In an age of corporate scams, swindles and general malpractices – from the Lehman Brothers’ case to that of the Reebok franchise in India which has been charged with a multi-crore misappropriation of goods and funds – ethical business practices might at first sound like an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms, like bitter-sweet, or tragi-comic. Across the world there is growing scepticism about big business – particularly trans-national big business – and the way it operates, supposedly with the bottom line of profit being its only moral lodestar and its sole ethical imperative.
In such a climate of cynicism it is inevitable that in popular vocabulary the word ‘businessman’ has become a euphemism for ‘brigand’. This book – co-authored by two highly successful, and highly respected, entrepreneurs with “more than 80 years of business experience between them” – is a commendable effort to correct this semantic misapprehension. It seeks to provide detailed and lucid answers to two basic questions: ‘Can I work in business according to true principles and still be successful?’ and “If yes, then how?”
In the Introduction the authors state that “Business at its best is an instrument for the creation of wealth for the benefit of all… that can be used for the common good. When business flourishes the fruits can be used to improve the working of society, including developments in culture and education as well as general prosperity and well-being”. The book goes on to establish the sound credentials of this premise, by quoting from a variety of sources from management gurus to eastern sages like Confucius and by citing real-life examples and incidents drawn from the personal experience of the writers.
The book traces the genesis of business to the proto-historic formation of society based on the division of labour and the barter system: the agriculturist exchanging the grain he has produced for the footwear the cobbler has made. As societies grew more complex “some people…began to specialise in facilitating this exchange of goods”. They were the world’s first traders, or businessmen. It was “necessary that enough benefit accrued to the trader… to purchase the goods necessary for the trader and his family. Thus profit is a natural consequence of business… and essential to its operation.”
Problems arise when there is a mismatch, natural or man-made, between demand and supply of the goods traded, and the profit made on them. “When… merchants are successful in making products available at a reasonable price…the reputation of business rises”. However, “If demand becomes excessive and supply is inadequate, (it) may encourage greed on the part of the merchants. The reputation of business in general then suffers”.
When this happens it is literally ‘bad business’ for civilisation. The book quotes historian Edward Gibbon who, describing the decline and fall of the Roman empire, identified five symptoms of any culture which was in its death throes. Three of these are business related: “Extravagant display of wealth and outward show, growing disparity between rich and poor, universal desire to live off the state.”
“Do they sound familiar”, ask the authors. What is the prescription that can turn ‘bad business’ into ‘good business’? There is no magic mantra, only a change in perception as to what constitutes true wealth, and how it is to be created.
The authors quote Aristotle: “The life of money-making is undertaken under compulsion and wealth is evidently not the goal we are seeking; for it is merely useful for the sake of something else”. What is this other wealth, comprising riches beyond riches? And how is it to be gained? The book refers to Lao Tse: “To produce without possessing, to work without expecting, to enlarge without usurping, to know when you have enough is to be rich.”
Material wealth is only a means to an end which is the wealth of mental and spiritual harmony. The authors grade a ‘Moral Hierarchy’ of business dealings from 1, the highest level (“Work is a sacred activity and performed for the good of all”), to 8, the lowest level (“Morality is based on my judgment, my personal view to what is right and good”).
Is all this too idealistic to be practical? Perhaps. But all around us, in scam after scam, we see the ruinous effect of business being conducted without ideals, without principles. Without a moral or ethical compass to guide it, business does become brigandry.
So, at which end of the ‘Moral Hierarchy’ would we put India and its business dealings, both in the private as well as the public sector? Come to that, at which end of the scale would we, you and I, put ourselves in our financial dealings with others, be they our customers, our employers or anyone else?
The 133 official documents uploaded onto this website are from the Directorate-General of the French National Police and the Judicial Police Directorate’s anti-organized and financial crimes unit.
They were presented to a French anti-corruption court in May and June of 2011. Taken together, they present –in French – the clearest picture to date of the two-decade campaign by the French state-owned defense manufacturer DCN and its subsidiaries to sell Scorpene submarines to the Malaysian Ministry of Defense.
Asia Sentinel’s story summarizing what is in the documents is in a collection in Asia Sentinel’s Scribd account. They tell a story of corruption on both sides of the world that included – according to one presentation to the court – “blackmail, bribery, influence peddling, misuse of corporate assets and concealment.”
The documents show that many of these activities were carried out with the full knowledge if not connivance of top officials in both the French and Malaysian governments.
There is considerable doubt in Malaysia that these documents actually exist, and that the story of corruption was fabricated by the opposition Pakatan Rakyat coalition. Here is proof that they exist indeed. Readers who speak French may examine them at their leisure.
The documents were sent anonymously to Asia Sentinel because of our persistence in cataloguing the story of the submarines since October 2006, when Altantuya Shaariibuu, a 28-year-old Mongolian party girl and translator of sorts, was murdered in a patch of jungle near the suburban city of Shah Alam and her body was blown to bits with C4 explosives.
It subsequently became apparent that Altantuya had accompanied Abdul Razak Baginda, the head of Malaysian Strategic Services and a close associate of then-Defense Minister Najib Tun Razak, to Paris and Brest during final negotiations for the contract to train Malaysian sailors and to maintain the submarines once they arrived in Malaysia.
Although the documents indicate French authorities found no record that Altantuya had ever entered France, Asia Sentinel ran a series of pictures of her in Pars in front of the Louis Vuitton Paris shop, the Arc de Triomphe, the Cathedral of Notre Dame and other locations. The story and pictures, which ran on Dec. 5, 2007, can be foundhere:
RM100k to kill Altantuya
Two of Najib’s bodyguards – one of whom said in a formal statement that they were to be paid RM100,000 to kill the woman – were convicted of murder, but the courts carefully stayed away from identifying who had ordered her death.
The case eventually spread to France, where lawyers led by William Bourdon were engaged by the Malaysian NGO Suaram to attempt to get to the bottom of the case. Their efforts led French anti- corruption police to raid the offices of DCN and its subsidiaries.
Thousands of documents were seized, along with computers and vast stores of documents and files. For the better part of two months, prosecutors detailed the evidence in a French courtroom.
They will stay on the Asia Sentinel website as a public service for readers to compile their own evidence of a scandal that infected two governments.