The Covid-19 pandemic created major disruptions the world over but responsible business conduct and sustainability efforts also shone brighter as tough times hit lives and livelihoods, say judges of the corporate responsibility (CR) component of The Edge Billion Ringgit Club (BRC) Corporate Awards 2021.

Jeffrey Teoh, managing director and head of corporate and commercial banking of OCBC Bank Malaysia Bhd — the main sponsor of the awards — said judging this year’s frontrunners was a pleasure in light of the leaps they have made in sustainability and corporate responsibility.

“During these highly challenging pandemic times, these companies offer to us the proverbial silver lining that we can take encouragement and comfort from as we ponder the uncertain future,” says Teoh, who returned as a CR judge this year. (There was no judging for CR last year owing to Covid-19-­related constraints.)

“Corporate responsibility never goes out of fashion and the best companies keep centring their efforts to be good corporate citizens on both what is relevant and sustainable. Some of the initiatives showcased are world-class and deserving of the accolades,” he adds.

Datuk Dr Nik Ramlah Mahmood, former deputy CEO of the Securities Commission of Malaysia, concurs, noting that the overall points for the top scorers are very close.

Many corporates made extra effort to improve the lives of those affected by the pandemic, a reflection of their long-term commitment towards being responsible institutions building sustainable businesses, adds Nik Ramlah.

Nik Ramlah is chairman of edotco Group Sdn Bhd and also sits on the boards of Permodalan Nasional Bhd, the Securities Industry Development Corp, Institute for Capital Market Research Malaysia, International Centre for Education in Islamic Finance (INCEIF), Malaysia Deposit Insurance Corp (PIDM), Axiata Group Bhd and United Malacca Bhd.

Philip Koh Tong Ngee, senior partner of Mah-Kamariyah & Philip Koh Advocates & Solicitors, reckons that corporations that remained steadfast in their sustainability efforts throughout the pandemic “are all winners”.

“It is notable that despite the pandemic, corporations suffering under slashed earnings still persevere in their CR efforts,” Koh says, noting that many companies focused on contributing to society to alleviate the difficulties brought about by Covid-19.

“Most of the companies have done a fair and valiant job in fulfilling their corporate responsibilities,” adds Koh, who likes Gamuda Bhd, Sunway REIT, Hap Seng Plantations Holdings Bhd and IOI Properties Bhd.

Among other initiatives, he says Sunway REIT provided its Sunway Pyramid Convention Centre, the first private large-scale vaccination centre, rent-free for 11 months in support of the National Covid-19 Immunisation Programme. SP Setia Bhd, meanwhile, committed more than RM2.7 million, including RM1 million to the government-linked companies’ and government-linked investment companies’ Disaster Response Network collective contribution.

He also likes initiatives by companies such as UEM Edgenta Bhd, which strived to reduce the environmental impact of the additional amount of clinical waste, including infectious waste, which resulted from measures to contain the spread of Covid-19.

Responsible corporations “will continue to play a vital role in rebuilding our nation’s economic well-being”, Koh adds. He commends companies such as UWC Bhd, which ensured that their employees were vaccinated as early as possible.

Dorothy Teoh, CEO of The Edge Education Foundation, also observes greater maturity in sustainability efforts and reporting.

“More and more companies are making sustainability an integral part of company strategy, with an increasing number appointing chief sustainability officers. When it comes to reporting, it’s evident that sustainability is moving from the periphery to the front and centre. It’s no longer about ticking the right boxes,” she says.

“In terms of alignment with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), there is a danger that companies may merely ‘park’ their CR programmes under the SDG that best fits instead of the other way around, that is, aligning their CR projects with the SDGs they adopt. As such, it’s good to see that some BRC members are beginning to show a paradigm shift where this is concerned.”

More companies are stating their commitment to a circular economy as well as becoming net zero by 2050, Teoh notes, encouraging those that have not done so to do the same.

“The recent UN report which stated that our planet has already warmed by 1.1C since pre-industrial times and will likely reach 1.5C within the next decade, earlier than envisioned, makes it more urgent for BRC companies, especially those which are still at the early stage of their sustainability journey, to consider climate change more seriously because it will affect us all,” she says.

These efforts should bode well with socially conscious investors who have grown in numbers and are adding environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria when screening for businesses to add to their portfolios.

“During a time when ESG is no longer an option but merely a question of degree, those who have gone the distance — and indeed the extra mile — have shown that there is really no trade-off between business gains and socially-minded returns. They have done well to take the ‘natural middle’ that Jed Emerson’s blended value proposition calls us to. Businesses do indeed do well by doing good,” OCBC’s Teoh surmised, applauding corporations that go beyond just making money.

In recognition of the importance of CR, the component constitutes 30% of the score for The Edge BRC Company of the Year award. Judges abstained from the scoring and deliberations on BRC members where they are board members if there are potential conflicts of interest.