Interview with Chandran Nair, Global Institute for Tomorrow

Picture: Chandran Nair, courtesy of the Tatler Hong Kong

The Global Institute for Tomorrow is an independent Asian think tank with the explicit purpose of understanding the shifts in political and economic influence from the West to Asia and how this reshapes the rules of global capitalism. With a background in engineering, a career in development in Southern Africa, and years of environmental consultancy in Hong Kong, founder and chairman, Chandran Nair, has seen enough of the business world to know what it needs. Dissatisfied with what corporate culture and mainstream education currently has to offer, Nair established GIFT, a think tank that stands for everything he believes in. In an interview with Tharawat, the provocative entrepreneur passionately discussed and defended his alternative and progressive worldviews.

How did the Global Institute for Tomorrow (GIFT) begin?

The day I left my consulting job, I received numerous job offers that all required me to move to the West. I wanted to stay in Hong Kong and, because I was unwilling to compromise on many matters in general, I began my own organisation.

I wanted to take a risk when I started GIFT. I wanted to challenge hubris. It stemmed from a sort of obsession with pursuing intellectual integrity and honesty of choice. I wanted to address an issue that had been on my mind: Asia is too subservient to the West, a “normal” post-colonial phenomenon. But it is necessary that we develop our own thinking, which is why I decided to establish GIFT, an independent Asian think tank.

My view is that special interest lobby groups back most think tanks. You can’t think freely if you are subsidised by a lobby. The only way to create an independent think tank is to accept no funding. We did not want to be encumbered by backer agendas and needed an alternative revenue model. There is appetite for novelty, a need for more voices and more new ideas. A lot of people understand that there needs to be a much more honest dialogue about the world, that many more different perspectives should be considered. We wanted to see if we could create a revenue stream from this thirst, to monetise it. The best way for us to introduce new ideas to corporations was to create executive training programs that would challenge the knowledge of leading universities and business schools.

The first few years were difficult because we had to build our reputation. We are now known for our different take on Asia and the developing world. We have achieved what we wanted to achieve, and are invited around the world to do what we do best.

 Do you tire of continuously challenging the mainstream?

Choices never seem difficult when they seem right. I think if you are secure in your abilities and in your limitations, then there is nothing to be afraid of. I am rather fortunate because I tend to know what my weaknesses are.

I came from a poor background. Growing up, I never imagined that I would travel on a plane, let alone be in business class. But, there are only so many five star meals you can eat in a week. If you have the luxury of not having to worry about the basics, then you have to go out and do something useful. Ninety-nine percent of the world population do not have that privilege. You must always remember that there are so many people that have it so much worse than you. You should exercise the freedom you have. Besides, freedom at work is most important. If you do not enjoy it, then don’t turn up. You should have three to four careers during your lifespan. You need to keep testing yourself.