What is government’s proper role in legislating ethical behavior for business?
“The role of government ought to be like the role of a referee in boxing, keeping the big guys from killing the little guys.”
as quoted in The Straits Times (Singapore), August 6, 2004
The government has a very important role to play in business ethics, but perhaps in a different way here than in some other parts of the world. Let me explain.
Malaysia is a “so called” emerging nation. I have the advantage of having worked in the UK for five years. I learned people in the UK try to follow the rules–basic rules like obeying the traffic lights, for example. Whereas here, most people, when they face an obstacle try to take a shortcut, and if they are caught they go see somebody who can reverse a decision against them. This kind of attitude toward the law, and influence peddling, must change if we are going to progress. I feel very strongly about this, which is why I drive a poor car rather than the latest Mercedes Benz. I want to send a very clear message that I cannot be bought.
To show the challenge we face, let me describe a particular case. Long ago, the people of Malaysia were not allowed to use their EPF [the government retirement fund similar to Social Security in the U.S.] until retirement. The government decided to relax this a bit for housing down payments and related special circumstances. Because of the IT push within Malaysia in recent years, the government decided to allow people to use up to 5000 Ringgets (about $1400 US) from their EPF account to buy a computer for their home. The government did this with good intentions, but what did most people do? We found that 85% of the people who withdrew money to buy a computer had an understanding with the computer vendor, but did not buy the computer at all.
So we see that legislation is one thing the government can do, but we have to try to change people’s minds toward obeying laws already on the books. For business ethics, one must find a way to restore people’s pride in their work.
When I was in the UK, the pay for a doctor was about the same as the policeman or bus driver, but people were very proud of what they did. They would say, “I want to be the best road sweeper (or policeman or doctor) in the whole world. Pay was not the major issue. That is not the case in Asia, so we have a long way to go.”
Y.B Dr. Tan Kee Wong
Member of Parliament
Deputy Minister of Land and Cooperatives
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
To my understanding, the proper role for a government should be
always to assure that individual, personal rights are not overcome by
“business” rights, i.e. employees being forced to work longer hours to increase
profit and the like. The moment you break the barrier of individual rights,
anything can happen.
Governments cannot know all the details of business, and would prefer
businesses to manage what they know best through good governance and in the
spirit of self regulation. Government intervention should be the last
resort, and only in the exceptional circumstances such as when businesses
don’t act when it is clear they should.
The key issue for a business is not having a slate of rules, but having
sound principles and good values. It does not make sense to hire a person
and then have someone else watch over everything he does. Far better to
search for the right person with the right values.
At the Ministry of Law in Singapore, we have established four values to
guide our work. They are:
1. For Singapore. [The State’s interests come first.]
2. Integrity and professionalism. [We abide by the highest standards of
integrity and professional conduct.]
3. Creative Pragmatism [We embrace challenges with passion, creativity and
4. Valuing people [We value and respect our people, promote teamwork and
recognise individual contributions.]
Liew Heng San
Permanent Secretary for the Ministry of Law