ISEAS-SPF Webinar on “The Future of Responsible Business in Southeast Asia”

This webinar discussed how governments, businesses, NGOs, and other stakeholders can respond to the challenges facing responsible business, and what will be needed to prepare for a post-Covid future that can benefit disadvantaged individuals, societies, and the environment.

Enhancing Responsible Business in Southeast Asia

Wednesday, 7 October 2020 – The ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute in partnership with the Sasakawa Peace Foundation held a webinar on “The Future of Responsible Business in Southeast Asia”. The webinar is the final session of a six-part ISEAS-SPF Asia Impact Dialogue Webinar Series on “Enhancing Responsible Business in Southeast Asia”.

Moderated by Senior Fellow and Coordinator of Regional Social and Cultural Studies Programme at ISEAS, Dr Benjamin Loh, the webinar featured the insights of Dr Yang Mee Eng (ASEAN Foundation), Mr Thomas Thomas (ASEAN Corporate Social Responsibility Network), Dr Miwa Yamada (Institute of Developing Economies, JETRO), Mr Lowell Chow (Business and Human Rights Resource Centre) and Mr Hirokazu Kobayashi (JETRO Singapore and Special Advisor to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, Japan). The speakers presented their insights on how governments, businesses, NGOs, and other stakeholders can respond to the challenges facing responsible business, and what will be needed to prepare for a post-Covid future that can benefit disadvantaged individuals, societies, and the environment.

Dr Yang Mee Eng spoke on “ASEAN’s role in Enhancing Responsible Business”. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

The webinar began with Dr Yang Mee Eng’s presentation which discussed ASEAN’s role and commitment to enhancing responsible business in the region. She highlighted the importance of nurturing future-ready youths on the responsible business agenda. According to her, ASEAN countries form the 3rd largest labour force behind China and India, and youths under 35 years of age form 61 per cent of the region’s total population. In light of COVID-19, she said that the ASEAN Foundation has initiated programmes to accelerate digital transformation by partnering youths with corporations such as Microsoft. It has also intensified efforts to empower youths and promote social volunteering. Such efforts include connecting youths with top ASEAN officials. Dr Yang opined that ASEAN continue to face several challenges into the future, and these challenges include the uneven social and economic development and environmental degradation in Southeast Asia. She also emphasized the need for careful selection of priority agendas among the 18 Sustainable Development Goals for better focus and long-term results.

Mr Thomas Thomas presented on Corporate Social Responsibility in ASEAN. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Mr Thomas Thomas discussed the state of business and human rights in Southeast Asia, and the efforts of the ASEAN CSR Network (ACN) in working with governments, businesses, and civil society organizations in promoting responsible business in preparation for a post-pandemic business environment. He noted that while ASEAN countries have good laws in place for business and human rights, they are not being implemented. He reported that companies tend to promote responsible business or corporate social responsibility (CSR) rather than integrate them into their company values with the aim to treat people fairly. Based on a baseline study on CSR and human rights conducted by ACN, Mr Thomas highlighted that issues relating to forced labor and human rights were the least disclosed among a list of thematic disclosure of information. ACN has introduced the ASEAN Responsible and Inclusive Business Alliance to encourage companies to comply with global standards in areas such as governance, human rights and anti- corruption. Greater support from large companies in the alliance will be needed to create a multiplier effect. He also added that ASEAN should appoint a steering committee to fast track issues relating to responsible business as a way for governments to engage businesses effectively. 

Dr Miwa Yamada’s presentation on “Opportunities and Challenges in Engaging with Japanese Companies on Responsible Business in Southeast Asia”. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Dr Miwa Yamada examined opportunities and challenges in engaging with Japanese companies on responsible business in Southeast Asia. According to an IDE-JETRO survey of 814 Japanese companies operating in Southeast Asia, South Asia, Western Europe, and Africa concerning issues related to their supply chains, Dr Yamada reported that nearly 90 per cent of these companies have responded positively to their employee’ health, but the percentage becomes lower on issues of discrimination and harassments.  For Japanese companies operating in Southeast Asia, 29.5% of respondents said they were aware of human rights risks in their business or relationships with business partners. She cautioned that while this percentage is low compared to other regions, it does not mean that human rights risk is the lowest in Southeast Asia. For the region’s sustainable, long term and inclusive growth, Dr Yamada emphasized the need for a society where human rights, labour and environment are protected. She said that Japanese companies can use its leverage to promote responsible business conduct in their supply chains, especially between Japanese companies and local business partners. Transparency and accountability in business practice, good corporate governance, and a constructive labour-management relationship will be essential in such efforts to promote responsible business. She also suggested that governments should create an enabling environment for companies to practice responsible business, and allow a secure space for civil society to engage with companies.

Mr Lowell Chow presented on “Opportunities and Challenges in Engaging with Chinese Companies on Responsible Business in SE Asia”. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Mr Chow shared about his experience engaging with Chinese companies while working at the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre. Since the Belt and Road Initiative was announced in 2013, Chinese investment has increased in many of its neighbouring countries. He reported that many of these investments are mega projects that have affected people’s lives and the environment. Based on surveys conducted by his centre, Mr Chow reported that Chinese companies need to improve their accountability and transparency as their response rate to questions from stakeholders was only 25% compared to the global rate of 70%. In this aspect, Chinese companies also lag behind other Asian businesses such as Japanese, Korean, and Taiwanese firms. Mr Chow noted that Chinese firms will need to adhere more closely to responsible businesses guidelines published by government and international bodies, and he called for proper grievance mechanisms to be set up within these companies.

Mr Hirokazu Kobayashi presented on “Role of ‘Responsible Business’ in Realising Transition and Innovation towards Decarbonization in Southeast Asia”. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

In the final presentation, Mr Kobayashi shared his personal views on the role of responsible business in the transitions and innovation towards decarbonization and climate change in Southeast Asia. He observed that there is increasing awareness among Japanese companies about Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance (ESG) criteria and Sustainable Development Goals as essential to their long term growth. He reported that Japan’s Ministry of Trade and Industry (METI) has published “The Guide for SDG Business Management” in 2019 to encourage companies to incorporate the SDGs into their business, and investors to evaluate company’s competitiveness. Mr Kobayashi said that a large amount of investment wil be needed for decarbonization, particularly in emerging countries including those in Southeast Asia. He believes that the business sector should play a bigger role to provide the necessary advanced technology. He also noted that the most important and difficult part of the decarbonisation process is the transition phase. Mr Kobayashi said that the different countries’ strengths and social challenges should be taken into account when evaluating their decarbonisation efforts.

During the Question and Answer segment, the moderator and online audience engaged the speakers on a variety of questions which included the evolution of work in the future due to COVID-19, the need for an “Asian” version of CSR, the informal business sector’s impact on the Southeast Asian business environment and ways in which Japanese companies can be encouraged to engage with different stakeholders. The webinar series ended on a positive note with speakers discussing their hopes for the future of responsible business in the region. Dr Yang mused about the increased potential for upskilling due to the large variety of digital platforms available. Mr Kobayashi and Mr Thomas noted that SMEs were promising in their sincerity to adhere to global standards of responsible business.  Mr Lowell brought attention to brands which have promised to support factories and workers during COVID-19 as a good sign of social responsibility. Dr Yamada suggested that greater collaboration between different stakeholders like government, civil society, companies is on the cards now that the pandemic has revealed that working together is essential for business survival.

Almost 90 participants attended the webinar. The session was moderated by Dr Benjamin Loh. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)