Pok Wei Heng is a climate change consultant by day, working on regenerative cities centred on learning from indigenous wisdom, and a climate justice advocate by night. Pok recently moved to New Zealand from Singapore and is passionate about decolonisation, exploring Asian identity, connecting climate justice with diversity, equity and inclusion work. In this episode we discuss the pros and cons of collectivism, migrant relationships with Te Tiriti and Māori, allyship, finding your place as a recent migrant and climate change.
Pok: Kia ora, my name is Pok. A little bit about me: I spent 20 years in Singapore, my parents are Malaysian, and now I’ve been in New Zealand for about 4-5 years. I’m currently a climate change consultant at EY. I do a lot of stuff around climate change and sustainability, which is my passion. I just joined the choir - I do like to sing. I sing bass. I have a high speaking voice, but a very low singing voice, which is odd [laughs].
Elina: Let's talk about Singapore, and growing up there.
Pok: Singapore is a very controlled environment. It's not too much, nor too little. For someone who hasn’t been to Singapore, they would see it as this bustling metropolis. It's extremely clean with strong laws and little corruption. For the most part they are right. But Singapore is also an extremely meritocratic country, which means you're judged strongly by your merit. So everyone has to outperform each other to get the opportunities that they really want. Actually, a lot of my years in Singapore were dominated by study. It's a core part of the Singapore identity to fight hard to get the grades. Tuition is a billion dollar industry in Singapore, because people are so vigorous in trying to outperform each other.
There are so many layers to peel when explaining Singapore, because it's such an interesting country once you’re outside of it. We are an Asian country, but at the same time, English is an official language, unlike in neighbouring countries. So we grew up with this extremely strong Western mentality, and yet having that balanced with some really strong Asian undertones. You'll often have a bit of an identity crisis when you step out of it, because you're thinking, “I'm not Western enough to fit into Western society, because I don't look like it. But neither am I fully Asian enough, because my whole upbringing was based on very strong Western norms.”
We have very peculiar laws as well. A lot of countries have laws that clamp down on people's freedom. Singapore's laws are more on surveillance, so you're never quite sure whether what you're doing is right or wrong. I think that creates a rather restrictive environment. How you grow, what you decide is right or wrong, it becomes quite blurred. The law is very clear, but there's questions like, “Can I express myself in this way? What does society or other people think about me, if I turn out to be like this?”
There’s a lot more on society focusing their attention on you, rather than you being yourself and everyone doing their own thing.
Elina: Now that you’re living in New Zealand, can you tell which values out of that Asian-Western mix were more Asian, or more Western?
Pok: I think Singapore teaches you to strive, to be very intellectually curious. Some people are very good in the sciences and maths. Singapore is an environment that focuses so strongly on excellence.
I actually didn't meet the mark in many areas. I'm not a typical Singaporean kid. I was doing literature and theatre studies in high school. That gave my parents what I call an “Asian heart attack”, because I was crumbling all of their Asian expectations in front of them. But actually, the fact that I had exposure to those subjects gave me the ability to be intellectually curious, which I bring over now to New Zealand.
It's weird, because in Singapore, intellectual curiosity is often caged, controlled. But in New Zealand, that cage just gets lifted, so your curiosity knows no bounds. It's an explosion, you get to feel, you get to explore so much. Singapore gave me a taste of it, but New Zealand has given me a much larger kind of exploration of what that could be.
In terms of how I see societies function, collectivism in Singapore versus individualism in New Zealand, I feel like moving between the countries is tricky but also helps a lot.
I brought my collectivism over, but I was also more able to express myself in different ways. I could dress myself in any way and people wouldn't care. I could say things and not worry about being policed all the time. That’s quite a freedom that I don't take for granted.
Elina: When we talk about things like collectivism and individualism, what it means for us in practice is often different for everyone. Could you elaborate on what collectivism and individualism mean to you, in practice?
Pok: I’m no academic, so I will put my own personal spin on what collectivism means to me. In my perspective, I believe it means there's a set of norms, traditions, or invisible rules, which shapes a society to move, almost think, as a collective body, rather than for their own individual mandate, purpose, or agenda.
To move as a collective body requires actually some degree of censorship. It requires you to smooth out the edges of everyone's very intense and fiery and unique personalities, so that everyone becomes a kind of blob, a whole that is able to gel together and move forward in a unified direction. Humans are messy, so collective behaviour requires quite a bit of structure, it requires direction for the society to move towards. There are pros and cons.
Elina: Yeah, I was gonna say it's an interesting idea, the pros and cons. We are always talking about collectivism versus individualism, like it’s one or the other, like one’s right and one’s wrong. But I like your idea of recognising the pros and cons of each. Let’s talk a bit more now about your work in climate justice? How did you get into it?
Pok: I think there’s two perspectives I want to voice. The first was that my parents are very Asian. They actually forced me to do accounting at the University of Auckland. They said, “We're going to send you overseas and you're going to do an accounting degree, because we're scared for your future and if you keep doing theatre and literature, we don't know where you're going to go.” So I did an accounting degree. And it was actually so interesting. Before I did my degree, I spent two years in the Army due to conscription. I just remember being so lost, thinking, “this degree is actually going to kill me”. I picked up an accounting book, looking at assets, liabilities, and I just thought it was absolutely going to drain my soul, I could already feel it.
So I tried reading up on different aspects of accounting. What actually is accounting? Why do we have it? Then I looked into the most varied topics within accounting. I looked at Islamic finance, which follows certain cultural norms or religious perspectives to form a more ethical kind of financing. Then I looked at ethics in finance, and that brought me to sustainability accounting/sustainability reporting. And then eventually, that brought me sustainability, which is very much tied to climate change. That was my whole roundabout journey towards sustainability and climate change.
Thank goodness I had that in my first two years, because the moment I went to New Zealand, I was adamant - I was like, “I have three years to prove my worth, because if I graduate in three years and I don't get something in sustainability, I will be forever an accountant.” There's nothing wrong with that, I was just profoundly shook - I knew sustainability was my direction, what I'm going to go for. Thank the powers that shaped that path, because I got a sustainability internship with KPMG in my first year, then Deloitte Sustainability in my second, and now EY as a graduate. That was because I was so insistent. I was like, “If I don't do this, I'm going to be an accountant. I'm going to be an auditor for the rest of my life. And I didn’t want that, personally.”
Elina: I love how you went through almost all of the big four companies, not wanting to do accounting for the rest of your life [laughs].
Pok: Yeah, but there's also the second perspective, which is more of a cultural reflection I’ve had since coming to New Zealand. I remember being quite scared of Māori carvings. When I first stepped foot in the airport, I was thinking, “Oh, this feels very foreign. I don't know what this is”. Because this is coming from someone with a very Western point of view, who was very used to a very sterilised form of living. To finally see something that was so culturally significant that I'd never experienced before, made me think “Ooh, this is so new.” Over the next two to three years, as I stepped further into New Zealand, my fear of indigenous peoples started to shift to curiosity, and now towards allyship and advocacy.
Singapore has removed all mention of our history. We place our history’s beginning, which we learn in social studies, with Sir Stamford Raffles. He was the British man who signed the treaty that established Singapore as a colony. That started our colonial days. But there wasn’t much mentioned about what happened before that. So I grew up essentially in a white man's world. I grew up internalising those norms, because that was where our history began. I wasn't close to my Malaysian roots, let alone my Chinese roots back in China.
It struck me as so profound, to be looking at something that was so clearly culturally relevant, or rooted in the history of the country, that made me think, “This is worth learning more on”, or, “This is absolutely worth protecting”. Although, how we do that is obviously a subject worthy of debate.
I think that's what shifted my lens from climate change to climate justice. My definition of climate justice is that climate change affects different populations differently. For example, if you look at it on a country level, my experience with climate change in New Zealand will be very different to someone's experience in Somalia. That can be because of war, vulnerable access to water, a lot of which has historical ties, to things like colonisation and poverty. It’s complicated.
It's saying that one population’s experience is different from another's. For example, whole cities are built with inequitable access to supermarkets, literal food. There’s a term called “food deserts” - if you were in West Auckland, your access to a supermarket could be very different to if you were living in Epsom. Health outcomes then affect your exposure to climate change.
Elina: I’m thinking of how much identity, cultural or otherwise, is tied into climate justice work. Wouldn't it be wonderful if fields like climate justice could draw from cultural, queer, abledness identity? Because they are all intertwined. But unfortunately, I don’t think they currently do. When it comes to your personal identity, your place in the world, do you think you’ve questioned it more since you started doing climate justice work? What has that relationship been like?
Pok: It's so hard, honestly. It's so challenging to think of life through a real climate justice lens. It's already hard enough to understand climate change. The recent IPCC report said that this is the final window, and this window is already small enough that we can barely squeeze through it. Once this window is closed, we're going to see many things just roll down, over and over and over again.
In about a decade or two, we are going to be facing three COVID-sized shocks to our economy every single year, just from climate change. That is its impact. That is its magnitude. But I think for person of colour, it's very hard to communicate that within a firm that has a subtle way of doing things. And it's really hard to articulate how diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) considerations should radically shift how we look at climate change work.
EY consults some really big corporations or the government, generally really wealthy clients. They want to know the climate risks within their operations, what affects business. We don't often have the conversation about how this affects the community, the population. We don't think about how accessible the solution is, or whether the communities impacted by the decisions have been consulted.
The solutions will help towards decarbonisation, they will help towards climate mitigation. The question is for whom. Are we providing advice that is good for humankind? Or are we providing advice that is good for a select group of people?
Even within diversity and inclusion, I don't believe in the usual tokenistic solutions, the celebratory events. Usually, these events backfire. They put the onus of planning and preparation onto the employee who is diverse, so firstly, they have less time to do work. Secondly, having to explain your culture is exhausting. I think that as an organisation or a service line, we have to continue to ask ourselves pretty hard questions about who is affected by our solutions.
Elina: 100%. You’re engaged in diversity, equity, and inclusion work, as well as climate justice, and I can see those two intertwining so well. I would love to ask you how you personally feel about the sense of identity and belonging for yourself in New Zealand?
Pok: I'm not Asian enough to be back in Singapore. I'm already quite different. Nor am I Western or white enough to be fully integrated or assimilated within New Zealand. I think it borrows itself out to a third identity. I never got a Singapore passport. I got a Malaysian passport - the country never wanted to recognise me as a citizen, because my parents were never Singaporean. You feel like a sojourner, like you're a temporary citizen migrating or shifting between different places. I find it very hard not be able to identify with any single place.
Elina: What does it mean to belong somewhere? How would you feel? Pok: When I feel safe. When I am able to be growing. When I'm able to share my stories in a way that isn't censored, and simply seen for what it is.
Elina: Do you reckon you had moments like that, in your years in New Zealand? Places or people or situations that made you feel like you belong?
Pok: I think it gets harder to fit into spaces, the harder you think about it, or the more you know yourself. I am very sure about my work in climate change & climate justice. And that excludes a certain group of people in the pie. I would say I haven't found it, but also because I'm so insistent on being myself.
It's almost a new chapter for me as a fresh new migrant to be in new spaces, to expand the circle of friends that I have again. I find that quite challenging. Most people at work have their family to go back to, but my family is not here. They have friends that they've known since high school, but I don't have any of those friends. And most people at university can be quite transactional - you study a paper together. One or two of them became friends that have really been there throughout the years, but there's nothing quite as deep yet.
Elina: Everyone we’ve interviewed so far has had these same thoughts, with different angles. Because even being born in the country, you have connections by being around schoolmates for a long enough time that the connection stays. For me, I’ve been studying and working here in New Zealand for a while, but it’s probably only in the last five years that I’ve felt that sense of comfort. I think before, I was trying to fit into the current system, trying to fit into existing groups of friends. Now I feel a stronger sense of self, and have a group around me that I can relate to, you can create your own little thing. It's a common thing that unites a lot of people here.
We talked about diversity, climate, and identity. What do you imagine a better, brighter world might look like? What needs to happen?
Pok: I think one thing that's specific for New Zealand and probably within the corporate world is that firstly, we need to understand that diversity, equity and inclusion is not a token festival event. It's something that actually deeply impacts business outcomes, and leads to better ways of thinking. For example, I've noticed that if you’re Southeast Asian (I'm Southeast Asian), a lot of us actually err a bit more on the side of conservativeness, compared to Pākehā. Westerners that tend to err on the side of being more outspoken, they like to position themselves as leaders.
I noticed in meetings that sometimes, people of colour like to take a back step and actually take more time to think through what they're saying. I noticed that this leads to different business outcomes. Because for me, I take my time to piece together what I'm thinking. I let my thought process ruminate. When I think of diversity, equity and inclusion, I think of the way we interact and the way we engage with people. The fact that I take my time to answer, which I think is motivated by my culture and the setting I grew up in, I don't think that’s a negative, I think that's a positive. When you combine both of them, it leads to really good business engagement results. That is one aspect of what I mean by DEI, that we actually start to embrace the way our culture has nurtured us to respond to things.
Allyship is another thing I’m looking into. There was this course that I was on recently, and they had a really interesting take on allyship. Allyship may seem like having a gay brother and saying to them, “I fully support you, I love you for who you are”. People think that’s being a great ally. But it’s not actually being an ally. That's called being human. Allyship is a situation where you notice that you are in a more socially acceptable position than the other. You notice that the other person is facing less equitable outcomes because of their race, their gender, or their sexuality. And you put your social capital on the line to speak up for them, and reach out and offer opportunities for them. It requires sacrifice, and it also requires you to dwell in discomfort.
DEI work is not a token festival event, DEI work is and always was about creating comfortable dwellings of discomfort. You have to get used to discomfort, that's when you start closing the gap. That is what I think needs to really happen for a better New Zealand and a better migrant relationship with Māori.
Elina: I would love to hear more about a better relationship with Māori. What are some of the lessons around how your climate justice work is tied to indigenous work? What is our place as migrants in Te Tiriti?
Pok: This is my fourth year in New Zealand, so I'm very new to this idea of indigenous relations, and how tauiwi and Pākehā work in partnership with tangata tiriti and tangata moana. So it's still a journey that I'm on. But I think the first principle is to do no harm. A lot of us like to frame our lives like, “How can we create maximum impact? I want to create a unicorn startup. I want to impact 1000 lives.”. But if our intent is to engage with indigenous peoples, I think the starting point is asking, “to what extent am I supposed to be part of this project? To what extent should I be engaged in this? And to what extent can I create harm by my very own participation and involvement?”
There's a certain space for tauiwi and Pākehā. We can talk within our lived experience. I feel that we actually need to be much clearer about speaking from our lived experience. We then need to understand that there is a space where indigenous peoples’ expertise and their tikanga should be respected. That's a space I'm continuously learning from.
And then there is a grey zone in the middle, where I think both sides kind of build bridges to meet. But that is often a multifaceted, complex process. It requires a lot of whanaungatanga, building rapport and bond before actually getting the work done. And it requires a lot of humility on the side of Pākehā and tauiwi to be corrected, not take it personally, learn from it, and to move on. I've been corrected so many times.
it's important that we speak only from our experience. When you speak from your own experience, you're much less likely to make false assumptions about people. We can also see it as a form of strength. While we learn from indigenous peoples’ cultures, their customs, their tikanga, we ourselves have our own culture, our own innate value that we can bring to this conversation. Rather than shying away from our own culture and putting indigenous peoples on a pedestal, we can see it as an equal partnership, where we both bring kai to the table and engage in discussions together.
Elina: Love it, Pok. I wanted to ask you to expand on one point, because something that I've recently been working on a lot at my job. Could you please explain to people who might not know, what whakawhanaungatanga means?
Pok: I might not be able to explain the concept itself, but let me perhaps try to say what it means to me. Whakawhanaungatanga carries connotations of kinship, where the focus is on connection, on sharing stories, on what brings you here to the space. It's about establishing the bonds, making sure we are rooted in our own humanity, before we engage in work. As a result, our humanity drives our outcomes, rather than our selfish desires.
I'm reading a book at the moment and one of the articles was talking about how we built kinship with people with different learning abilities or disabilities. Our world is often governed by how we speak, and fluency affects the outcomes of conversations. I think it's interesting to think of a different dimension of whakawhanaungatanga, to imagine what it would look like if we weren’t able to use our words. They were talking about how they engaged with people with different abilities to understand sexuality, via activities such as collaging. They will have a word like “sexy”, and see what pictures people would use to represent their understanding of “sexy”. It turns out, people with different learning abilities are perfectly capable of understanding these words, but they just might not have the spoken words to articulate that. I actually think whakawhanaungatanga might not just be about talking, but about different ways to connect.
Elina: Wonderful, thank you so much, Pok. I actually want to sit with what you said about connecting with each other through stories and different tools (doesn’t have to be just spoken word) and how does that show up in our lives and allyship work. We've covered such beautiful topics that each require their own podcast! To round up, I would love to ask you some quickfire questions. The first one is about food. What's your favourite Singaporean or Malaysian dish?
Pok: I'm currently craving a very simple sounding dish called fish soup. You have a really clean, beautiful broth, fish slices, tofu, and vegetables. It’s something that I think is quite healthy, but also quite nourishing.
Elina: Cool! If you were the main character in a movie or a TV show, what would it be? Or what would it be about?
Pok: I'd really like to see an Asian version of Queer Eye. One that’s not told from a purely Western perspective, because I believe that the queer identity as it is explored in Asia is quite colourful and uniquely different from Western framings of queerness.
Elina: I would love to watch that show. I really love watching a narrative from a Western perspective, and then seeing how that narrative shows up different cultures. There are shows (like Queer Eye) that I feel would be awesome to have in Kazakhstan, because I would love for those topics to be brought up more there. If you could propose a policy to our NZ government, Parliament or organisation, what would it be?
Pok: A Tiriti–informed approach to migration, one which understands the increasing demand for migration, but also respects Māori as tangata tiriti and essential partners, especially in migration. Because migration can significantly compromise our relationship as articulated in Te Tiriti.
Elina: Cool. And last question: what makes you feel like a badass?
Pok: I don't know! [laughs] The stories I hold, the experiences I have. I've gone through so much, I think everyone's gone through so much. I believe that all of the podcasts interviewees have amazing stories to tell. I believe that is enough. I don't think that I need a significant achievement or an action to prove my worth anymore. I believe that I am worthy by myself now, as I exist, and I think that makes me a badass.
Thank you so much for listening, folks. We've recorded this conversations from the comfort of our homes, you know, the global pandemic at all. So we really hope you felt that cosy listening to your friends over the phone kind of vibe. If you haven't already, check out our remaining series with 14 other incredible conversations. Share, Subscribe, send to someone who might benefit from either feeling seen or you know or learning more about ethnic voices in Aotearoa. This wonderful podcast has been brought to you by collaboration of Belong Aotearoa, Storyo, Planet FM and Sport Waitakere. With thanks to our funder, the Auckland Council Regional Development Fund. Follow us on Instagram @passthemic.aotearoa and @story.co And until next time.