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The Changing Face of Corporate Governance in an Uncertain World

While it was the accounting scandals of 2001 to 2002 that gave prominence to corporate governance, the function remains as important as ever. In light of Covid-19 and the uncertainties it created for companies globally, new themes have emerged for corporate governance. From determining how to best preserve cash to reviewing plans for keeping employees safe, the pandemic has upended the way boards have made routine decisions.  Yet the core principles of integrity, ethical behavior, transparency, and respecting the rights of all stakeholders remain the same.

“In light of border closures and lockdowns, layered with geopolitical tensions and trade wars, boards need to think about: Preparing to face the new normal and understand the future of work; Planning for new emerging risks and stay ahead of the curve; Enforcing force majeure clauses; Understanding the cybersecurity concerns of working from home; Assisting management in addressing crisis-related issues, and other related issues,” explains Gillian Ng, Senior Director of Corporate Governance at ASB’s Iclif Executive Education Center (ASB-Iclif).

Additionally, 2020 saw growing public outcry against systemic issues, from racial discrimination, to worker welfare standards, continued environmental degradation, and others. Asian companies like Top Glove, the world’s largest natural rubber glove exporter, faced government scrutiny and public backlash over poor worker conditions while the pandemic raged. Meanwhile, global companies like the British-Swedish AstraZeneca faced public condemnation for working with a Chinese entity that has been repeatedly accused of bribery.

Even as companies fight for survival, boards are simultaneously forced to grapple with questions of public responsibility.

In Asia, growing focus on anti-corruption

Covid-19 has accelerated the importance of good governance, but this trend has already been growing in recent years, with governments across Asia taking firmer action against corruption. In Southeast Asia, Malaysia established a National Anti-Corruption Plan (NACP) 2019-2023, while in Vietnam, a new Anti-Corruption Law was enacted in 2019, with the ruling party expressing renewed pledges to fight corruption in 2021.

In China, the same trend is seen, with Shanghai’s 2021 Anti-Unfair Competition Regulations introducing an unprecedented legal requirement for companies to have a compliance program, and aligning Chinese companies with the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and the U.K. Bribery Act. With regulations becoming more stringent, boards across Asia are focused on ensuring they are prepared for these changes.

Equipping Asia’s business leaders to govern well

Supporting companies across Asia to meet the changing demands of corporate governance, ASB-Iclif offers programs and a certificate track to equip board members, leaders, and professionals working in the area of risk management, compliance, legal and other corporate governance areas.

The Iclif Executive Education Center is well-positioned for this task, having developed a robust curriculum focused not only on compliance, but on the role of corporate governance as part of a holistic business strategy and a source of competitive advantage. Research has shown that strong governance and low corruption engenders trust and creates an environment for investment and growth, such as that of Hong Kong and Singapore.

For instance, through examination of a data set of bilateral foreign direct investment in the early 1990s from 14 major source countries to 41 host countries, Shang-Jin Wei of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government found clear evidence that corruption in host countries discourages foreign investment (1997). This includes corruption in East Asia (which is popularly seen as an outlier when it comes to strong economic growth despite perceived levels of corruption).

Once researchers controlled for the size of East Asia (being one of the world’s fastest growing markets) and also the low wages paid in these countries (which make it more attractive to investors), they found that investors are just as averse to corruption in East Asia as elsewhere. “Our competitive edge is that we do more than just provide information in the programs we deliver.

We emphasize on changing behaviors. When you join a corporate governance course by the Iclif Executive Education Center, you leave with tangible takeaways which you can immediately start implementing,” says Ng. As an example, Ng explains, “When our FIDE program was first rolled out in the year 2008, we had bank supervisors give feedback that they were able to see changes in the way board members asked questions and addressed issues, just by reading the Board minutes.”

A big draw for attendees is the opportunity to learn from and consult with a formidable lineup of faculty who are practitioners themselves. Several faculty members also have taught at leading institutions including Harvard Business School and NUS Business School. “Although our faculty are trained internationally, they all have experience in the ASEAN region. Drawing from our local expertise, we discuss Asian- and Malaysian-focused case studies in all of the programs we offer,” says Ng.

The ASB-Iclif faculty’s accomplishments range from being involved in formulating the Singapore Code of Corporate Governance, to developing corporate governance scorecards in ASEAN, working with the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, serving in board and C-level roles, and advising central banks, financial institutions, sovereign wealth funds, and multinationals, among others.

“Our participants are very experienced and educated, and enjoy learning from the war stories of our faculty,” Ng adds. Ng herself has had a track record of almost 20 years in corporate governance, branching out from auditing, risk management, forensic investigations and anti-corruption work.

Despite Covid-19 bringing new issues to the board’s attention, “The foundation of good corporate governance remains: having good ethical values inculcated clearly from the top and engrained into the culture of the entire organization.”

As a testament to ASB-Iclif’s program quality, the Central Bank of Malaysia made the ASB-Iclif Financial Institutions Directors’ Education program mandatory for all financial institution directors in the country. Additionally, ASB-Iclif runs the Mandatory Accreditation Program which is mandated for all new directors of public-listed companies in Malaysia.

For those moving into key governance roles, ASB-Iclif’s wide range of Corporate Governance programs equips them to fulfill their duties more effectively and manage the dynamics within the boardrooms, to respond to a fast-changing world.

Learn more about the Iclif Executive Education Center’s Corporate Governance programs >

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This article was originally published on South China Morning Post.