The need to prioritise people and the planet

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  • Thursday, 02 Jul 2020

Tan Sri Dr Jeffrey Cheah with Prof Jeffrey Sachs, chairman of Jeffrey Sachs Centre on Sustainable Development at Sunway University and special advisor to UN Secretary-General on Sustainable Development.

Sunway Group founder supports greater commitment to sustainability

IN light of the new operating norm for many businesses and corporations in adapting to the global Covid-19 pandemic, Sunway Group founder and chairman Tan Sri Dr Jeffrey Cheah shared his thoughts on a new iteration of economic growth that prioritises the benefit of people.

Referencing both the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as well as author Prof Kate Raworth of University of Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute, Cheah echoed and elucidated the need for the economy to adopt a new way of economic growth – the need made more acute in the wake of the effect of the pandemic on economies.

“Though I am an entrepreneur and a firm supporter of capitalism and the efficacy of markets, I welcome such initiatives that call for a better tomorrow to move beyond what some have termed ‘cowboy capitalism’ to ‘compassionate capitalism’, ” he said.

While the SDGs address societal issues such as poverty, hunger, education gaps and gender equality, among others, Cheah believes the Covid-19 crisis has presented a unique opportunity for economies across the globe to further the sustainability agenda in line with the SDGs.

One of the more concrete representations of the adoption of the SDGs is the creation of the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), through which is the planned creation of three overarching SDSN centres to coordinate continent-wide sustainability initiatives.

While the SDSN centre for Asia will be located in Sunway City Kuala Lumpur, the remaining two will be located in New York City and Paris, overseeing the Americas and Europe/Africa respectively.

“I am especially proud that the SDSN Centre for Asia will be housed in Sunway University, reflecting its significant role in this global effort, while also illustrating Sunway’s full embrace of the sustainability agenda and our commitment to advancing the SDGs in the Asia region, ” he said.

Cost of progress and prosperity

Cheah emphasised the greater urgency and necessity of such efforts in the wake of the pandemic’s visible impact on livelihoods and lives globally.

“While we have enjoyed tremendous economic growth in the last 200 years under the current economic system, the remarkable progress and prosperity have come at an enormous cost, ” he said.

He cited the shared struggle to cope with environmental, social and governance problems, adding how the Covid-19 pandemic has served to further spotlight societal shortcomings and economic inequities.

“The reasons for how we have come to where we are today are numerous, including our unbridled obsession with Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and while GDP is arguably an effective measure for both the wealth of a nation and the standard of living, it has neither adequately measured nor valued the quality of life, ” he added.

While we have enjoyed tremendous economic growth in the last 200 years under the current economic system, the remarkable progress and prosperity have come at an enormous cost."While we have enjoyed tremendous economic growth in the last 200 years under the current economic system, the remarkable progress and prosperity have come at an enormous cost." - Tan Sri Dr Jeffrey Cheah

Cheah stressed the need for “a wider lens to measure how we are doing, ” calling for metrics that illustrate our collective well-being as a nation, as communities and as individuals, “and not just a GDP number that bears little relation to everyday reality.”

Quoting Prof Raworth’s book Doughnut Economics, Cheah related: “Instead of economies that need to grow, we need economies that make us thrive, whether or not they grow.”

In that respect, he lauded the potential of conceptual frameworks that prioritise people and shift the economic focus to the quality of life, commending, too, the path of transformation charted by the UN Resolution that birthed the 17 SDGs in 2015.

“A crucial aspect of the SDGs is their interconnectivity as well as the emphasis on the human condition, ” he said, lamenting that these goals remain largely aspirational despite worldwide adoption and varying degrees of implementation by member nations.

Thus, the creation of the SDSN and its associated initiative the SDSN Centre, initially slated for public announcement on May 14 at the Vatican by Pope Francis but now rescheduled to October in view of the pandemic, are avenues that Cheah applauds and supports.

“The necessity of such efforts, including the creation of the online knowledge network that is the SDG Academy to draw up a curriculum of sustainable development, at both practical and policy levels, becomes more pronounced when we view the effect of this pandemic.”

Capitalist system under scrutiny

Cheah cited the impact of Covid-19 on public finances and how “governments led by neo-liberal ideologues have ramped up massive deficits.”

The resultant bottom-line of corporations, he added, clearly indicates the need for change.

“The ethos of the capitalist system that has dominated our lives in the past four decades is now under greater scrutiny, ” he said.

Reiterating the need to shift to compassionate capitalism requires the adoption of a capitalist system that motivates and incentivises us to do well by doing good, he pointed out: “One that shifts the focus from the bottom-line reports of quarterly profits to focusing on the the three Ps – People, Planet and Prosperity – and considering the interests of all stakeholders.”

Fulfilling everyone’s needs requires us all to take a deep and honest look at ourselves as individuals and as a society, as well as asking us to prioritise values such as compassion, empathy, tolerance and inclusiveness, he added.

“Such shifts in thinking and operating will ultimately demand more equitable outcomes in policies by governments and in market operations by the private sector.

“And in keeping with Mahatma Gandhi’s words, it means a system and a collection of values that place the highest priority on societal needs and curbs individual greed, ” Cheah concluded.

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