Speaking engagement at the British Academy “Future of the Corporation” Purpose Summit

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Last month, I was delighted to speak at the British Academy’s “Future of the Corporation” Purpose Summit. I was asked to make remarks on how the professions can integrate Purposeful Business into qualifications and practice.

Below is the full speech by Tan Suee Chieh at ‘Future of the Corporation Purpose’

Many thanks for inviting me to participate in this important session. I think it is not controversial to say that we have to put purpose back into the business. And ethics back into the professions.

Fifty years ago, when you applied for a British passport, you needed to get the photograph signed by somebody in a profession- an accountant, a lawyer, a bank manager, a doctor and a professor, and why is that? At that time, professions were all not just about skills, and they were about ethical standards. They were the ethical towers of society. And you were able to trust. This was also the case in Malaysia, where I grew up. When you want to get a photocopy of your birth or l educational certificate certified, you can see a professional. That certified copy will be accepted as a true copy.

That was the benchmark of trust of professionals 50 years ago. And then, what happened? The good thing was that all our professions got more skilled, and we became more technical, specialised, and technocratic. And that was a good thing, of course. We’re better able to quantify things. But that came with a disastrous consequence: a narrowing of our focus and a loss of a sense of ethical purpose. Along the way, we have also lost a sense of judgement and commitment to the wider public interest.

In the last 20 years, we have had countless accounting and governance failures, financial scandals and mis-spelling, extraordinary self-serving behaviours and lapses in the financial services industry.

Accountants, lawyers, tax advisors, auditors, risk professionals and actuaries are at the heart of these institutions, playing pivotal roles.

Many members of the professions devoted their energies to protecting the CEO and the board,

for their actions which are often self-serving and not in the public interest. The professions an inordinate amount of time to produce defences for the behaviours that the Chief Executives and Boards that if the ship blows up, they will have a defence of every action they did. They can never be held responsible because they have legal or technical opinions that justify that decision. It will, of course, be questionable if the decision serves the public interest or is sustainable.

So it is no surprise that the ethical basis of the professions have been undermined, and respect lost.

In today’s session, I have been asked to talk about creating an enabling environment for purposeful business, enhancing professional development, integrating notions of purposeful business into our qualifications. So I certainly could do that and talk about regulation and ethics, internal what we have done and regulatory expectations as external contacts and things in a pipeline at the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries.

I thought it would be helpful that in my opening remarks, that we take a step and ask,

“What problem we are trying to solve; what role can we possibly play as human beings and as professionals – using our lens as representatives of our professional bodies.”

I would state ten points to set the scene.

  • The ecological and sustainability challenges we face today are systemic and threaten the survival of humanity: climate and biodiversity crises, the pandemic crisis, deep inequality, and intergenerational unfairness. And we are still racing towards an environmental disaster.
  • More broadly, our politics have become more ideological, more fundamentalist, more nationalistic and more populist. And less effective and purposeful. Whilst the planetary system is degrading by the hour, many still live in poverty, pain and despair. The young today are seriously in debt. They are significantly poorer compared to past generations.
  • Never in living memory has social inequality been so deep and exposed, planetary conditions so degraded, and the political system so broken. We have not been here in such a precarious state before. Humankind has faced many crises before – financial crisis, hunger and poverty – humanitarian crises created by wars, famines and other natural disasters, wars. None are as severe. I could only think of the nuclear arms race/ Cuban crisis as one which brings humankind to the brink of extinction.
  • The problems we have today are systemic and wicked. Systemic problems require systemic interventions. Wicked problems require clumsy solutions – bricolage of solutions. And we need practical wisdom – phronesis.
  • No one holds the key to change. Not a single government. Not a single profession. Not a single organisation. Not least a single individual. A new future needs to be imagined. It has to do with the future of humankind – we cannot afford to fail. Our approach so far has been to deal with externalities – in neoclassical economics and rely on regulation. We regard ourselves as observers outside the system. But we are observers within the system. We live in a complex adaptive system. What we do and how we behave changes the system.
  • Politics will respond to civil society. Professions and Corporations have big Roles. And the People. There are so many analyses and answers out there. At different levels. But who is doing the listening? Who has articulated a theory of change? How can we wake up? This is awakening requires a revolution of human consciousness (see *). This is to do with the human condition.
  • We have Pluralism and Diversity of Paradigms. We have to change the paradigms we are operating in. As Tomasi said, If we want things to stay as they are, everything will have to change. This is an inch-by-inch fight.  Tinkering with the rules and incentives of the system are not enough. We must not be lured into false comfort and security. The reform is on the system and not within the system.
  • Systemic intervention requires courage, imagination, and conviction. We need humility and judgement.
  • The work is simultaneous on all Levels of Work – Elliot Jacques. We have to expand our time horizon. We have to be multi-disciplinary. We have to arouse purpose, goodness, morality, and consciousness within us– as described by Donatella Meadows.
  • Deep engagement and dialogue across all segments of society are key. For the professional, it is the awakening of our consciousness, obligation and ethics. Cause, engender, arouse an inner movement of our conscience and manifest it as public morality as we walk into streets of life and public debate.

The recorded session is also available on The British Academy’s website