winston chow

Photo: Lawrence Teo

This story is one of the six in The Peak Singapore’s Power List. The list is an annual recognition that celebrates and acknowledges individuals who have demonstrated exceptional leadership, influence, and impact within their respective fields and the broader community. 

Our theme for this year is Quiet Power, a force that brings about transformative shifts in the lives of ordinary people through strategic collaboration and concerted efforts with like-minded individuals. Quiet leaders are dedicated to creating positive and lasting change within the community, leading to fundamental and permanent shifts in how the community functions on a day-to-day basis.

When Winston Chow arrived at the headquarters of a United Nations office in Nairobi earlier this year to hear the results of his election campaign, he didn’t don a suit. Instead, the urban climate researcher threw on a phoenix print batik top — an outfit so memorable, security folk dubbed him “Mandela” for his sartorial resemblance to the African leader, known for his love of Madiba shirts.

“It was much more comfortable,” Chow explains. “Alas, the weather I grew up with as an 80s kid will never come back, hence my call towards traditional forms of formal wear in the region that are more thermally comfortable.”

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winston chow
Photo: Lawrence Teo

As it turns out, “Mandela” won, making Chow, 45, the first Singaporean elected to a leadership role in the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. As co-chair of one of the panel’s three working groups, the findings from his team of some 300 experts on the impact of climate change and adaptive measures will go into a report for governments, detailing ways the world can cut emissions and cope with a hotter home. 

Prior to the win, Chow was already volunteering hundreds of hours to pen chapters for the panel’s previous report and sat on its task force for climate change data. And that’s not even his day job: The associate professor at Singapore Management University not only teaches and publishes papers but also addresses conferences, edits a climate journal, investigates the sustainability of data centres, and leads research for Cooling Singapore, an inter-institutional project to find solutions to urban heat issues in the republic.

“I’m motivated by my two daughters,” he says of his immense load. “I do not want to tell them, their cousins, and their friends, that their father stood by and idled while the climate crisis got worse.”

“We’re on the way towards a world that will exceed 1.5 degrees above the Paris Agreement temperature limit sometime early in the next decade. It’s not a pretty future.”

Silence, then action

Thus motivated by this impending catastrophe, the articulate academic — who first grew interested in environmental science after reading about ozone layer depletion in National Geographic as a child — went campaigning internationally for the UN post, with a pitch to have less developed countries included in the report.

“It was uncomfortable,” Chow admits. “I do not like exhorting about how ‘good’ I am, as I believe talk is cheap. There’s a lot of noise out there in today’s world, and I don’t need to add to it; it’s better to listen to what others say and think about what needs to be done quietly before speaking or acting on what’s required.”

winston chow
Chow with with Chair Jim Skea. (Photo: Singapore Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment)

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Nevertheless, he acknowledges that his new post wields soft but significant influence. “The role allows me the ears of many stakeholders — governments, industries, and communities — in advising what information would be relevant to reducing climate vulnerability or enhancing sustainability.”

Past recommendations Chow has proffered for better, cooler cities — particularly those dependent on air conditioning, such as Singapore — include remedying poor design that creates “heat islands” through inefficient energy use and ignorance of nature.

Solutions span the traditional and modern, such as using tropical architectural principles to leverage natural ventilation, artificial shading, and vegetation to keep places cool and air-cons low; installing cool roofs that reflect sunlight, and switching to district-level cooling to slash electricity use.

And, of course, wearing batik shirts, so temperatures in offices can be set to a responsible 25 degrees. 

Persuasive power

winston chow
Chow with Co-Chair Professor Bart van den Hurk of the Netherlands. (Photo: Singapore Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment)

That Chow’s work is meaningful is beyond doubt. But given that the world has convened hundreds of climate panels and signed tens of international pledges, yet is still set to miss climate targets by a good margin, are such efforts truly impactful?

Good question, he admits. “The approaches we need to halt emissions are well known. But progress toward change is glacial — and most of it, in my view, is due to political and corporate inertia over the past thirty years.” 

“Quiet power, such as the acts of communication, persuasion, and convincing people of the need for sustainable change, does more to inspire than overt ‘powerful’ acts. If I can quietly inspire my students and the next generation of leaders to act, then I think I’m doing a pretty decent job.”

In the meantime, the co-chair is pouring his energies into banging out a new report on cities and climate change to facilitate faster transformation, as the very corporations and governments that dragged their feet begin revving up to take belated action. “The hope,” he says, “is that this new momentum for climate action will overcome their inertia as we head towards the critical year of 2030.”

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And if he were to be loud just once, we ask — what is one thing Chow wants to tell anyone who’d listen?

“That the world is so much bigger than what you think,” comes the answer. “Once you see its immense beauty, you’ll naturally feel inspired to do great things.”

For more stories on The Peak Power List, visit here.