to stay close to the ground on emerging issues and sustainability challenges.
“Someone asked me whether I thought ESG was a fad or if it was here to stay. My answer was a resounding ‘here to stay!’ Until recently, we have overlooked the true cost of goods and services, and turned a blind eye to their negative impacts,” she says.
“Businesses are becoming more ESG-aware because of the increasing focus on sustainability, but there is still so much to be done to ensure transparency and speed up progress.
“I think it’s wonderful that the 17 Sustainable Development Goals have been defined with targets and indicators; this will help everyone contribute more effectively towards building a better future together.”
Tan knows more needs to be done to address ocean health and climate change, both still neglected issues. “In 2021, scientists reported that climate change was widespread, rapid and intensifying, and we know that its consequences will disproportionately affect low-income countries, as well as low-income people in high-income countries.”
To make a deeper impact, more people need to be involved. Only two per cent of global philanthropy goes to climate change, and a small portion of that goes to Asia.
This stark reminder led the Asia Philanthropy Circle — her father is a founding board member — to launch its APC Climate Collective last September, where members like Tan can learn from experts and interact with practitioners while collaborating with others on climate change.
“We need braver leaders from all walks of life to step up and create change within their own spheres of influence,” she says.
That brings us to this month’s theme, Femfluence. What are her thoughts? “Influence is [being able to] steer decisions and change hearts and minds—and having it is a great responsibility and privilege,” she says.
“Being female, we sometimes find ourselves representing the less represented, which can help to push the needle by bringing a unique perspective to the table. All of us have the ability to champion equality and broaden awareness, and I think many of us underestimate the influence we hold to affect positive change.”
(Related: This startup wants more female investors)