Architect Cheng Wai Meng dove head-first into the green movement after a serious termite infestation in his home threatened the safety of his family. His search for a poison-free solution to termite control led him to introduce Termimesh, physical termite barrier that did not contain dangerous chemicals, to Singapore’s shores. It has since been installed in many high-profile projects such as Changi Airport Terminal 3 and Universal Studios Singapore, as well as private residences. This self-professed awakened environmentalist spoke with The Columnist and gave insight into the state of clean tech in the construction industry in Asia.
The Columnist (TC): Termimesh has come a long way since your first brought it to Singapore in 1997. What inspired you to introduce this technology to the local market?
Cheng Wai Meng (CWM): It was definitely not inspiration. It was sudden fear from seeing arsenic trioxide (red termiticide dust) in my son’s room then being casually informed that the red dust could kill my son!
TC: Although green technology has become a top trend in the global marketplace, it still faces roadblocks to implementation. What do you think are the barriers to adopting green technology and practices in the construction industry specifically in Southeast Asia?
CWM: I will refer to the small part of the building industry that I am in. For dealing with termites in particular, it has been the traditional practice to apply poisonous termiticides at 5 litres per square metre to kill the termites, thereby protecting the buildings we live and work in. Traditional termiticides are both cheap and easy to apply. They are promised by the manufacturer to be safe and effective if applied as directed, and the best part is that they are approved by the relevant authorities. Never mind that these poisons once poured on the earth and water source cannot be retrieved or cleaned up.
History has revealed that we have been sold on these lies. From the 1970s to 1990s chlordane, a chemical pesticide, was hailed as the best solution to termite control. It lasts so well that it continues to linger at the bottom of lakes and in deep soil. It was finally banned worldwide for its carcinogenic effects. New “greener” poisonous insecticides are entering the market after being green washed, and we are still falling for the lie.
We love instant gratification. Instant death to the termites. One good and cheap pill to solve the problem even though we are sweeping the dirt under the carpet. There’s no dirt to be seen, but are we merely pushing away the “dirt” for someone else to clean up in the future?
We care but we cannot afford it. [What that actually means is that] we care for our profits, and we cannot afford for green practices to eat into our profits. Once sold it will not be our problem anymore.
I believe that one of the major barriers is that not enough decision makers who care for the long term are in the construction industry. Is green good for business? Yes, enough to make profit and to be newsworthy. For tax breaks, for BCA Green Mark points, for awards. But should these be the primary reasons?
TC: How are you tackling these barriers?
CWM: Prayer, education and personal sharing. Encouraging people to take personal responsibility and to do the right thing.
TC: Quality control is key to ensuring that Termimesh is effectively designed and installed. How do you currently manage this aspect and how does it play into your technology roadmap?
CWM: When we first started, my friends told me that this is bad business. You do this only one time, whereas the other players using poison continue to do their business over and over again for the life of the building. However, I am intrigued by the sustainable concept of “one-time, lifetime” and zero impact on the environment.
The perfect Termimesh system has to be installed by imperfect human hands. Improving quality control and productivity is constantly on our minds. With the continuing lack of human resources to supervise quality control, we have to train our technical staff to take charge of their own professional motivation. I am personally trying to emulate what drives Japanese artisans to take pride in their art.
With government encouragement, we have been attempting to think outside the box with regards to technological assistance to improving quality control and supervision but have often felt lost.
We currently have standard operational procedures for work, supervision and quality control and we review them at least twice a year.
TC: Your company has grown beyond Singapore. What major challenges does your company face when expanding into other countries?
CWM: Training the locals [is a challenge]. Termimesh is a very technical system and requires much hands-on workshops and on-site training. This unfortunately takes much time and effort.
Given the strict regulations of the Ministry of Manpower, it is next to impossible to bring in Termimesh trainees from other countries for on-the-job familiarisation and training. We also have to consciously hire and train different nationalities, as we are attempting to provide service in a culturally diverse region. Hiring foreigners is an ever increasingly expensive experience that puts extreme pressure on business viability.
TC: As the company continues to grow, what steps are you taking to attract new talent while training existing staff to take on more responsibilities?
CWM: I am a trained professional architect who has turned over a new leaf. I do not know of any other architects doing similar “down grading”. The young Singaporean loves the high life. The construction industry doesn’t attract them, as the path is not paved with gold. We take pride in training and providing a specialist career path to the BTC (bo tak chek, which is Hokkien for uneducated). While they may become great in their technical skills, they may continue to lack in social, linguistic and administrative skills. We continually provide open opportunities for anyone to take on new and greater responsibilities in the company and making mistakes is part of that path.
We would certainly love to have more young Singaporeans, but given the tight manpower market, attracting them is not easy unless they are “called”.
TC: The imperative for environmentally friendly alternatives will only increase in the next decade. How will your business model evolve to place Termimesh at the best advantage?
CWM: Is there really such a thing as a safer poison? Can poison ever be “green”?
The best sustainable materials and systems don’t need to change. We have to adapt the materials and systems into new building technologies and styles. Our basic marine-grade stainless steel mesh continues to apply, the same way that versions of the brick first used eons ago are still being laid in today’s modern buildings.
Termites will continue to live and thrive. That’s nature. In killing them with poison, we will only kill ourselves. A single termite queen lays 32 million eggs in the span of 32 years. There will always be newer and newer buildings, and there will always be termites trying to get in, looking for food to sustain their ever increasing colony. If Termimesh is in place, the building is protected for life, sustainably.
Living in the information era, we all know the ills of pesticides on human life. They cause much human suffering and disease—cancers, asthma, ADHD, kidney failure and so many more. The low-down on poisonous termiticides is that it does not only kill termites as the manufacturer would want you to believe. When sprayed into the soil, they kill other organisms, beneficial or not. They enter the water source killing fishes and contaminating our drinking water.
People who love the world, their children, their pets, the environment, their property and their treasured possessions will choose the poison-free, zero-impact alternative, if money was not an issue. It’s a choice. Something gained and something lost. [It’s up to people to] choose what’s really important.
This interview was conducted for The Columnist, a newsletter by Consulus that offers ideas on business, design and world affairs. The views expressed in this article are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views of Consulus.
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