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Working together as a corporate sector to be a force for good

Speech by Mr Edwin Tong, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth & Second Minister for Law at the leadership dialogue for the Singapore Together Alliance for Action on Corporate Purpose

  1. Good morning to all of you. 
  2. I am indeed very happy to join you at this Leadership Dialogue of the Alliance for Action on Corporate Purpose.
  3. As I look around the room, I see business leaders, society leaders, all of you leaders in your own right. And I think this is really the room where we can truly drive change.   
  4. I agree with Gemma, that the video was truly inspiring. I am sure all of us had different takeaways from it. For me, one of the few takeaways were the last line, when it said that “it cannot really be business as usual anymore”. Indeed, it cannot be. The other point that resonated strongly with me is, of course, that change starts from within, from within all of us and all of us as individuals.
  5. All of you represent a vast, diverse array of businesses from across our different industry sectors. And I think that itself, the fact that you're all here this morning, taking part sharing your views, ideas, collaborating, is a fantastic first step, if not second step.
  6. Many of you come from MNCs, Large Local Enterprises (LLEs), and SMEs. And each of your businesses represent key pillars and drivers of our economic sector. One other point in the video that resonated strongly with me, was how economic change cannot be sustainable on its own. Those of you follow what we discussed in parliament yesterday, would know that we talked about climate sustainability. And I think in today's context, that discussion cannot take place without looking at how this can be done sustainably in the context of how we look at economic change as well.

    Businesses in Singapore have always played an important role in society

  7. Indeed, over the past decade, one of the biggest debates in the global business community has been on the role of businesses and corporates -- in what you can do, individually and collectively.
  8. For half a century, there has been a strong widely held belief, one that I came across in my own career previously when I was a practicing lawyer, that you focus only on the outcome of the corporate. To manage the corporate, you focus on the interests of the shareholders. That is not something that is unknown. 

    a. If you remember the Friedman Doctrine, which was put forth by Nobel laureate Milton Friedman in 1970. 

    b. He argued that a company had no social responsibility to the public or society. 

    c. Instead, a company’s only responsibility was to its shareholders to drive profits and profitability.
  9. So, in that respect, even in the US, it was a big change when in 2019, at the US-based Business Roundtable,

    a. which is the most important lobby group representing the CEOs of top US companies, 

    b. and which had been previously a proponent of the Friedman Doctrine

    c. Came out to re-define the purpose of a corporation – to include the interests of so many other stakeholders connected to the company such as employees, customers, suppliers and also local communities in which the business operates. All of these must have an interest that stands on par, no less and certainly equal to those of shareholders.
  10. But in Singapore, I think our perspective has been somewhat different. Our path or journey to where we are today has been quite different. Our business people and businesses have always, for a long time, been extremely intertwined with the interests and the needs of the community. It has long been recognised by all business community that our role goes beyond just generating jobs and profits.

    a. So, these names would resonate with all of you, I'm sure –Hajjah Fatimah, Govindasamy Pillai and Tan Tock Seng – and many others. These are just a few familiar names from our history books of business people who have founded strong businesses themselves. And all of them align with the business and have a strong interest in making sure that the benefits that flow to the company, also flow into the community and to society.  

    b. Since independence, our unique model of tripartism has brought the government, companies and workers together. So, when we speak of a force for good, we actually have a strong DNA embedded in our own system, our own society. The trajectory of our companies and how they fit into society and benefit communities have always been there. 

    c. MNCs, in particular, have played an important role in the training of our locals – starting out with technical training in the early years of Singapore’s industrialisation, to training highly-skilled professionals in our universities today. 

    d. Our LLEs have also been long-time champions of our arts sector. One of the other roles I have in my current capacity is to look after the arts sector. Many of the LLEs have been a strong proponent and strong supporter of the arts, giving back to arts, heritage and sports . And this constant evolution and cycle of reinforcing one another has to continue. 

    Businesses can be a force for good in changing times

  11. Over the last decade, this has become more important as environmental and social challenges have become more acute and complex. With the overlay of COVID, that has just made things a lot more difficult. It has already been challenging, but with COVID and everyone looking inwards a lot more, all these challenges have really come to the fore.

    a. For example, tackling social inequality and mitigating the effects of climate change. These are topics which sometimes might not be related to each other. But in today’s society, all of these are connected. All of these have a link to each other as they are multifaceted issues. And these issues are not just the responsibility of individuals or leaders in society or the government, but require all of us to play our part.
  12. And I believe Singapore has the right conditions for us to have this much-needed conversation on the value of corporate purpose in changing times, and how businesses can indeed be a force for good to tackle these challenges. I also believe that we have the recipe for going well beyond just having conversations. The AfAs, perhaps not just only in name but only in deed, to reflect that we do go beyond conversations, and form an alliance for action, alliances that give rise to positivity and real change.

    A corporate sector with purpose benefits everyone

  13. Businesses that recognise a shared responsibility to the wider community find that it is doubly advantageous – it benefits both the community and the business. Another point that also resonated with me in the video was what Mr Piyush Gupta (DBS CEO) said about going beyond just taking donations as a line item, but to embed that into your own company and corporate DNA in everything that you do. Be it in the way in which you look after employees, the way in which you generate business, the way in which you set up a shop in the local community and all the other factors taken into account. All of this will reflect the DNA of a company that is a force for good.
  14. A clear corporate purpose involves a longer-term vision of what success is and who your stakeholders are. 

    a. If you have that discussion at the start and look at stakeholders beyond just being shareholders, I think we have the recipe for being a true agent of change, and a force for good. In that regard, delivering profits that are sustainable, creating new jobs, continuously raising the skill sets of our workers, investing in our workers, are increasingly going to be very important. This has always been how we secure a better future for the corporate as well as that collectively of Singapore. 
  15. Expectations of businesses have also evolved. 

    a. In many parts of the world, employees are now re-evaluating their relationship with work, accelerated by the challenges of Covid-19 such as work from home. We have seen all of these changes in different capacities, but we must also look at it from the perspective of the employees.

    b. Investors and workers alike want their beliefs to align with the goals and values of the businesses that they work for and support. 
  16. This, in itself, if we don't take into account in how we structure our business, presents new challenges and new opportunities. 

    a. In Singapore, with the SG Together movement, Singaporeans are coming together more and more, to discuss and envision our shared future, and the opportunities that they present. 

    b. Businesses can thrive in this brighter future, by generating value through more sustainable products and services, and in doing so creating new markets for themselves. 

    c. National efforts such as the Singapore Green Plan 2030, are mobilising individuals and organisations to help Singapore transform into a more sustainable city, and demonstrate the potential for organisations to explore and test-bed new ideas. And I think we have the very good environment, both in business as well as from the climate change perspective, to do this.

    Working to make a difference for Singapore Together

  17. In that respect, good corporate leadership is key to making the most of these opportunities, 

    a. to put words into practice and take action for the sake of your companies and the longer-term investment for our future. It is in that of the broader spectrum of stakeholders that will drive sustainable change.
  18. In this effort, the government is committed to partnering Singaporeans and businesses to make a true difference, one that is not just in name but one that truly betters the future. In the words of Janet from the video earlier, it is for our children, and our children’s children. 
  19. This can be done through the SG Together Alliances for Action and other partnerships. 

    a. These are platforms for action, one of which is what we see this morning today, bringing together people from all sectors to create together, to exchange ideas, to share innovations and solutions in both the economic and social arenas and to really transform ideas and thoughts and inspiration into deeds and action. That is what's going to be really important. We have to go beyond conversations and dialogues into real true action. And I know it has not been easy to come together physically as much in the past, so I am very heartened to see so many people come here today and I think this room will resonate with those ideas.  

    b. The Alliance for Action on Corporate Purpose is one such platform. I am glad that NVPC, together with strong business leaders from the business community, is spearheading the development of a framework and blueprint for corporate purpose. 

    c. I saw Chin Siong’s presentation earlier of the first two sessions. As many of you pointed out in the first two sessions of this AfA, it is important that corporate purpose is truly embedded into the DNA of our corporate sector. Not as lip service but truly one that is embraced from within.

    d. In doing so, we move beyond seeing philanthropy and corporate social responsibility as separate from your core business as Mr Gupta has said, to purpose becoming core to your mission, where business works with its workers, suppliers, customers and partners to generate greater value for all its stakeholders.
  20. In this respect, I hope that seeing each other will also inspire creative ideas and juices to flow, to collaborate and exchange ideas. No one has a monopoly over all good ideas. So, when we come together in a room like this and exchange ideas, I think we will all benefit from it. 
  21. Thank you very much, once again, for inviting me here this morning. I am very heartened to see all of you again, and I hope that all of you will have ideas and thoughts on how we can grow a sustainable economy, and to consider the wider interests of society.  Not just today, but also those of tomorrow. And when we put these stakeholders in the centre of what we do, how we plan and how we envision the journey of a corporate, I think we can truly say that change becomes part of the fabric of the DNA of a company and of the corporate purpose. That is what will drive sustainable change for tomorrow. 
  22. Thank you very much and I wish all of you have a good discussion this morning. 
Last updated on 14 January 2022