by Brian Lariche
Malaysia has been an exponent and promoter of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) for a number of years with the start of the Silver Book introduced in 2005 as part of the GLC transformation process. Over the years, this has been further developed to include the Public Listed Companies (PLCs) and the CSR related work. Yet, despite this ground work, we continue to confuse CSR, charity and philanthropy and sadly, we still flounder in a sea of puerile activities.
As a multi-ethnic country, Malaysia is blessed with an abundance of festivals and with that a multitude of holidays. It is common practice that these festivals have become the catalyst for ‘CSR’ Activities. The local media is filled with people holding a giant mock cheque with a select group of kids (usually) standing near or around the cheque that usually is filled with as many numbers as possible that don’t really reflect the true value of the actual contribution. Sadly, this is still the ’face’ of CSR- a picture in the newspaper and this is frequently the measure of success of a CSR program - its PR value.
It is almost like charities don’t work or need support during the non-festive months and for some reason society in general does not question this. Where have the mock cheques gone during the non-festive periods? It is almost like the charities only eat during the festive seasons.
Unfortunately, despite the very strong efforts by the Malaysian Government to promote CSR, it is still viewed as ‘charity’ and not as a true business model for long term win-win for all parties concerned. Many a time, CSR in a company is parked at the Corporate Communication Department resulting in a focus on the PR aspects of CSR with success measured in square inches on the page (aka PR gambits) without the real benefits of the beneficiaries in mind.
Sometimes, the Corporate Communication Department of a company that handles CSR is blessed with well-intentioned staff, but we know that the road to hell is often paved with good intentions. They focus on the principle of ‘kasihan’ or sympathy and again don’t focus on the sustainability of project but rather the settling of a battle rather than winning the war.
Sometimes, it is worse when the company exploits the lack of understanding of their NGO partner (intentionally or otherwise) and gets a much bigger and unfair return for their minimal involvement in a CSR project. Other times it will mean that huge amounts of money are poured into a project and activities that do not reflect a real Social Return On Investment (SROI) and essentially means money down the drain.
So what is CSR 2.0 (or corporate citizenship, corporate responsibility as called variously)? It is something that goes beyond superficial one-off events and is strategic and profitable. The new mindset means creating value for all stakeholders rather than focusing on profits only for shareholders. It is about doing business better via how you make money for the company and not how you spend your money on CSR linked projects. It means it involves looking at your upstream and downstream of your business and identifying your business partners properly.
Ultimately, CSR is about sustainability of the business by improving competitiveness and the bottom line. In any business environment, especially in countries with many government contracts given out, CSR becomes the differentiator- the defining activity that highlights the ‘sincerity’ of a company in nation building. Furthermore, many of the top corporate bodies in the world define themselves via their brand and coming across as a real CSR practitioner means more satisfied customers, happier employees, sustainable access to resources and good relations with the neighbourhood that the company operates in. In the long run, it reduces costs and mitigates exposure to risks.
Corporate Social Responsibility first gained momentum in Malaysia when the 5th Prime Minister, Abdullah Badawi made it part of his leadership with numerous incentives and inducements for companies to practice CSR. This included the tax breaks by the government to the guidelines provided by the national investment company, Khazanah.
Unfortunately, this ‘gentle’ push has resulted in a plethora of CSR awards, conferences, workshops and seminars. Many seem to repeat the same platitudes and don’t focus on the innovation and the forward thinking of the concept of CSR. The term CSR has become trendy and everyone seems to want to find their niche with some even suggesting that the letter ‘S’ be dropped from CSR and be just CR. In the end, the companies who spend the most on their CSR reports get more attention than the companies who actually do good work but don’t invest in the proper reporting processes.
So, what does the future hold for CSR in Malaysia? The future is unclear.
There seems to be an emerging group of companies that realise that CSR is the way forward in Malaysia truly being a global player. Some already do excellent work nationally and some already have an impact globally.
The country clearly needs more professionals in this field who have a deeper understanding of CSR to help make it part of the DNA of companies and not just a tick on some checklist for PR activities. The issue is getting the right talents who understand the community landscape in Malaysia and have the ability to design and implement viable community projects with the powers that be within their companies allow the CSR projects to work within a strategy and push aside personal bias and ambitions. When this is done, we can finally see clear a win on the horizons for the rakyat of Malaysia.