Feb 2024

How Witnessing an Economy of Greed Led Me to Pursue an Economy of Good

Economics of Mutuality Practitioner Stories
Interview by Giannna Goulding, February 2024

Tony Soh is CEO of the National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre (NVPC) in Singapore. In this interview, he tells us how his experience of the global financial crisis led him to search for better ways of doing business. A graduate of the Oxford Economics of Mutuality Virtual Executive Education Program, he is working to build a movement around Corporate Purpose in his city.

Can you start by telling us a bit about yourself and your career journey so far?

I started my career in the Public Service at the Singapore Tourism Board, then the Ministry of Defence and Ministry of Home Affairs, before moving into the private sector in 2007 when I joined The Ascott Limited, the hospitality arm of CapitaLand, a listed real estate company in Singapore. Subsequently, I moved to the nonprofit sector in 2018 when I joined NVPC, the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre, where I am now the CEO. 

NVPC is a national body in Singapore promoting volunteerism and philanthropy, supported by the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth. Here we try to nurture an ecosystem of care and impact, serving as the bridge between the people, private and public sectors to build a City of Good in Singapore and beyond. I’m very grateful to be leading NVPC at this stage of our development where we have the opportunity to bring together individuals, communities, and businesses to collaborate for the greater good. 

Despite the different changes in my career from public to private to nonprofit sectors, one thing that has remained constant for me is the importance of building passionate and cohesive teams that are aligned towards a greater purpose.

Peace and mutuality are so much more valuable when you have experienced situations where there is none.”

You joined the Oxford Economics of Mutuality Executive Education program in 2021. What was the need or potential that brought you here?

After being in the Public Service for some time, I decided to move to the private sector in 2007 when I joined Ascott. This was around the time of the global financial crisis, a period that saw the failure of major financial institutions around the world and a major economic recession that ran from 2007-2009. So, I chose a great time to join the private sector! I can remember when the financial markets froze, and even listed local companies and multinationals had to hunker down just to survive. People described it as a “cold winter scenario”. In Singapore, as a small open economy with strong linkages to the rest of the world, we were severely affected by the Crisis, due to a sharp drop off in global trade which led to the deepest recession since Singapore’s independence in 1965. Despite the pain that was felt across many countries and many segments of society, in some countries there were instances where bankers who had contributed to the crisis were paying themselves huge bonuses even as their companies were being bailed out by the government. Observing this phenomenon from the private sector, it felt like one of the worst examples of the excesses of a market economy that incentivized greed. 

During my 11 years in the private sector, I witnessed how some companies were so driven by the relentless pursuit of growth and profits. To be fair, the capitalist system and free markets had, over many centuries, created enormous wealth and fostered economic growth and social development. Singapore certainly benefited from being plugged into the global economy. But we were beginning to see serious flaws in the global capitalist system.

We had an economic system that incentivized growth, prioritized shareholders’ profits above everything else, and this led to dysfunctional behavior and devastating results on the environment, individuals and communities. This made me wonder if there was a better model for business.”

I felt that businesses need to recognise that they have an important role to play in society, which is to create value and benefits for all stakeholders, not just shareholders. 

Around 2017, I came across the work of Bruno Roche and Jay Jakub, including the book Completing Capitalism: Heal Business to Heal the World. The book offered a fascinating perspective on an alternative way of doing business in the form of the Economics of Mutuality. When I joined NVPC in 2018, we already had a program called Company of Good which brought together a network of companies that were interested in creating a positive impact in society through philanthropy and volunteerism. This got me thinking about whether this different model of business could be applicable to Singapore. As I researched more, I realized there was a growing body of work out there, coming from organizations such as the United Nations Global Compact, the World Economic Forum, the US Business Roundtable and many others. There was a lot of discussion about a different way of doing business and I sensed more people were concerned about global and environmental issues and felt companies could do more to make a difference.

For NVPC’s Company of Good, I became convinced that we had to move beyond corporate giving. I had the good fortune to meet Bruno and Jay when they were in Singapore in June 2019, which led to a seminar in November 2019 where we introduced the Economics of Mutuality to a group of companies. The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in early 2020 delayed our plans, but in early 2021, we convened a Zoom session with Singapore business leaders where we sensed there was strong interest in exploring Corporate Purpose as a new paradigm for businesses. As a result, we decided it was time to pivot our approach from corporate giving to Corporate Purpose.

When I heard about the Oxford Economics of Mutuality Executive Education program that was due to start later that year, it seemed like perfect timing for me to sign up. I wanted to delve deeper into the Economics of Mutuality operating model and engage with like-minded individuals on how to implement it.

The program strengthened my conviction that, while the journey may be difficult and take some time, Developing a model of purpose-driven companies that are profitable, competitive, and yet able to take care of these various stakeholders, not just shareholders, was not only compelling but crucial for Singapore’s future.

What changed for you during the three month program?

By the time I joined the course,

The Economics of Mutuality model was already familiar to me, but the program gave me the tools to implement it. The program went beyond the conceptual level to ask how we look at different forms of capital.”

and which metrics to use to track such forms of capital. We talked about implementation issues, opportunities, challenges, and the realities of working with companies that may have skeptical or even cynical people. It was extremely useful to go from the conceptual level to something a lot more practical and ready to be implemented in companies. It also strengthened my conviction that this notion of purpose has real potential to change business as well as society at large. The program inspired me to push ahead and work on pivoting Company of Good from corporate giving to Corporate Purpose.

Since then, how have you been putting the Economics of Mutuality model into practice in your organization?

In Singapore, a series of Alliances for Action, which were industry-led coalitions working in partnership with the government, were set up to help the country emerge stronger from the Covid-19 pandemic. At NVPC, we were given the opportunity to bring together over 40 companies into an Alliance for Action (AfA) on Corporate Purpose. Between October 2021 and September 2022, this AfA worked through the concept of stakeholder capitalism and discussed how it can be applied in the Singapore context. This work culminated in a report entitled Corporate Purpose: A Framework and Blueprint for Businesses in Singapore, which we released in January 2023. This has been accepted as a guide by the government to inform businesses looking to articulate and activate their Corporate Purpose and has been incorporated into our Company of Good strategy.

We were grateful to have Jay Jakub, Executive Director of the Economics of Mutuality Foundation, onboard as one of the advisors to the Alliance for Action (AfA) on Corporate Purpose. Jay shared insights from the Economics of Mutuality operating model and helped in the formulation of the report.

For NVPC itself, we are also embarking on our own Corporate Purpose journey. Even though we are not a conventional business, the principles articulated in the framework and blueprint can actually be applied to any organization to help its people become more purpose-driven and aligned to a clear and coherent organizational purpose, so that together, we can achieve greater impact in society.

What advice do you have for other people who are just beginning this journey of addressing societal challenges profitably?

The first thing is to recognise that it’s going to be difficult to continue doing business as usual. What worked in the last 50 years is no longer going to work in the next 10, 20 or 30 years because the conditions have changed in dramatic ways. Whether it’s the environment, people or society, there are now very different challenges and it is no longer tenable for businesses to just say we’re going to focus on profits alone. So the first thing is to recognise that we can no longer run our organizations in the same way. 

The second thing is to think about our own personal convictions and why the work we do matters.

Many of us have been raised in a system that emphasizes pushing for growth and profits.”

But while delivering profits is still important, it cannot be our sole focus. We need to search for a higher purpose, a greater cause that provides us with a guiding direction, a North Star that makes our work more meaningful and helps to build a better society. We need to establish within ourselves a personal conviction that goes beyond the organization’s actions – our personal compass that guides our commitment to work for the good of society.

Finally, recognise that it’s a journey. It will take time. There’s a lot of stakeholders to convince and people to bring along with you on that journey. Establish a change management process which includes articulating the vision, the specifics of how it will work, what it will look like, and quick wins to show that this can actually make a real difference – it’s not just a nice idea or something to be done purely out of altruism. Ultimately, it has to rest on being able to create real business value. 

What does “mutuality” mean to you?

Mutuality, in essence, is the concept of sharing mutual benefits – I benefit you, and you benefit me. A company must be able to demonstrate benefits for all stakeholders as the providers of resources – whether they are natural, human or financial.

The reciprocal flow of benefits is needed for fostering cooperation, collaboration, and building trust within any society.”

It’s such a powerful idea, but the term “mutuality” hasn’t been used a lot. This is why I appreciate the Economics of Mutuality, because it underscores that mutuality is a fundamental ingredient that builds trust and enables the proper functioning of societies.

In the Singapore context, the government is emphasizing the importance of strengthening the social compact. This involves different entities and groups in society recognizing their shared responsibility for one another. This goes beyond self-interest, and requires companies, community organizations, and individuals to do their part, watch out for each other, share resources, and uplift one another. Those who are more successful are expected to take on the responsibility of supporting those in need, fostering a sense of mutual care and responsibility. Those who receive assistance are encouraged to contribute back to society, preserving their dignity and recognizing that they have the ability to make meaningful contributions in their own ways. This commitment to strengthen the social compact is seen as integral to Singapore’s future, countering forces that may otherwise pull communities apart. So mutuality is a powerful concept, and the idea of a social compact aligns with this perspective as well.

What do you think the world will look like in 2050? 

I’m an optimist. On the environmental front, I believe that human beings will come to our senses and take action, recognizing that “this is what needs to be done”. I believe that there will be a different sensibility in terms of morality, mutual responsibility, mutual care and concern for different groups of society. For all the challenges we face, I have great faith and confidence that the younger generations will help us figure it out and drive impactful change. Studies have shown that Millennials and Gen-Zers tend to be a lot more purpose-driven, and I sense they have a very thoughtful way of approaching things. So if we stay focused on how we’re going to achieve this together, ultimately I think we can still have a thriving planet, flourishing communities and healthy and inspired individuals. The sun will continue to shine in 2050! 

What are you working on now?

Arising from the report, we’re now building a movement to encourage more companies to come along. One of the things we are doing is trying to get companies to be thought leaders and multipliers. We call this the ‘queen bee’ activation, which is where we encourage companies that are further along the journey in sustainability, ESG or Corporate Purpose, to work with other small and medium-sized companies that are starting on that journey and help to bring them along. In June 2023, we launched a Purpose for Growth program with Unilever, where their executives coach and mentor SME leaders to help them think through their Corporate Purpose and sharpen their strategies to implement purpose in their companies. We’re looking for more of such multipliers to be able to activate companies and create momentum for the corporate purpose movement.

The other thing we’re doing is building a recognition system so that companies can track how they’re progressing on their Corporate Purpose journey. This will help companies know that they are making a more holistic contribution through the adoption of Corporate Purpose across five impact areas: people, society, governance, environment, and economic. I think it will be a game changer in how companies track their progress on this journey. I’m delighted to share that we have launched the recognition system in January 2024 and heartened to see the overwhelmingly positive responses from companies. 

Are there any resources you would recommend to others in the Economics of Mutuality community?

I would recommend the book that I’m reading now, entitled Morality by Jonathan Sacks, a public intellectual and the former Chief Rabbi of the UK. He argues that the loss of a strong, shared moral code and our elevation of self-interest over the common good have created many problems in societies. He makes a compelling case that working to rebuild a shared moral foundation will enable societies to thrive. As business leaders we need to understand what has changed in our world and the deeper forces that are affecting the way societies are evolving. The book can help us understand what is happening at the deeper, tectonic level so that we can situate ourselves in a more effective way and contribute to shaping a better future.

Finally, are there any other reflections you’d like to share?

I’m often amazed by the serendipity of my own personal journey and the timing of it all – how I transitioned from the private sector, was exposed to the ideas of the Economics of Mutuality, and then as we were trying to do that work in Singapore the Economics of Mutuality course became available. Sometimes I wonder whether there is a divine movement taking place! But I think it’s really that season in human history where we as leaders have to make important choices. One choice is to stick with the status quo as the easier way to do things; another is to change to something that we think is ultimately better for this generation and future generations. That second choice might be harder, it might require a lot more hard and arduous work, it might require us to overcome skepticism and cynicism. But ultimately it’s going to be better for the future. So we’re at that fork in the road, and I think more people will make that right choice to look to the future, and to look out for others rather than just for ourselves. This will ultimately lead to better outcomes for all.

This interview is part of the Economics of Mutuality Practitioner Stories series, which features individuals who are advancing and implementing the Economics of Mutuality in their context. 

To learn more about Tony and his work, you can visit his LinkedIn profile and the NVPC website. Email us at hello@eom.org to find out more about the Oxford Economics of Mutuality Virtual Executive Education Program.

If you are interested in discussing how we could support you with implementing the Economics of Mutuality in your context, please email hello@eom.org.


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