We need a better form of capitalism – and rediscovering stewardship is the key to change

‘We need a better form of capitalism, one which, while promoting competition, is there to serve and not dominate; to respect human beings and not exploit them; to nurture our surrounding environment, and not destroy it. The question is how. How to make our system of wealth creation more human, more honest, more responsible, more inclusive, more engaging of its neighbours, fairer and more respectful of the needs of our grandchildren, less greedy and less short term? ‘


These were the words I used in my opening remarks to this year’s Stewardship Asia Round Table, on the subject of Rediscovering Stewardship. I have spent the last six months working with Ong boon Hwee, Stewardship Asia’s CEO, on a book which is being published this autumn and people attending the Round Table (around 200 business owners and leaders from across SE Asia) were treated to a pre-publication copy.


Debate at the event homed in on the importance of ownership. I asked Tan Hooi Ling, Co-Founder of Grab, whether the very strong and responsible business culture that she described in the company would survive the stresses of an IP, with all the resultant demands of quarterly capitalism.


She described how much they had done to inculcate a caring culture, but appeared to have thought less about the impact of new and different owners.


Professor Mervyn King, Chair of the International Integrated Reporting Council, begged to differ with me. He argued that changes of ownership should make little difference. If the board is strong enough, they withstand the pressure of shareholders. He wanted to see a company-centric view of capitalism, not one that focused on shareholders.


Professor Steen Thomsen of Copenhagen Business School has studied ownership, and sees the existence of long term ‘anchor’ shareholders as critical to the improvement of company behaviour and leadership.


The debated raged on through the day.


In the book Ong Boon Hwee and I argue that both the board and owners need to show good stewardship if our aspirations for a better capitalism are to be achieved. This is just the kind of debate we have wanted to provoke, it is now clear to us that we have a chord: people want to move from simply criticizing capitalism to coming up with a practical agenda for improving it, that is exactly what we do in the book.