What were the key highlights of the 10th World Islamic Economic Forum (WIEF)?

MUSA: Well, the 10th World Islamic Economic Forum, its uniqueness is quite simple to begin with. It was held in Dubai and Dubai is a very dynamic, a very progressive, if I may say, center of commerce and industry. They have turned a desert into an area of such immense development. Not only that, it shows the vibrancy of the country as well it shows the seriousness by which the leadership seems to take in terms of overall development and it also shows the vision of the leadership here how to make Dubai that important that Dubai has become now.

So, to begin with, and a lot of people who have come here, who have never been here, they are appalled in a way that Dubai is what it is. Of course, there are weaknesses, which we are not in the business of dealing with, but apparently this is a success story. So far, they have gone through thick and thin, all sorts of problems that they have faced but they seem to come out of it quite well. We were invited to come here and we seized the opportunity because we are an organization that promotes the very thing that they are doing and even better if you may want to say that.

Also, we learn from this and the opportunity that business people take as well as give by coming here is immense. Unfortunately, we are not the traditional organization that boasts about how many hundreds of millions change hands, that sort of thing, no. I am of the view that when business people come together from long distance, they can spot each other. They get together; this has been happening for the last ten years. So there is nothing that I could say, this is super-special, this is an annual event.

When we were in London, well, people said, “How did you manage to come to London?” My answer is simple, “They invited us.” Why do they invite us? I said, “Ask them” because the Londoners, if I may say, or the British are very business-savvy people. London is literally the capital of finance and services, trade and investment and they invited us there. We went there and look what they have done after meeting us. They learn from all those who were present, those who came; we had discussions, they listened to it, they participated, they exchanged views and they came out in the end. Hardly a year after that, they announced a huge Sukuk issue, within the context of Islamic finance for example.

They have done something definitive in this sense. I always told my friends, they said, “Why are you going to London?” I said, “Oh, there must be something good for them” and of course it’s good for us. The very fact that we are in London, it meant that we had arrived. This is very important. Arrived meaning that, as I made my little speech this morning, I said, when we first started this they told me, “Oh three years, you won’t last more than that.” “Why?” “You cannot really survive especially when you call yourself Islamic. Who wants to come?” Number one and number two, they even said, “The non-Muslims will never accept it.” I said, “Thank you very much.” We patiently built it up slowly and I am not boastful but I am proud to say, look where we are.

There is no question of what religion you are if you want to do business with us. Anybody is welcome. So overall, to me, London and Dubai at the moment, as I can say, represent the aspirations of the World Islamic Economic Forum to get collaboration irrespective of religion but related to the world business community. There are so many organizations in this world but mostly governmental or semi-governmental but we are literally independent on our own. I know quite openly, I will tell you, we get very strong support from the Malaysian government but they don’t interfere, they don’t even tell us what to do, to be honest, believe it or not. This we have been doing on our own.

This encouraging thing that we face is that everywhere we go, it’s quite embarrassing when people always ask, “How did you do that?” I jokingly say, “I don’t know how I did it.” I’ve got only about 25 staff members. Can you believe it? They are young boys and girls who seem to acquire expertise in running an organization like this, in running a conference like this. Mind you, beside this, we also have what I explained earlier, other subsidiary activities, very active, between the annual conferences.

So overall, I think the significance of this is only that there is an organization that calls itself Islamic, that’s as far as we went but not taking religious beliefs into consideration in our connectivity, not worrying about it but, are you interested in business? Are you interested in competition? Are you interested in collaboration? Are you interested in doing business the right way? Every day, during the conference here, if you go around, every day, every group discussions relate to those things that I have just said.

How important is innovation in Islamic financial services?

MUSA: Well, let me tell you, the word innovation is in my mind all the time. Not only in Islamic finance, but in anything, especially in business. The secret to success is innovation. What it is, I don’t know yet until somebody, you know, has an innovation and I urge everybody to think in that way that’s number one. And so far as Islamic finance is concerned, let me tell you, to begin with, that Islamic finance has “caught fire” within the last ten years or so only. Before that, Islamic finance and banking was in one dark corner, everybody knows it’s there but nobody really was seriously interested. Why? Because there was so much dominance and acceptability of what I call the standard financial and banking system.

You may remember the scandals in the standard financial system that had been happening in the country. It was disastrous. In the process, everybody panicked, and irrespective of religion, they say it had failed. It has caused so much misery, it demonstrated the wrong way of doing things in terms of collisions where you have possession of people’s wealth and yet you mismanage it in the wrong way. I don’t want to go into details; I think people will understand what I am talking about. So in the process, they were in search of something better and almost immediately, I think they said, that’s where Islamic finance sort of emerged and bloomed because they said, this is the one that we like.

I want to tell you, it is not particularly because it is Islamic, it’s because it gives confidence to those who are keeping their money and wealth in there. It is a question of knowing what they are doing with it i.e., transparency. It is also a question of ethical practices that seems to be genuinely in those responsible. These are the two things that attract Islamic finance. But Islamic finance and banking is relatively new because it had been very, as I said just now, it was in one dark corner, people took it for granted in a very small way and now that it’s in, I must confess to you that it is still has lot of deficiencies if you like.

But in the mean time, the efforts to overcome the deficiencies have been very intense because every day or every other day, anywhere in the Islamic world, there are discussions of how to modernize it, how to accept it, how to interpret it in the right manner. So the key words in Islamic finance and banking is Shariah compliant. What is Shariah compliant? For non-Muslims, start looking at the books, they even read the Quran and try to understand what is Shariah compliance. In essence, Shariah compliance means the very things that I mentioned to you earlier, the three points. For example, banking practices; Islamic finance administration practices were also lacking in knowledge because there was not much experience. We were not dealing with big amounts of money.

But as it comes into center stage, it becomes more important. More people put in money and it is almost at what can be considered as we are all even now. One of the biggest issues for example, is the standardization. As the Malaysian Prime Minister has said, we don’t want a situation where this is Halal in one Muslim country and not Halal in the other country. It still exists because there are lots of little differences because they insist this is Halal but we don’t want that. It’s because we don’t want that. If you look at the activities, all the institutions that are in Malaysia and in Saudi Arabia and in many countries like in Dubai always sit down and compare notes, this is one of the best examples of international collaboration to begin with.

They faced this reality of wrong interpretation, wrong rules and regulations in terms of the procedure or process for example. So we have to standardize it. It is still a work in progress but I can assure you, we are much further than where we first started. So innovation becomes very important here. Innovation within the context of what we call, Shariah compliance. I can’t go into the details really, it does take hours and days and you have to do a lot of study but that very process is going on. I am educating myself in the process because I happen to chair what is known as a panel of experts that selects every two years, we select an Islamic personality, a world Islamic personality. We call this the Royal Award for Islamic Finance.

One of the most important criteria for selecting the personality is innovation and the winner is very innovative. Even if we were perfect, you reached the real objective, nothing is perfect in the world. You have to be innovative, you have to think about what are the challenges. You must be able to adapt to the needs of the financial community. This is what it is all about. In other words, what we are trying to do, Muslims or non-Muslims, those wanting to use Muslim models for example, they have to work together. It has to be made to be acceptable, saleable, marketable, and the product must be good.

Where do we see partnerships playing a role in cross-border transactions and between institutions today?

MUSA: Well, my first thought immediately on partnership is that partnership within the Muslim and non-Muslim world had been lacking. Confidence had been lacking thanks to the profiling of anything Islamic, unfortunately. This is changing, but of course, that was one of the challenges we had and I am very proud as I announced just now, that does not seem to be too much of a question now. That’s number one. In terms of the overall, it’s very easy to deal with it when I talk about partnership between different countries or anybody who thinks that for example, it’s useful, there is such a large market in Malaysia over certain products that somebody in Dubai is already producing it, well, they have partnership.

In other words, in simple, everyday language, it’s joint ventures. Joint ventures could be in trade, in investments, in manufacturing, in finance, in banking, whatever it is and these are the obvious things. You cannot go it alone. If you want to be international and you want to grow your market, you cannot go it alone. That’s what, again, I was talking about. Business does not recognize boundaries, nationalities, race, creed, color. Good business is good business, full stop.

What are you personal goals looking at the future for both WIEF and Islamic finance?

MUSA: I have served different positions in Malaysia holding different offices, right up to, I nearly made it, and this is half a joke, nearly made it to become Prime Minister, but I was out because of political reasons in those days. Now, my personal goal is simple, to contribute, to get people together, organize them, and I don’t need to show my face even but unfortunately the reality is that I have to, but it’s my pleasure to see this. That’s why I mention proudly, that before, everybody said that you are going to die in three years. I proudly say, we are still standing proudly. I am happy. It’s almost near there, my joke is, at the end of that is when Musa is no more. So, just good and nothing but good. It’s easier to say good, and it’s very subjective but to me it’s quite simple, I think I’ve done so much in my life, you can’t believe it if I tell you of course. But that is very simple goal; to get people to have confidence with each other and identify what I call, the common denominators, that’s what it’s all about.

What are the best investment opportunities Malaysia has to offer today?

MUSA: Well, let me be very frank, in Malaysia I am too frank for the liking of some people but it does not matter, I am what I am. We got lots of weaknesses; let’s start with that. One of the weaknesses is of course that we are a multiracial society and proudly I can say we are relatively democratic; very much better than let’s say twenty years ago or fifteen years ago. But that democracy means freedom and that freedom seems to challenge the system because we have different racial groups and religious groups. They use or misuse this democracy in order to give the wrong perception of the world, but you must accept that as a reality of life.

The important thing is to manage that. One of the things that Malaysia has done so far, God forbid, I don’t want it to change, is that we are able to manage that to make Malaysia an attractive investment destination. I am proud to say in my very young days, my first position was Junior Minister of Trade and Industry. I was the one who led the investment missions to all over Japan, all over Western Europe, all over the United States. Many of the big companies, which are there now, were the result of my really personal leadership of very good, well organized missions. And why? We told them the story about Malaysia, we had our laws in place, we had our regulations in place, we were aware of the need to manage labor, to manage immigration, to manage financial services after that we said, “Come, we got this all ready for you”.

These are still in place; what is happening in Malaysia is that number one, there’s too much competition; everybody wanted to copy us. I want to tell you a funny story that when I was leading the missions in Malaysia those young days, a week later, the Koreans were behind us or they would come earlier and they were bad. Their methodology was bad, we laughed at them. Now look where Korea is. Korea zoomed quite ahead of us but that’s the reality of competition. So I tell all my friends, if you are not innovative, you are going to lose. If you are misbehaving, I’m an elderly, I lecture to these boys and girls, if you misbehave, you are going to lose. It needs to have this feedback continuously and we still have the opportunity to do that in Malaysia. So, we have a system where there’s criticism, I know people say that there are weaknesses, there are all sorts of accusations but that’s the reality of a democratic life.

WIEF Chairman Tun Musa Hitam on partnership and where Malaysia stands today is originally published by and copyright of The Prospect Group.

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WIEF Chairman Tun Musa Hitam on partnership and where Malaysia stands today

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