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In the midst of towering coronavirus curves, there is still a glimmer of hope in business. According to the Edelman Trust Barometer 2021, business, amongst the four studied — business, government, NGOs and media, is the only trusted institution with a 61% trust level globally. Business is also the only institution seen as both ethical and competent. In Malaysia, the trust level towards business went up 6 points from last year to 69%.

As we enter the second year of the pandemic, business leaders must continue to build on that trust by doing the right thing — help solve humanity’s collective challenges without creating new ones. That means, business leaders must continue to adapt quickly, stretch our imagination and juggle plural needs.

Amongst many others, here are the three main balancing acts board directors and senior management must pay attention to in 2021.

1. Driving immediate upswing whilst securing future sustainability

Board directors and senior management are under tremendous pressure to make a quick rebound, but we must not lose sight of the company’s resilience against future market shocks. Amidst growing societal preference towards sustainability, investors like BlackRock are increasingly favouring sustainable assets. Bursa Malaysia’s CEO Datuk Muhamad Umar Swift said in a recent interview that “More than anything, there is increasing realisation that sound ESG practices are no longer something ‘nice to have’. Rather, they are ‘must-haves’ if one is attempting to build a business that is resilient, responsive and future-ready.”

The United States’ recent announcement to rejoin the Paris Agreement is also expected to provide a boost to global efforts in addressing climate change. Climate governance should be a boardroom priority for we simply cannot build a sustainable company in an unsustainable world, and we need to act before it is too late. As Greta Thunberg says, “Right now more than ever we are desperate for hope. But what is hope? …For me hope comes from action, not just words. For me, hope is telling it like it is. No matter how difficult or uncomfortable that may be.”

Learn more about how climate change is affecting us at home and what directors can do about it with a series of programmes organised by Climate Governance Malaysia.



2. Recognising data as an asset while understanding customers’ privacy concerns 

If managed well, data can help a company improve business decisions and offer better products and services to its customers. The importance of data has greatly accelerated as consumers are looking for more personalised experiences. However, in the past two weeks, millions of users have chosen to leave WhatsApp when they learned that their data would be shared with the parent company, Facebook.

This begs the question — how do we balance using data to improve offerings while respecting consumers’ concerns for privacy?

Professor Shoshana Zuboff says what confronts us now is the latest phase in capitalism’s long evolution — surveillance capitalism. We have moved from the making of products, to mass production, to managerial capitalism, to services, to financial capitalism, and now to the exploitation of behavioural predictions covertly derived from the surveillance of users.

Therefore, companies must proactively decide at a higher level, their views on data privacy and how it would affect their stakeholders.



3. Securing our collective physical health whilst not neglecting our physiological well-being 

Remote working is essential to Covid-19 prevention. However, that transition has not been easy for many. Research has found that 67% of the people are resistant to change as they strive for stability, consistency and predictability. The experience of change is real and it is a great source of stress. 

In the midst of this lockdown, it is perhaps worthwhile for us to revisit the webinar we organised last year on how to increase mental resilience and build a high-energy team while navigating storms of change. As business leaders, we must develop within ourselves the consciousness to take care of our own energy while providing support and guidance to the rest of the organisation. 



In 2021, ICDM will continue to serve as a partner to boards and directors, working in partnership to raise the bar on corporate governance and board effectiveness. As business leaders, we have been put in positions where we can make a difference. Let’s not lose momentum and continue to do our part and give our organisations and communities a good chance to thrive and flourish.

Michele Kythe Lim is the President and CEO of the Institute of Corporate Directors Malaysia (ICDM). Connect with her on LinkedIn.

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