ON Nov 25, I attended a conference in Putrajaya. When I arrived at the venue, I was surprised to see how big the conference was.
There were easily around 1,500 people in the audience, as well as booths with companies showcasing their products and services. This was clearly not just another conference.
The Malaysia-China Entrepreneurs Conference was organised by the Malaysia-China Chamber of Commerce (MCCC), an organisation that humbled me when they invited me to become their honorary adviser last year.
The MCCC is a business association founded in 1990. Their aim is to promote interaction, cooperation and development of trade and investments between Malaysia and China.
For many years it was dominated by Malaysian Chinese businesses and businessmen, which is understandable, because Malaysian Chinese would of course have an advantage when it comes to business dealings with China.
But under the leadership of their current president, Tan Yew Sing, they have set a vision to become a chamber for all Malaysian companies interested in doing business in China, regardless of race and religion.
In one of the business missions to China earlier this year, they made it a point to rope in a group of non-Chinese businesses.
And at this conference, one session was dedicated specifically to explaining the opportunities around halal industries in China and how Malaysian halal businesses can penetrate that market.
MCCC is clearly trying hard to spread opportunities to Malaysia as a whole.
With such lofty vision and an inclusive attitude, it is no wonder that the chamber was able to attract a huge crowd to their events and activities.
Then, on Nov 30, I had the opportunity to join a dinner in Singapore hosted by the US-Asean Business Council. The dinner was to celebrate 50 years of Asean and 40 years of US-Asean relations.
Once again, I saw how a clear vision and capable leadership can contribute to the success of a business association.
I have been familiar with the work of the US-Asean Business Council in Malaysia for some time, but last week was my first time chatting with their regional management team.
They have positioned themselves to be one of the premier organisations advocating beneficial trade and investment relationships between the US and Asean.
They arrange their work around policy themes, ensuring that they can properly represent the interests of their members in all of the 10 Asean countries.
Business associations and chambers of commerce can play a key part in developing and growing the roles of the private sector, not just in the economy but also in the wider governance of the country.
The Centre for International Enterprise, an organisation that helps build the capacity of business associations worldwide, says that business associations and chambers do not just contribute to economic growth, development, peace, and prosperity, but also towards building inclusive entrepreneurship ecosystems and strengthening democracy.
I share that belief. This is why we need the business associations in this country to be led by capable men and women with a sense of vision and integrity.
There are actually many business associations that exist in Malaysia today. Some operate at the national level, while others operate at state level. There are associations that are industry-specific, and there are quite a few who arrange themselves along ethnic lines.
The success of these associations is usually quite dependent on the quality of their leadership.
There are some whose glory days are gradually leaving them. They made the mistake of electing incapable leaders, some of whom are more interested in petty internal politics and even fail to organise simple things like proper annual general meetings.
They manage the organisation through divide and rule, bad-mouthing those whom they disagree with.
Unless these failing leaders are quickly replaced, these organisations are more likely to suffer diminishing membership and fade away.
There are also associations that are led by people with vision. They invite people with a variety of skills to help them in growing their associations, and they are brave enough to embrace the changing dynamics in today’s world.
These leaders value the contributions made by their staff. Rather than using the platform to promote only themselves, they invest in good people who can champion the causes of the private sector.
These organisations have the potential to really make the private sector the engine of Malaysia’s growth.
Nevertheless, one of the weaknesses that we still have in Malaysia today is the very low level of interaction between business associations and civil society.
Malaysian businesses have been actively playing their roles in improving governance, but the most vocal actors on this matter are usually civil society.
Unfortunately, the two groups tend to work separately. They rarely synergise their efforts to produce greater and quicker impacts. This is one area that needs to be improved as we move forward into the new year.
Wan Saiful Wan Jan is chief executive of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (www.ideas.org.my). The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own
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