By: Datu Sadja Matthew Pajares Yngson
Special to News Talk Florida
Vinod Sekhar is a Malaysian businessman and the first Asian recipient of the Global Green award for global technology developments. The World Economic Forum named Sekhar as one of its 40 “New Asian Leaders” in 2003. At 26, he was conferred a knighthood by the 10th King of Malaysia and one of the youngest ever to receive such an honour. His business career began with just US$50 when he launched a company called Vincent Siefer Clothing Company, which made college embossed shirts for university students in different American universities. He later sold his clothing company for US$5 million. Today he is the CEO of Malaysia’s Petra Group and involved in charitable projects around the world. He is the Founder of the Good Capitalism Forum.
Q: The United States and especially Florida, have seen a massive increase in COVID-19 cases in recent days. Yet, in Malaysia, the situation has normalized to some extent. What accounts for this difference?
A: The United States and Malaysia have many similarities. Both are primarily English-speaking robust multicultural democracies with vibrant economies and large immigrant populations. I am a Malaysian of Indian descent, one of Malaysia’s several historic migrant communities. The founders of Malaysia at independence, Merdeka, in 1957 gave us a flag that did not draw on the ideas of British imperialism but instead on the United States. Just look at the stars and stripes, not to mention the colour scheme. The United States was the first independent country in North America, and Malaysia – the first in South East Asia.
Regarding COVID-19, I wrote a recent op-ed on for the Toronto Star on this very topic. For, despite these similarities, Malaysia proved very good at coordinating its COVID 19 response between actors in both the public and private sectors. We were all able to unite politically, socially, and across industry and government to form a single coherent strategy. The problem in the United States is not its federal structure – Malaysia has a federal structure too. The problem is that society became divided over issues of science, data, and sadly public health. The notion of Good Capitalism and understanding the latent potential for social good that the private sector possesses also propelled Malaysia to offer a robust and swift response to the pandemic. In the United States, by contrast, political divisions, and comparatively awkward tension between the public and private sectors have added up to result in a much weaker national response to the pandemic thus far though we hope the situation will improve rapidly.
This is not to say we haven’t seen any such relationships form during the crisis. For example, automotive manufacturers like Ford and GM switched factories to producing much-needed ventilators. Ikea stores turned parking lots into COVID19 testing areas for health care workers. All around the globe, family-run firms have produced everything from 3D printers to sewing machines to create life-saving masks and face shields. But this is a drop in the ocean compared to what could be achieved if some of those internal tensions I just mentioned could be ameliorated.
Q: In your vision of Good Capitalism, what is wrong with how capitalism is being practised around the world?
A: Good capitalism or social capitalism is about wealth creation – not just for the business class but for society as a whole. The world must focus on finding a new way to earn profits with sustainability in mind. I think that will be one of the main challenges to come out of the coronavirus pandemic. We can see that places where good capitalism has been practiced around the world, are places where both business and civil society have escaped the worst of the pandemic’s fallout. We as capitalists can have our toys but must also understand that unless we protect the world within which our businesses operate – we all lose.
Indeed, that is the central message of the Good Capitalism Forum (GCF), a first-of-its-kind global conference announced last year which predicted that without a repurposing of capitalism towards the social good, the world would fail to avert and effectively overcome future global crises.
But, as we also concluded at the GCF launch, private companies, with their immense talent pool, ingenuity, innovation, intellectual property and technical know-how, once harnessed for social good, will inevitably become the planet’s most potent positive change-agents.
Q: Your notion of “Good Capitalism” was crafted before the COVID-19 pandemic. Do you think such ideas will be able to survive what will likely be the most significant economic downturn of our lifetimes?
A: I think some companies are already intuitively understanding the concept of Good Capitalism. Recently, 68 of Germany’s leading companies called for economic aid – not to roll back climate change efforts in the face of new economic realities – but to actively tackle it.
That statement from German companies is the first-of-its-kind from the private sector, of any nation post-COVID19, and represents companies that employ over three million people with a collective turnover of one trillion euros.
Critics may argue that pursuing social benefit and financial profit are two distinctly different tracks. And that the call by German companies to double-down on climate goals during potentially the worst recession in living memory is economic suicide – one no other nation should follow.
But I beg to differ. It is precisely in finding cooperative solutions to the significant global challenges of our time that invariably leads to exceptional private-sector innovations and market-driven solutions to real-world problems. This step by Germany’s private sector perhaps indicates a deeper evolving paradigm-shift in thinking regarding the role corporations should play in response to global challenges not just in Germany but around the world.
Q: One of the issues you are most passionate about is rubber recycling, and it is one of your core businesses. Why should we pay more attention to this problem?
A: Globally, we throw away 1.4 billion tires each year. The question becomes then what to do with those tires. Solving the challenge of what to do about this waste rubber will help solve two more extensive problems. First, far too much global waste rubber is burned in various industrial processes, which can contribute to global warming. Too often that waste rubber is shipped to third-party countries with less stringent environmental standards, so the actual emissions are off the books.
Secondly, tires are often turned into playground equipment or used in similar surface applications. This contributes to a second problem – microplastics. These are plastics so small that you need a microscope to see them and their impact on the environment and human health is only now becoming clear. In California, there have already been studies that suggest tires are the largest contributor of microplastics in the ocean environment.
Green Rubber Global, which is part of the Petra Group, has a unique and ground-breaking method which allows not just the proper disposal of tires but their reuse. Through the DeLink process that I have developed, we can recover the rubber in the tires by extracting the steel and oil used in the tire making process. The process is also not energy-intensive and works effectively with both natural and synthetic rubbers. There is more electricity used in the air-conditioning in our facility than in the process itself. The price for one ton of Green Rubber is 30-40% cheaper than virgin rubber and has the same potential uses. We are also working to develop the ecosystem for this business as well, for example, finding new suppliers of rubber crumb which we can then re-process. This creates new smaller companies that support Green Rubber Global.
You see, this is a business which gets at the core of the idea of “Good Capitalism.” I profit, consumers may get a cheaper cost, and environmental harm is reduced. It’s a win-win-win for everyone. It works in Malaysia, and it could work anywhere.
Q: You talk about “Good Capitalism” as a business practice. What model do you see for traditional charity or corporate social responsibility where businesses turn some of their profits into donations to charitable causes?
A: Such efforts are part of the notion of Good Capitalism. Not every business can be one that adds societal value to everyone all the time — even if that remains the goal. One of the advantages of charity is that your business can be globally impactful very quickly. The Petra Group is 60% owned by the Sekhar Foundation, which is our charitable arm that is involved in several issues from the environment to the educational. The Sekhar Foundation is currently playing a role in the lives of over 12,000 children globally. We have built or funded schools, orphanages around the globe, other efforts in Malaysia, India, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines — of which I am an Honorary Consul. In Armenia, Colombia, we were involved in efforts to rebuild that city after a devastating landslide funded the creation of an orphanage, the Petra-Valentina House. I am also the Chairman of the Pelita Harapan (Lantern of Hope) for terminally ill children and the Co-Chairman of the Innocent Child Appeal Fund Board for abused children, and the Chairman of the Sitavani Foundation as well.
I think it is also a practice of Good Capitalism to know when you should support the work of others more indirectly. My wife and I are passionate about more children around the globe, having the sort of opportunities our children have had. Yet, we have found it’s often better to work closely with others. For example, in 2011, we worked with singer-songwriter Alicia Keys on her “Black Ball” charity event in London, which raised money for “Keep a Child Alive,” a fund for families and children affected by HIV. In the context of COVID-19, we have undertaken several new initiatives here in Malaysia to impact those most in need. That is how we will get through this crisis—by working together. That is the essence of Good Capitalism.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Datu Sadja Matthew Pajares Yngson DCPS KCR FRSA is the Representative Councillor of the Caribbean ASEAN Council, and Executive Director & Envoy for Diplomatic Affairs of the Eastern Caribbean-Southeast Asia Chamber. He is an alumnus of HRH The Duke of Edinburgh’s Commonwealth Study Conferences and a Fellow of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. He was conferred a noble title by the 35th Sultan of Sulu and North Borneo for his services to the indigenous people of Sulu.