Sunday, 11 February 2018

Growth Without Employment?

I was fortunate to be invited by the Securities Commission to attend the World Capital Markets Symposium 2018 last week. The theme for this series was Renaissance of Capitalism: Markets for Growth. 

The Prime Minister giving his keynote address

Two speakers really provided me with the contexts and the big picture of what aregoing on in the world. They are Fareed Zakaria, the CNN's presenter which hosts  GPS and Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek Finance Minister. They displayed their intellectualism by galvanising observations, historical events and providing their projection of the future, which interestingly appear to coincide with each other.

It is not difficult to figure out why capitalism is being questioned, hence why the theme was chosen. Globally, the world is still recovering from the 2008 financial crisis, in one way or another. Even as the Wall Street is seeing record highs again, interest rates in the United States are still not normalised yet. Quantitive easing is still the order of the day in Europe while Japan is still having an extra accommodative monetary policy.

Similar to his last appearance, Fareed walked the audience through the history of world trade, globalisation and the information revolution. The world, according to Fareed, is at the point which provides the best to mankind based on all metrics. Yet, he agreed that everyone are not comfortable with something. Brexit and the election of Donald Trump are two examples of how the majority of the population in those places expressed their dissatisfaction against the ruling class.

Fareed Zakaria delivering his views
According to Fareed, there is a revolt against what he termed as "professionals",  the group of people who made it through the education system and had been able to enjoy prosperity, accumulated wealth and been defining success for the rest who are mainly blue collar workers. Why? Because the growth driven by technological advancement had somehow not resulted in the growth of employment. The link between globalisation, trade and employment had been broken with business models where technology is the centre and displacing human with robots are the way forward.

While Yanis was supposed to share with the audience his experience in dealing with Greece's failure to meet its debts obligations, he went back to the 1940's to explain the rationale behind the Bretton Woods agreement which was considered an important milestone in the whole chain of events many years later.

Yanis Varoufakis being interviewed on stage by Riz Khan
After the Second World War, America was in a surplus situation in terms of capital and manufacturing capabilities. It needed to convert factories from producing was equipment to merchandise goods. In order to "recycle the surplus" from the US to deficit countries like Europe and Japan, the Bretton Woods agreement was designed to enable the Americans to be in the driving seat. Reference to the gold standards was just a tool of convenience, so that capital can be transferred to the deficit countries in form of debts to finance the imports of goods from the US.

In the early 70s, the US itself started to suffer from deficit and the Bretton Woods agreement was making it difficult for them to play their original role. It was then determined by the Americans that it does not matter whether the US was deficit or not, their position would be maintained if the US remains as the driver of the recycling of the deficit through Wall Street and the US Dollar. Hence, Bretton Woods was dissolved for the benefit of the Americans.

The facilitate this new way of cycling deficit, labour cost in the US had to be reduced. Hence, as a trade off, American workers were promised that their investment in property and houses would be the way to assure comfortable retirements. Hence, the American housing bubble was started. Therefore, the 2008 financial crisis where house prices melted was a breach of that understanding made many years ago. Suddenly, many worker found their retirement saving in the form of house value disappeared.

At the same time, the technology revolution has created a situation where growth has been decoupled from employment. As an example, Yanis cited an Adidas factory servicing the whole Northern America markets needs only 800 knowledge-based workers instead of 8,000 people which included blue collar workers. It was mentioned that only 25% of Americans have college degrees, hence their future in the jobless growth-era would be bleak. This opened the door for people who believe in protectionism such as Donald Trump to take centre stage and able to promote policies which resonate with the feelings of these marginalised workers.

When Greece joined the monetary union, its public and private debts were very low. Hence, Greece became the primary target for surplus countries like Germany to provide debt capital to Greeks so that they could consume products and services from those countries. According to Yanis, the bailout offered to Greece was to safe banks from Germany and France from collapsing if their loans were defaulted by Greece borrowers. 

Fareed provided the same analysis. Trump's simplistic explanation to the Americans that "Your jobs are stolen by the Mexicans, your factories stolen by the Chinese and your security stolen by the Muslims" makes sense to many Americans who life were affected by the status quo. Hence, movements against the proponents of democracy and globalisation sparked the fire of revolt against the "upper-class" people globally.

While Fareed did suggest that the world need to resolve job provision in the era of technology where machines and robots would be able to replace low level activities, he did not go into specifics. Yanis, on the other hand, made it very clear that the world need a new order. He even suggested some sort of social dividends to be paid out by social media companies which are making huge profits from social interactions, without paying anything to their members. He also predicts that the society would eventually impose similar standards on social media companies like what had been imposed on financial institutions once the impact of social media companies on the society is better understood.

While we would continue our endeavour to develop and apply technology to many more facets of our lives, the issue of job creation would be critical to maintain prosperity to as many people as possible. We are already observing the implications and the worse are yet to manifest themselves. A new order where prosperity is better shared would need to be worked out. How? No one knows!

Thursday, 18 January 2018

Boardroom Effectiveness - Personal Performance or Group Performance?

Board of directors as a whole are expected to be effective. Given that boards are collection of people, the question of whether effectiveness comes from individual performance or collective performance could arise. Let us consider some factors which could influence board effectiveness.

Board composition

Like any other team structure, the composition of the board is critical. Who sits around the table, what skills and values do they bring and whether collectively they have what it takes to bring the company forward successfully are pertinent questions.

Unlike a soccer team where a manager would determine the composition of the team based on his philosophy of playing, the composition of boards is determined by the nomination committees consisting of existing board members themselves. To a certain extend, there would be challenges in shaping compositions of the future if some of the committee members would nee to be excluded. Tough job!

Having agreed on the composition is just one part of the story. Convincing the right candidates to join would be the other part. Sometimes, the reputation of the controlling shareholders or the company as a whole may determine whether competent and qualified people are keen to join or otherwise.

Board dynamics

A soccer team full of stars would not necessarily win competitions. It all depends on how well the team members play together in accordance with the strategy of the coach and the strength of the opponents.

Similarly, in boardrooms, how the members interact and work together would also influence their effectiveness as a whole. Are there enough candour where people are free to share their thoughts and views or are there prima-donnas who are keeping the airtime only to themselves?

How the board eventually arrive at their decisions would be influenced by the dynamics. In some cases, decisions are not made until everyone has given their views, no issue with this. In some other cases, few individuals in boardrooms could be the decision makers, especially when the rests are merely seat warmers and would follow the flow of the deliberations. Would this be fair to the companies they serve?

To a certain extend, the ways chairmen of boards allow the meeting to flow would have impacts on board dynamics. Some chairs are firm with a particular way of deliberations while there could be chairmen who let meetings find their own causes.

Staying the cause

Directors are expected to be honest and act in the best interests of the companies they serve. Achieving this could be influence by many factors;  strategy adopted, quality of management; situation of the industry; strength of competition, economic conditions naming the few. 

Hence, boards have to be clear of the way forward, oversee management, ensuring proper check and balance mechanisms are in place, guide management in dealing with market dynamics and competition and more importantly, setting the tone on values and culture would eventually lead them to the fulfilment of their duties and responsibilities.

Both aspects must be there

Looking at the above issues as a whole, both personal performance and group performance are important. Each board members has to bring value to the table. At the same time, their collective performance would also matter as in most cases, boards would be judged based on the decisions made in the cause moving their companies forward and provide returns to shareholders and investors.

Saturday, 13 January 2018

MRSM - The Early Chapters #2

Cikgu Wan Nasihah Wan Abdullah joined as a teacher of MRSM Kota Bharu in 1974, a year after the junior science college was established. She did her first degree in Science at Aligarh university in India and later went to Columbia university in the United States for her Masters in Education.

She lived the ethos of MRSM in nurturing students from different backgrounds. In fact she loved to deal with the naughty ones as she took that as a challenge to turn them around. She even went to study the backgrounds of these students  including who their parents were to have better understanding of why the behaved in such a manner. 

In dealing with the many kind characters and behaviours, she demonstrated firmness, although she was soft in her heart. The students responded positively and many became committed to be better. Based on her recollection, a number of students were on the verge of being expelled but she did not agree and supported them until they changed their behaviours due to her counselling and encouragements.

During her service in MRSM Kota Bharu, her uncle Ustaz Redzuan Ahmad taught us Islamic studies. Later, her untie, Ustazah Naimah joined the college for a while before being transferred to Kuantan.

She declined a number of promotion opportunities as she loved the students at the college although she eventually became the principal of MRSM Pasir Tumbuh after serving MRSM Kota Bharu for 15 years. Later, a year before her retirement, she became the principal of MRSM Kota Bharu, to complete her illustrious career in the place where she started.

Wan Nasihah taught me biology in form four and one of the topics which attracted my attention was the concept of ecosystem. Interestingly, when I became the Executive Chairman of the Audit Oversight Board, I applied the concept to enhance audit quality in Malaysia.

Today, many of her "naughty" students are successful professionals. Many of them serve as doctors at Universiti Sains Malaysia hospital, where Cikgu Wan Nasihah sometimes went for medical treatments. They students repaid her kindness with first class treatments, the least they could do for someone who stood for them when they need her the most.

Friday, 12 January 2018

MRSM - the Early Chapters #1

As part of my work in writing a book regarding my experience in MRSM Kota Bharu, I am interviewing former teachers and friends to get their perspectives of the college. I will share some points I gathered during these interviews here and will incorporate them in the book.

This morning I was honoured to meet Mr. Aw Dai Kooi, my former chemistry teacher, for coffee. He is also special to me as he was from Machang, the place where I was born. His father started a coffee shop near the police station so that he could attend Sekolah Hamzah in the early 60's. After completing the Lower Certificate of Eduction, his family moved to Kota Bharu where he attended Sultan Ismail College. Later he did his chemistry degree (with honour) at the University of Malaya. There was also where he did his diploma in education.

While looking for job he saw an advertisement for teachers at MARA Junior Science College. He was called for an interview and was offered a position as a MARA officer in education. He was asked to report for duty on 1 January 1973. So he did, together with Ms Joyce, his wife. They tried to locate the "junior college" but failed. They eventually went to MARA office and were told that the college was not ready and the designated principal would only be reporting for duty the other week. The principal was En. Tajuddin or was fondly known as Pk Din.

It was only a month later where Mr Aw eventually stepped into MRSM Kota Bharu, together with other pioneer teachers such as Cikgu Abdul Ghani and Cikgu Mydin Shariff. The students came in much later and it was an all-boys batch.

The MRSM project was headed by Wahab Alwi, a MARA officer who was very dedicated towards education. He told the pioneer teachers to develop the concept of "open class". The brief was so brief that they took the concept too literally resulting in classes not separated by any wall. While learning, students could observe their friends doing the same across their classes. According to Mr Aw, the real meaning of open class was that there was no fixed syllabus and the teachers were supposed to be free to figure out what  was necessary. However, MRSM had to adopt the national curriculum like any other school, so the open concept was manifested in the liberal way of teaching and interacting, which defined the MRSM brand those days. There were no fixed classes so that they move from a location to another, just like what students at universities do.

Students were not required to wear uniform for two reasons. First to send the message that they are not boxed in a particular way of thinking. Second is to relief parents from buying uniforms, which could be a big deal if they were poor.

The focus in the early days of MRSM was to develop the students into a wholesome person. Apart from academic activities, the students were expected to excel in sports and other skills which are important to them later. Homerooms were set up where teachers have to take care of a small number of students like their own brothers and sisters (the age gap was close) or very much later, children. This created a strong bonding between teachers and students which allowed the nurturing process to be more effective.

The teachers will teach a subject to a class from the first year until they completed their studies in form five. This allowed them to guide the students throughout their life in MRSM. For some students who were late bloomers, a special class was set up when they proceeded to form four. This class was named after Marie Curie, the only female name adopted other than other names; Darwin, Einstein, Faraday, Mendeleyef, Newton and Pasteur.

In essence, the pioneer teachers were given a lot of room to shape the system and they were learning together with the students to grow the MRSM system. The thinking them was if the students were successfully nurtured as a wholesome person, academic excellence was a natural outcome. Only later academic achievements started to be given more emphasis, as an indicator of return to a system where students were carefully selected, all teachers were graduates and the kind of facilities provided, which were considered exclusive at that time.

Wahab Alwi later arranged for teachers to be able to pursue masters degree with the cooperation from universities in Illinois. Lectures were brought to MRSM Seremban to conduct classes for the teachers over three semesters. They would then go to the main campus in Illinois for a semester to complete the programme. Mr Aw was in the pioneer batch of MRSM teachers under this arrangement.

He taught me chemistry when I was in form five, after he came back from Illinois. I had a distinction in that subject at SPM. I thanked him for the knowledge and also shared that I managed to be in the top 5% in chemistry during my Tertiary Admission Examinations in Western Australia.

Mr Aw later was transferred to MARA headquarters in Kuala Lumpur before he was asked to initiate the American Associated Degree project in Kuantan. He later joined MRSM Kuantan as a physic teacher, what he was known for to his students from that college. 

He retired in 2007.

Saturday, 6 January 2018

Continuing With The Journey

We have stepped into another new year. For those who are still signing cheques, please make sure you get the year right. Otherwise the cheque will bounce.

Being human, we look forward to start things afresh. It does not mean that we would be pursuing different goals in life but a new year would provide a point for reflection, re-looking and consider new ideas. Remember, life is a journey.

Since my last adventure with a regulator, I am using a small outfit to pursue my efforts in promoting good governance across our society. Now, Inovastra has some visibility and we take this opportunity to be more effective in what we do.

In clarifying the end-game to ourselves and our stakeholders, we would be using "Promoting Good Citizenship" as our mission. This covers individual citizens as well as corporate citizens. In a modern society, institutions and corporations play important roles in ensuring the well being of the people are property taken care of.

While good citizenship for individuals could be easier to understand, what good corporate citizenship could be more abstract. Institutions and corporations are only legal personalities, their conducts are determined by the people who lead, manage and execute their daily operations in pursuing their missions and visions. Would a good citizen be a good steward when given roles in running organisations? Inovastra would be doing more activities towards clarifying issues around this topic.

So far, Inovastra had been dealing with both the corporate sector and small and medium enterprises in dealing in areas of leadership, strategy and governance. To ensure everyone is on the same page, we have been using these two models in describing governance as a concept and how businesses are ran:
Our governance model
6 disciplines of corporate practices
Apart from efforts to clarify the meaning of good corporate citizenship, would  be rolling out programmes which will have directors to dive deeper into some governance topics before practising them in real life. This will be announced towards the end of the first quarter this year.

Inovastra would also be focusing on coaching leaders which would help them to acquire or let go behaviours. This is important as leadership is about dealing with people.

Happy new year and we pray that everyone would be able to achieve their new year aspirations.