It Changed My Life

It Changed My Life: Banker turned Greenpeace warrior

Calvin Quek turns his back on fat pay cheque in banking job to save the environment

Mr Quek holding up a sign which says "Air Pollution Comes From Here" in Beijing in 2014. Debunking the stereotype of a strident agitator, Mr Quek speaks in the measured tones of a thinker. He is the go-to person for researchers, investors and policym
Debunking the stereotype of a strident agitator, Mr Quek speaks in the measured tones of a thinker. He is the go-to person for researchers, investors and policymakers interested in environmental and energy issues in China.PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
Mr Quek holding up a sign which says "Air Pollution Comes From Here" in Beijing in 2014. Debunking the stereotype of a strident agitator, Mr Quek speaks in the measured tones of a thinker. He is the go-to person for researchers, investors and policym
Mr Quek holding up a sign which says "Air Pollution Comes From Here" in Beijing in 2014. PHOTO: CALVIN QUEK

By his own reckoning, Calvin Quek was nondescript and colourless when he was a pupil in Anglo-Chinese Primary.

"I was probably a kid that most teachers will not really remember except for the accident," he says.

The accident in question took place when he was 11. He hurtled down a hill on his bicycle, hit a fence, got thrown 4m into the air, landed face down in a ditch and cracked his skull.

Thankfully Mr Quek outgrew his mediocrity and went on to lead a rather interesting life.

He studied architecture but became a banker, and after six years, junked the fancy job title and fat pay cheque to become an environmental activist.

Today, the 38-year-old is the Head of Sustainable Finance at Greenpeace East Asia based in Beijing, and the go-to guy for researchers, investors and policymakers wishing to know more about environmental and energy issues in the Middle Kingdom.


Debunking the activist stereotype of a strident agitator, he is Clark Kent-ish and speaks in the measured, reasoned tones of a thinker.

He is the elder of two sons of an architect and a banker who moved from Singapore to Vancouver in the 1970s. Life in Canada did not agree with his parents so they came back to Singapore when he was five.

He was an introverted child.

"I was quite pudgy and awkward, probably mildly autistic," says Mr Quek, who, like his father and grandfather, went to Anglo-Chinese School. "I was below average in my studies. The only thing I could do very well was draw."

The awkwardness and the puppy fat which dogged him as a kid vanished in his teens. He picked up basketball, became more sociable and developed a surer sense of self.

After completing his O levels, he spent a short stint at Anglo-Chinese Junior College before leaving for first, Syracuse University in New York, and later, Carnegie-Mellon in Pittsburg, to study architecture.


Those years in the United States stretched his mind. "I read a lot: Emerson, Melville and the American transcendentalists who talked about reliance, personal responsibility and the nature of man," he says, referring to writers Ralph Waldo Emerson, Herman Melville and the philosophical movement which believes that the inherent purity of man and nature is corrupted by society and its institutions.

"I got an education in culture, history and self-awareness in a big way," he says.

In his last two years at university, he discovered that motion and graphic design fascinated him more than building architecture did. "I taught myself Photoshop and other computer graphic skills. To this day, I still consider myself a very visual person. I think in terms of proportion, space and colours." fever was raging when the Canadian citizen graduated in 2000. Razorfish, an Internet firm in Los Angeles, offered him a job as an information architect. The annual pay package was US$60,000 to build websites, not bad for someone fresh out of school.

But just six months into the job, the bubble burst and he was retrenched.

"It was an extremely humbling experience," he says. "They put us in two rooms, it was almost like American Idol. If you heard the other room cheering, you knew you were done and you felt as though you were in the gas chambers."

For six months, he bummed around in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

"I read a lot, watched a lot of basketball, played my guitar, and lived on my savings, unemployment cheques and Taco Bell."

On the advice of his mother, he came back to Singapore to look for a banking job.

"I left on the day of 9/11 from the West Coast. When I reached Singapore, I found out that the world had changed in a profound way."

He found a job as a Web designer and usability expert in Citibank, building templates for websites and overseeing eyeball tracking. Next came a stint in e-business.

"In 2005, I told myself that if I were to stay in a bank, I got to find out what finance and accounting was all about," he says.

So he got the bank to finance his Masters in Wealth Management at the Singapore Management University; his thesis explored philanthropy and socially responsible investments.

He also put himself through a CFA (Chartered Financial Analyst) programme and spent the next three years in financial research and investment banking.

The debacle that was the subprime crisis exploded next, coating the banking industry with a layer of slime.

But by then, the idea of doing something socially responsible had taken root in his head.

"I didn't like banking much. I didn't like going to work, going to drink and showing off how much you can buy. The nature of the banking world was political and I really didn't want to bend over," he says.

He much preferred hanging out at cafes in Bussorah Street where he learnt to play the sitar.

"I realised that I loved hanging out with strange people, people who think that the worst form of pollution in Singapore is spiritual pollution. And freegans," he jokes, referring to those who reclaim and eat food that has been discarded.

His attempts to jettison his financial career for one in a sustainable industry, however, came to naught.

"I wanted to scale it up against systems and policies but Singapore has nothing, it is not the right pond for such jobs," he says.

Why the environment?

"Because I need a cause to latch on to. I can think of no better cause than the environment. Maybe if I had experience in saving someone's life, I might have been involved in humanitarian issues. Or if I had been born poor, I might have been involved in poverty alleviation."

Fascinated by the green lobby that was happening in the US and Britain, he applied to do his MBA and was accepted by the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.

He quit Citibank. Because he had several months to kill before he had to leave for the US, he decided to hightail it to China to teach English.

That decision changed the course of his life.

He ended up in Beijing Union University.

"When they found out that I was from Citibank, they told me, 'Tell us about American culture.' I started supplementing other people's classes and teaching all these 19-year- olds everything from politics to subprime. It was such an amazing experience," he says.

The stint kickstarted a deep interest and curiosity about China.

"I met lots of interesting Chinese people who were discussing lots of interesting ideas. I was curious."

That curiosity was so consuming that he decided to forfeit the registration fee he had paid for Notre Dame, and do his MBA at Peking University instead.

"It was really to buy myself more time so that I can figure out how to be a green guy in China."

At Peking University, he started a Green Club and attended events organised by the Beijing Energy Network (BNE), a grassroots outfit interested in environmental issues in China. It was founded by Singaporean Julian Wong, whom he had known since they were both altar boys at the Church of St Ignatius.

He got to know Greenpeace staff at BNE events and started volunteering for the outfit, which is well-known for its direct actions. The organisation does not accept funds from governments, political parties or corporations, and relies on its supporters and foundations instead.

Not long after he finished his MBA, he joined Greenpeace's sustainable finance team.

Although Greenpeace campaigns through direct action (some of which have resulted in lawsuits against the organisation), lobbying and research, it has to operate differently in China which forbids civil disobedience and often comes down hard on the media.

His work, he says, involves changing mindsets not just outside the organisation but within as well.

"Very often, environmental issues arise not because of one evil person but because of incentives and economics. Behind bad air pollution is a whole mountain of issues."

He adds: "I also believe causes cannot be won just by protests and civil disobedience. I believe that if you really want to be effective, we have to open up to all kinds of ways, markets or governments, go up, go down, whatever."

The trick to campaigning in China, he says, is not to make it a "we versus them" issue.

"The authorities know they need to get their act together, you don't need to shove it down their throats. We have the best expertise in air pollution and economics. So we say, 'You, Mr Government, you want to get the issue solved but here is the problem.'"

His corporate experience and network of contacts in the financial industry have served him well.

Trading on the mountain of non-public and credible information Greenpeace has, he started by talking to bank researchers whose job is to sell ideas to investors.

"They were like, 'Oh, this is interesting. You're showing us a part of China we never knew about'," says Mr Quek, who now heads a team of five at Greenpeace.

This led to presentations to not just investors but also banks and bodies like the European Chamber of Commerce, the British Embassy and Norwegian policymakers.

The winner of SMU's 2014 Rising Star Award is chuffed that he has played a part in the recent movement for investors to move away from coal, the dirtiest of all energy sources and the biggest culprit in global warming.

"Investors told me that the fact that I could talk to them about coal not just in ideological terms but from a financial and environmental perspective was very helpful," says the activist, whose views today are often quoted in research reports and newspaper articles.

Greenpeace, he says, has not shied away from taking on big players including the Shenhua Group, the world's biggest coal producer by volume.

Among other things, the organisation exposed Shenhua's practice of dumping toxic wastewater and over-exploitation of groundwater in the Haolebaoji basin, threatening its already fragile ecology.

Engaged to a Belgian earthquake expert, Mr Quek now earns a lot less than what he used to as a banker but he is way happier.

He says candidly: "Honestly, I don't know how much difference I am making in the grander scheme of things. But I hope I inspire other people to apply themselves to the fullest and test their boundaries."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 24, 2016, with the headline 'Greenpeace warrior poorer but happier'. Subscribe