THE LIFEWORTH REVIEW OF 2008

Religious

Anwar Ibrahim suggests that a key difference between East and West is the general level of religiosity in the former.66 This may be an over generalisation, given the level of religiosity in the US, and the major changes in Asian urban cultures today. Within ‘religiosity’ are the quite distinct phenomena of an emphasis on tradition, spiritual consciousness, and group identity. The world’s major religions are well represented in Asia. In the West responsible enterprise is often framed in terms of secular or humanist universal values rather than specific religious beliefs, even if individuals hold such beliefs. In Asia, religion is becoming more overt within business, particularly in post-Communist societies.67

Kasit Piromya, the Director of International Affairs of the Democrat Party of Thailand, and the Thailand representative of the Caux Round Table, spoke at the CSR Asia Summit about a parallel between Buddhist philosophy and responsible business, owing to the emphasis on stakeholder interdependence:

“Buddhist monks live according to the principle of interconnectivity with the community and the environment; they are one with their stakeholders. Similarly, every individual belongs to an organization, and ultimately to society. So every individual, while working to earn a living and enjoy the rewards, is inter-dependent on the business community and society as a whole. Along with its stakeholders business is a part of a whole and thus the need for social responsibility and good governance. In particular, large multinational corporations have a global responsibility, and not only to their financial stakeholders.” (see: From CSR in Asia to Asian CSR)

There are parallels in this thinking within Islam. Centuries ago, Muslim thinkers conceived and expounded the concept of al-wahda fi ‘l-kathra, which presupposes the essential oneness and transcendent connectedness of the apparent diversity on the surface. The emphasis on non-duality between heaven and earth, consciousness and matter, self and other, pervades most Eastern religions, even the Abrahamic faiths.

On the one hand we could conclude that this emphasis on connectedness will encourage responsible enterprise. However, the changes in Asia due to economic development are important. Today some regard Asians as increasingly pursuing Western objectives with Asian intentions, with problematic and unsustainable outcomes, both personally and socially. Some regard a typical Asian intention is social harmony, yet others consider this to be a desire for conformity and thus less noble. The belief in harmony or conformity, is a manifestation in form of a level of consciousness that equates one’s personhood with a collective. If that outer form is disconnected for the consciousness that gives it meaning and context, then people can be exploited and made to doubt their natural tendencies to compassion and fairness.

The religiosity will mean that the idea of conducting business in harmony with each other and our planet may find deep rhetorical resonance in many Asian communities in the coming years. However, this religiosity poses difficult questions about whether responsible enterprise might be attempted in paternalist rather than rights-based ways, and for the benefit of particular groups not others. Whether this happens will depend on the relative importance of cultural forms or spiritual consciousness in shaping the actions of business leaders.

One area where the religiousness of Asian responsible enterprise could give rise to interesting challenges is Islamic finance. This field of finance is fast approaching a trillion dollars of assets under management and was much less affected by the economic crisis due to its restrictions on investing in debt. The core principles of Islamic finance provide insight into a way of financing that can be more stable and sustainable (see Islamic finance). However, currently the Islamic investors, and the Western investees, are not comfortable about Islamic values guiding practices of companies in the West. As a result, the code agreed for Sovereign Wealth Funds during 2008 is likely to discourage active value-based ownership, apart from a loop hole agreed by the Norwiegens whose responsible investment activities are less contentious in the West (see Sovereign wealth fund responsibility).

One implication for influence is that religious institutions throughout Asia will be important to the future of responsible enterprise.

» Non-Global

(The references are available in the pdf download and hard copy versions of this annual review, available from Lifeworth’s bookstore.)

This section can be referenced as:

Bendell, J., and C Ng, ‘Introduction’, in J. Bendell, N. Alam, S. Lin, C. Ng, L. Rimando, C. Veuthey, B. Wettstein (2009) The Eastern Turn in Responsible Enterprise: A Yearly Review of Corporate Responsibility from Lifeworth, Lifeworth: Manila, Philippines. (Page numbers for this section are available in the pdf download and hardcopy.)

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