Making A Splash

On top of her mission to quench the world’s thirst through her water solutions company Hyflux, Olivia Lum also actively gives back to society with her time and effort.

BY LOW SHI PING
PHOTO DARREN CHANG

 

O

livia Lum is one of Singapore’s more prominent entrepreneurs. In 1989, she founded Hyflux, a Singapore-headquartered water solutions business, which has since grown into an international entity with a presence in more than 400 locations worldwide.

She has also served as a member of several trade councils between Singapore and the Chinese city of Tianjin, the provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang; as well as the Singapore-Oman Business Council. Through these avenues, Lum has helped foster closer regional business ties between Singapore and its international business partners.

In 2010, she was conferred the Public Service Medal by the Prime Minister’s Office of Singapore for her contributions to the country, which included a stint from 2002 to 2004 as a Nominated Member of Parliament. In 2011, Lum, who is Hyflux’s executive chairman and group chief executive officer, became the first woman and Singaporean to receive the Ernst & Young World Entrepreneur of the Year Award.

All this is a far cry from her early years growing up in Perak, Malaysia. She was abandoned at birth and adopted by an elderly lady whom she called “grandmother”.

At 15, she moved to Singapore to study at Tiong Bahru Secondary, determined to make something of her future. She eventually joined Glaxo Pharmaceuticals and worked as a chemist before deciding to branch out on her own to start Hydrochem, as Hyflux was initially known, in 1989.

Despite her success, she has never forgotten her roots, and is humble beyond reason.

Today, she gives back to society through various means. Hyflux provides awards and scholarships to outstanding students; works with environmental groups to raise awareness on environmental issues; and supports fundraising efforts of vulnerable groups in society, such as the elderly and children.

This year, Lum is co-chair of the Economic and International Committee of the SG50 Steering Committee, comprising individuals from the public, private and people sectors, to plan the country’s 50th anniversary celebrations.


1. How do you juggle the goal of being a profitable business with having a humanitarian vision?

A humanitarian goal does not have to be at odds with doing business. When I founded the company in 1989, it was with the dream of providing clean and affordable water to all. Today, that vision remains the same. As a business, it allows us to focus on developing technologies that provide efficient and affordable environmental solutions that the world needs.

For instance, the development of our proprietary Kristal membrane (an ultrafiltration membrane that delivers consistent, high-quality water despite challenging water conditions) is a milestone for Hyflux, as it has vastly improved the quality and performance of membrane technology.

This allows for a lower footprint for membranebased water treatment. At Singapore’s Tuaspring Desalination Plant – Asia’s first integrated water and power plant – we managed to include the power plant within the limited allocated site, as the Kristal membrane installation takes up little space, allowing us to maximise the use of the space.


2. How has Hyflux impacted its stakeholders?

Among our most memorable projects are the commissioning of two of the world’s largest seawater reverse osmosis desalination plants in Singapore and Algeria. Tuaspring Desalination Plant started operations in September 2013.

With a capacity of 318,500 cubic metres per day, it is Singapore’s second desalination plant, and the largest desalination plant in South-east Asia.

In November last year, we opened the Magtaa Desalination Plant in Algeria. With a capacity of 500,000 cubic metres a day, it is a partnership with the state-owned Algeria Energy Company, which handles the power and water privatisation exercise in the North African country. The plant is one of the world’s largest seawater reverse osmosis desalination plants.


3. Hyflux gives back to the community through its corporate citizen projects in education, entrepreneurship, the environment and community relations. Why are these areas important to you?

They represent different but key aspects of our commitment to building a better tomorrow.

By giving back to education, we are investing in the next generation of inventors and thinkers.

Since I lead a company that is driven by technology, we recognise that we cannot last without the development of new knowledge.

We also celebrate entrepreneurship at Hyflux because that was how the company started, and we continue to uphold this spirit.

As a company dedicated to a sustainable and secure water future, we also have to be responsible and take steps to minimise the impact of our operations on the surroundings and its people.


4. What insights have you gleaned from the various trade councils you are involved in?

Given Hyflux’s business, the opportunities to work with different countries and trade councils are aplenty.

My role is to be the link that bridges businesses together from different countries.

Partnerships such as the Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-city provide a platform for deeper collaboration between companies, and for Singaporean firms to demonstrate their expertise overseas and enhance their portfolios.

While it is important to establish good businesses, it is crucial to build good relationships that transcend our cultural differences.

The business arena can sometimes be a little cold.

However, the business becomes more meaningful when we are able to inject the human element and foster a sense of friendship and goodwill with our partners.


5. What are some lessons that Singapore can share with other countries in water management?

The Singapore Government understands the value of partnerships, especially between the private and public sectors.

An example is the public-private partnership model that it first adopted for Singapore’s desalination plants, and which allowed it to develop these large-scale projects cost-effectively.

Another important strategy it implemented from the start was careful water pricing, which translated to economic incentives to reduce wastage.

It taught Singaporeans that while water is renewable, it is not free, and we must be serious about conservation.


6. How has Hyflux contributed to Singapore’s water strategy?

Singapore is recognised for its successful water strategy, and diversifying into non-traditional sources of water, namely water recycling and desalination.

Hyflux played a role in both, and part of the reason was that we dared to seize the opportunities and take the road less travelled to achieve our breakthroughs.

There were those who doubted that a large-scale membrane-based desalination plant could succeed, but then we built the SingSpring Desalination Plant in Singapore in 2005, which was the world’s largest in terms of capacity at the time.

We have since entered the integrated water and power project market with our Tuaspring project, the first of its kind in Asia, which demonstrates our foresight in the synergy between water and energy.


7. Can you share your experience in planning Singapore’s 50th birthday?

As the business leader of a Singapore company, I was grateful for the opportunity to celebrate the companies and businesses, both local and foreign, which have helped lay the foundations of our nation and our economy.

This includes the hard-working workers of our early years, such as the samsui women (female immigrants who worked as cheap labourers in construction and industrial jobs in Singapore).

Without their sacrifices and fighter’s spirit, the Singapore we know today may have been very different.

It was a great experience being a part of the committee as we have many great stories of people from all walks of life, such as the student and business communities and foreign friends who have contributed to our economy.

Many of the celebration ideas were made spontaneously through a bottom-up process during our interactions.


8. What are the values Singapore should hold on to for continued success?

Resilience and the spirit of enterprise will always be important. We are a small country with limited natural resources, therefore we must have survival at the back of our minds. We have to be prepared to change to stay ahead and remain relevant.


9. What are your views on the pioneering spirit of Singaporeans?

It is about having the courage to think big, follow the dream, get out of the comfort zone and do something different. It is also about having tenacity when the going gets tough, while keeping the faith to power on.

Singapore has created a great legacy through its transformation from a fishing village to a shining metropolis. It has set the perfect stage for new generations to achieve even more.


10. How can Singaporeans play a bigger role as Citizen Ambassadors?

In order to make truly meaningful contributions, a Citizen Ambassador needs to be able to think on a collective, national level on what it means to be a part of Singapore, and to have a sense of unity and harmony.

That means being humble and open to accepting differences among fellow Singaporeans, as well as understanding the needs of the community and the people they wish to connect with.

 


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