To be a force for good, businesses and governments must work together to imbue a sense of stewardship in people, said Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing yesterday.
But he acknowledged that this was not going to be easy.
He said: "How do we bring about this concept of stewardship and imbue that into the next generation, where the definition of our success is not how well we do for ourselves here and now, but the definition of our success is how well we enable our next generation to do even better than us?
"That is our challenge, and that is a tall order."
Governments and companies must first build a meritocratic system of talent and trades for this to happen, said Mr Chan in a keynote speech at the Insead Alumni Forum Asia.
The topic of the forum was "Business as a force for good".
"How do we build a system that allows the human potential to flourish? How do we build a meritocratic system of talent and trades where each and every individual's achievement is determined by his talent, effort and commitment, and never by his language, race, religion, ancestry or family ties," said Mr Chan.
MANAGING WINNERS AND LOSERS
There will be winners and there will be losers, and there will be people who win a lot, and those who win relatively less. There are differences in absolutes and there are differences in relativities. How a society manages the disparity between the winners and the losers, between those who win more and those who win less, will have domestic political implications with global significance, and we have seen this happen in the last few years where the domestic relativities, when not well managed, translate into a global backlash against the natural forces of integration.
MR CHAN CHUN SING, Minister for Trade and Industry, on the dangers of mismanaging social inequalities as economies become more globalised.
This is fundamental, as businesses and governments will never be able to convince people that they are here to do good if people cannot hope to fulfil their potential without facing barriers along the way, he said.
"We need to speak to the individual aspirations of our people, no matter how diverse those aspirations might be," he added.
Addressing 700 international business leaders, many of whom graduated from Insead, Mr Chan's 28-minute speech at the Gardens by the Bay delved into the topic of corporate social responsibility (CSR) and the challenges involved.
It is not easy to be a force for good, either for businesses or for governments, due to the trappings of the prisoner's dilemma, he said.
The dilemma describes why two parties do not collaborate for the greater good, due to other competing interests.
In some cases, a business that is concerned about its quarterly reports might commit to CSR only if its competitors do so too, while governments may engage in climate change action, for instance, only if other nations follow suit.
Mr Chan said one school of thought regarded CSR as an oxymoron, as businesses should focus on growing wealth for their shareholders, who will decide to do good of their own accord.
A growing group of business leaders today, however, believed in another theory - one where companies are stakeholders in society and have a responsibility towards that society, he said. Such a mindset would also help attract the best and brightest to join companies that have strong social missions.
"The verdict still seems to be open into which school of thought shall prevail in the longer term," said Mr Chan.
With geopolitics fuelling protectionist trade policies and the rising levels of disruption caused by technological change, he said, there are growing concerns about the quality and quantity of jobs.
The reality of a more integrated world economy today will result in winners and losers, he said.
The way which the society manages this disparity will have political implications, he said, alluding to how some countries in recent years did not properly manage their social divisions as the world became more globalised, resulting in backlash.
In a panel discussion following Mr Chan's speech, industry experts discussed the same issue of the challenges of CSR.
Partner of Bridges Fund Management Clara Barby said a major issue is defining how wealth and values are measured, since different cultures vary in their definition.
DBS Bank chief executive Piyush Gupta said that palm oil-producing countries, for example, have grappled with this issue as the world moves away from using palm oil for energy due to environmental concerns.
"If you (ask them to) turn off the palm oil tomorrow, what are you going to do with the millions of people, whose governments won't be able to look after if palm oil is their only means of livelihood," said Mr Gupta.
"Is this a sense of colonial imperialism? Who are we to play god? There are no easy answers."