KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – Many of the problems faced today by member-states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are caused by irresponsible businesses, or companies that reap profits at the expense of the people and the environment.
Key players of the ASEAN Responsible Business Forum 2015 are not laying blame on any company, country, or individual, but they want to mainstream the practice of responsible business conduct in the region based on internationally accepted norms and standards, Yanti Triwadiantini, chair of the ASEAN CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) Network said on Wednesday, October 28.
"The success of ASEAN relies on the concerted efforts by all people, stakeholders, and sectors to tackle numerous challenges head-on," she said in her welcome remarks at the ASEAN Responsible Business Forum 2015, which takes place in this city from October 27 to 29.
Triwadiantini said that as the region embarks on economic integration this year, "we must also be mindful of narrowing the development gap between ASEAN member-states and of ensuring that the most vulnerable groups, such as children, women, and migrant workers receive the most protection."
In response, OxfamGB Asia Regional Director Cherian Mathews said that businesses have a huge appetite to do more, and should continue to challenge themselves on how they can do better to achieve the ASEAN Economic Community goals in 10 to 15 years' time.
Responsible business as norm
For their part, foreign envoys shared how their respective governments are pursuing efforts to make businesses more responsible in terms of their operations and their impact on their host countries.
Swedish Ambassador to Malaysia Bengt Carlsson said that Swedish companies like telecommunications firm Ericsson and retail company H&M have demonstrated sustainable practices throughout their business operations.
He added that the pro-active contribution by businesses have a potentially large impact on the future development in ASEAN in areas of:
"Yes, we're convinced that companies contribute a major part in development. They can do even more [by] looking into how their core businesses can strategically fit with vulnerable groups' needs, generating mutual benefits for the businesses and their surroundings," Carlsson said.
Japanese Ambassador to ASEAN Koichi Aiboshi said that agriculture is also an important area of focus for the businesses in the region, especially in relation to the haze problem.
Haze from Indonesia has been traced to unregulated burning of forests by palm oil and paper firms. It is said to be aggravated by the ongoing El Niño phenomenon. (READ: Aquino on haze: Help, don't blame, Indonesia)
Canadian Ambassador to ASEAN, Indonesia & Timor Leste Donald Bobiash said that these are "exciting times" in ASEAN-Canada relations, and that his country recognizes responsible business practices, particularly in the areas of respect for human rights and protecting the environment.
"[Thus], investing in responsible business is crucial," Bobiash said.
British Deputy High Commissioner to Malaysia Paul Rennie said that it's difficult to be good, "[but] building a reputation in a strict business environment has its benefits."
The forum's guest of honor, YB Senator Datuk Paul Low Seng Kuan, minister for governance and integrity of the prime minister's department of Malaysia said that sometimes, businesses partner with corrupt political institutions.
As Rennie shared how the United Kingdom's Bribery Act of 2010, Low said Malaysia would also like to come up with its own anti-bribery act.
The UK law repealed all previous statutory and common law provisions in relation to bribery and replaced them with the crimes of bribery, being bribed, the bribery of foreign public officials, and the failure of a commercial organization to prevent bribery on its behalf.
"We like to create an integrity movement and commit to implement the ISO (International Standard Organization) 37001 anti-bribery (management systems)," Low said.
He added that an anti-corruption coalition in the construction sector has been formed, and will eventually be replicated in the areas of medical devices, pharmaceuticals, and the supply chain.
The key is gathering collective action to implement what must be implemented to help every nation, Low said.
'Doing good' as a challenge
In a high-level panel on competitiveness and a sustainable ASEAN economic community post-2015, Anjan Gosh, Intel's Regional Director-Corporate Affairs for Asia-Pacific and Japan, said it is difficult for the company to answer questions on how or where they spend its CSR budget, because "it's embedded across business units."
It is a no-brainer that procurement practices of companies must be transparent, said Alois Hofbauer, chairperson of the ethical business practices committee of the Federation of Malaysian Manufacturers.
Hofbauer, who is Nestlé's managing director and regional head for Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei, added that the company is encouraging small and medium businesses to become more responsible suppliers.
Top Glove Corporation Berhad Chairman and Founder Tan Sri Dr Lim Wee Chai said a business can be good if it has good people running it.
Top Glove, regarded as a leading manufacturer of rubber gloves, is creating awareness among its workforce on how to be good in the conduct of their business – from picking up rubbish daily to wearing an anti-corruption badge.
"We educate, encourage our people to do good. [But] being good alone is not good enough, make sure your neighboring countries are [also] doing good," the Top Glove chairman said.
Institute for Social Entrepreneurship in Asia president Marie Lisa Dacanay said that to do good, businesses should look more into involving themselves with social enterprises in a more transformational way.
Santi Wasanasiri, vice president of innovation and sustainability of Thai oil firm PTT Group said that while many businesses like to help, to have a more lasting impact, they must find an area to focus their CSR efforts.
"Every company has a CSR budget; the key is how to spend it," Wasanasiri said.
Overall, economic growth in ASEAN can be achieved if member-states and businesses in the region help each other, "open their doors to be helped, [and] they must be willing to cooperate," Tan Sri Wee Chai said. – Rappler.com