ONE HAND GIVETH

Malaysia 2017 | DIPLOMACY | INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Tun Musa bin Hitam, Chairman of the World Islamic Economic Foundation (WIEF), on doing business across religious lines, improving global Muslim society, and implementing ethical lending systems.

Tun Musa bin Hitam
BIOGRAPHY
Tun Musa bin Hitam is the Chairman of the World Islamic Economic Foundation. From 1981 to 1986, he served as Deputy Prime Minister under Mahathir bin Mohamad. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Malaysia and a master’s from University of Sussex. He also holds honorary doctorates from the universities of Sussex and Ohio. He has held a number of key government posts, including Chairman of the Federal Land Development Authority (FELDA), Deputy Minister of Trade and Industry, and Minister of Education. He also served as Malaysia’s Special Envoy to the United Nations (1990-1991), and led the Malaysian delegation to the UN Commission on Human Rights from 1993 to 1998.

Where do WIEF and its conferences make the most impact?

Around 10 to 12 years ago, the Islamic world, in particular those under the umbrella of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), was neglecting issues relating to the economy and economic development. The OIC was mainly geopolitical, a UN restricted to Muslim countries. With that objective in mind, the WIEF was established on the sidelines of an OIC summit. We organized an annual economic symposium for several years until the initial issues became politicized. When the OIC came under the chairmanship of Malaysia, our prime minister decided to set up this economic cooperation under a separate organization—this was the beginning of WIEF, though still under the patronage of the OIC. A research organization was assigned the responsibility of organizing the launch and I was appointed chairman. We had our first meeting in Kuala Lumpur in 2006, where we addressed a broad range of topics with 400 high-level executives from all over the world. It was my vision from the beginning to improve the livelihood of Muslim society at large. None of our activities, therefore, touch on issues related to religion or political ideology. The word spread that we were truly interested in talking about business, and thus we could bring a large number of Muslim and non-Muslim businessmen together. For politics or religion, there are already hundreds of other think tanks; we strictly discuss business, and that is our unique selling point.

How can we evolve the discussion forward between Muslim nations and what is the ultimate goal of the forum?

The ultimate goal is to have all participating countries align agendas for the economic development of their respective nations and to enter the mainstream global economy. The conference has five main topics. The first is infrastructure, which is a primary enabler of economic development. Second is halal tourism, and we increasingly look at global destinations to build this tourism segment. Third is Islamic fashion, which is undergoing rapid development, with global demand for modest fashion. Furthermore, we look into Islamic finance and creative industries. With this broad range of topics, we will find enough common ground.

Do you think the process for making that happen should mirror the ideas of this forum?

We need the willpower of the countries concerned to be all-inclusive; their business and political leaders should recognize the relevance of this global discussion. We want them to show their concern for the wellbeing of the people. Economic development should not recognize boundaries or have limitations—that is as political as we will go during this forum. Regardless of their religion, region, or country, anyone participating should accept this basic principle. Non-Muslim businesspeople join our events as well. The obvious objective is development at the highest level. Islamic should not just mean religious, but rather good corporate governance, green, and environmentally friendly. Employment should be fair as well, and this is one of the reasons we are pushing forward the agenda for Islamic finance. The western well-established financial system has suddenly collapsed and we want to move the financial industry to operate ethically again.

How do you think Muslim nations can work together to convey their ambitions to investors around the world?

Islamic finance and banking are still relatively new because the western system has been established since the early beginnings of the banking industry. In 2013, we held the WIEF in London—the first time we did it in a non-Muslim country—on its invitation. A year later, the UK government launched a sukuk fund totaling GBP200 million, which was 10 times oversubscribed. This made it clear that the demand for honest and ethical lending systems, for safety and security, and for wealth sharing in the system is large in many places. Although we keep WIEF a low-key conference—we hardly advertise—in 10 years we have grown to become a global reference point.