By Tunku Zain Al-’Abidin. First published in the Malay Mail 3 June 2016
Last Monday, I spoke at the Associated Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry of Malaysia (ACCCIM) Social and Economic Research Council (SERC) Global Economic Forum on geopolitics. During the presentations and dialogue, my co-panellist and I spoke about how geopolitical trends and decisions being taken across the Pacific, Middle East and Europe could affect Malaysia. These include the identity of the next US president, the tussle for trade in the Asia Pacific region, sovereignty and security in the South China Sea, the ongoing war in Iraq and Syria, rising political tension in Europe, and their cumulative likely effect on future oil prices. On some of these matters, Cabinet ministers exhibit a range of opinions: a far cry from the years after Merdeka when our ideological convictions at home translated into clear alignments abroad.
One member of the audience remarked that on these issues, there are so many contradictory “expert opinions”, and so what can businesses do to manage their risks?
Indeed that there will always be commentators who will find something to disagree with (perhaps in the hope of provoking businesses to continue paying for their advice), but there are things that businesses can do to reduce uncertainty, especially on the domestic front. I referred to the displays outside the hall that showed how, over its 95-year history, the Chambers contributed to policies to liberalise the rubber trade, protect hawkers, regulate opium smoking, abolish brothels and adopt multilingual road signs.
Furthermore, business people are citizens and voters too, and in setting the rules of business, especially in terms of respect for the rule of law, enforce ability of contracts, respect for property (including intellectual property) rights, tax and trade policy, as well as the reliability of the institutions responsible for all these, our constitution has, in theory, established a process to enable public participation in these areas.
It has not always worked according to the theory, of course. Some businesses have long adopted the model of rewarding politicians and bureaucrats to bend the rules in their favour to achieve and sustain dominance, with others then trying to compete as best they can while maintaining their ethics.
I have caught a glimpse of this through my independent non-executive directorships of two public listed companies (involved in aluminium can manufacturing and insurance), for which the fiduciary duties are onerous even by international standards, and board decisions are much scrutinised by regulatory authorities, shareholders and the public at large.
From this perspective I have seen so many examples of how monopolistic or preferential policies have rewarded What has impressed me the most is the esprit de corps among employees. Whether on the factory floor or during marketing conventions, I have seen Malaysians of all racial and religious backgrounds from towns across the country work together in the knowledge that success requires inter-dependence.” those deemed electorally important while constraining growth for others, how the process of liberalisation in many sectors is a battle between corporates, ministries and regulatory bodies, or how a scantly-explained change in tax policy destroys meticulously prepared business plans.
Equally, among staff there is a keen awareness of the potential impacts on their jobs and livelihoods based on policy and legislative decisions in their sector, although some complaints are against trade union leaders, who try to make their members do things they don’t actually want to do (unions can be just as authoritarian as political parties).
But what has impressed me the most is the esprit de corps among employees. Whether on the factory floor or during marketing conventions, I have seen Malaysians of all racial and religious backgrounds from towns across the country work together in the knowledge that success requires interdependence. What is more encouraging is that some of these individuals grew up i n entirely mono-ethnic, mono-religious settings. Thus, while schools might be the best place to learn the values of acceptance and harmony, they are by no means the only place. This solidarity extends to corporate responsibility initiatives, too. While these are sometimes derided as window-dressing for inclusion in annual reports, I have witnessed first-hand the dedication of staff at all levels volunteering in communities and organising aid for disaster relief.
When people think of how to make Malaysia better, it is often in terms of the public sector, what can the government, civil service or other institutions of state do to make other people’s lives better. But the role of the private sector not only in terms of manufacturing the things we enjoy or insuring our loved ones, but also in contributions to civic life is equally significant and deserves recognition.
Unfortunately, these aspects of the private sector are not often acknowledged or taken into account in policy making. That is a shame, for the more clarity and freedom that truly competitive businesses have, the more they can contribute to Malaysian life.
Tunku Zain AI-‘Abidin is founding president of IDEAS.