The Philippines: A Nation Rising

The Philippines stands as one of the fastest-growing economies in Southeast Asia, showcasing a resilient recovery in the aftermath of the pandemic. The country achieved a remarkable gross domestic product (GDP) growth rate of 7.6% in 2022, the fastest growth rate in over four decades. While the first half of 2023 saw some moderation with a GDP of 5.3%, the economy is poised for a renewed upswing with an expected growth rate of up to 6% next year, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas, the central bank of the Philippines, has acted decisively in raising interest rates in the face of inflationary pressures, which has helped maintain economic stability. Against this backdrop, IMF anticipates faster economic growth in the upcoming year, driven by increased government spending. Notably, service exports are expected to perform well, particularly in the electronics sector, further fueling economic expansion.

Since the post-pandemic reopening of the economy, trade activities and volume have exhibited steady growth, contributing to the Philippines’ economic recovery. Manila-based International Container Terminal Services, Inc. (ICTSI) had a role in this recovery as a major player in the global value chain, providing value-added services and facilitating the free flow of goods between nations and regions.

The global port operator is investing PHP15 billion (US$263 million) to expand the Manila International Container Terminal (MICT). This expansion project will increase the terminal’s cargo handling capacity, enabling it to accommodate larger container ships and the associated increase in cargo volume. Upon completion, the MICT is expected to have an annual capacity of 3.5 million TEU, solidifying its position as the largest international gateway in the Philippines.

Investment Opportunities
The Philippines remains an attractive destination for investment, offering a combination of incentives, tax breaks and well-established legal frameworks designed to protect the interests of foreign investors. President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr. emphasizes that the Philippines is “a nation on the rise, ready to collaborate with partners who see the potential we hold.”

For instance, the recent collaboration between the Philippines’ Federal Land, Inc. and Japan’s Nomura Real Estate Development Co., Ltd. is set to redefine real estate standards, creating a dynamic new player on the global real estate scene. The synergistic alliance, dubbed Federal Land NRE Global Inc. (FNG), takes advantage of Federal Land’s legacy of innovation and ingenuity enhanced by Nomura’s celebrated history of excellence and attention to detail.

Banking on a considerable capital investment of approximately PHP48 billion (US$844 million), FNG is poised to launch its first two pioneering projects, further solidifying this alliance’s significance on the international stage. These ambitious developments are expected to lead to substantial yet sustainable economic opportunities. With the goal of generating around 6,000 jobs within its initial operational years, FNG will be contributing to the country’s growth momentum in a major way.

Another real estate player capitalizing on the heightened demand for both residential and commercial properties is Vista Land & Lifescapes, Inc., one of the leading integrated property developers in the Philippines. The company has launched a portfolio of projects throughout the country valued at PHP24.3 billion (US$427 million), more than the previous year.

Vista Land reports a consistent and robust demand for its residential developments, encompassing both horizontal and vertical segments. Notably, this demand comes from overseas Filipino buyers, constituting about 60% of the company’s total sales. Its most ambitious project to date is Villar City, a sprawling 3,500-hectare mixed-use development that spans 15 cities and towns in Metro Manila and Cavite.

Tech Advancements
Meanwhile, the country’s tech ecosystem is thriving, characterized by a vibrant startup culture and advancements in e-commerce, fintech and digital services.

The Philippines’ leading telco, Globe, has trans formed from a traditional telecommunications entity into a technology powerhouse, unveiling a broad range of innovative digital solutions aimed at elevating the quality of life for Filipinos. For instance, Globe has rolled out game-changing digital solutions such as finance app GCash, which has transformed the way Filipinos make financial transactions, from payments and savings to loans and investing.

The company is also revolutionizing healthcare with its healthtech offering, KonsultaMD. This digital health superapp allows patients to consult with a vast network of 1,000 medical professionals across 40 specializations, offering roundthe-clock access to doctor consultations, medicine delivery, at-home diagnostics and nursing care.

Sustainable Energy Future
The Philippines is also aggressively pursuing the expansion of renewable energy, aiming to achieve a 35% share in the power mix by 2030, and consequently up to 50% by 2040. To achieve these targets, the government has opened the doors to 100% foreign ownership of renewable energy projects in the country, spanning exploration, development and the utilization of solar, wind, hydro and ocean energy sources.

This forward-looking approach sets the stage for a sustainable and eco-friendly energy future, contributing to the nation’s growth and environmental well-being.

Malaysia: A Sustainable Growth Journey

Malaysia’s economy expanded by 3.3% in the third quarter of 2023, according to advance estimates by the Department of Statistics Malaysia, up from 2.9% in the second quarter. This growth is primarily driven by the services sector, notably in wholesale and retail trade, transportation and storage and business services. The construction sector saw modest growth, while agriculture rebounded slightly after a previous decline.

In the first half of 2023, Malaysia attracted a total of RM132.6 billion (US$27.8 billion) in approved investments across services, manufacturing and primary sectors, according to the Ministry of Investment, Trade and Industry. Domestic direct amounting to RM69.3 billion (US$14.5 billion). Foreign direct investments totaled RM63.3 billion (US$13.2 billion), with the largest inflows coming from Singapore, Japan, the Netherlands, China and British Virgin Islands. This is attributed to the government’s probusiness policies, strategic location in Asia, trusted ecosystem for supply chains and talent and growing innovation capabilities.

Toward a Greener, More Prosperous Future

In July, Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim unveiled the Madani Economy Framework, a comprehensive roadmap geared to drive sustainable growth and enhance the overall well-being of the people. This initiative has come at a crucial time, serving as a strategic response to bolster Malaysia’s economy amidst a backdrop of a global economic slowdown and ongoing geopolitical uncertainties.

Central to Madani is the principle of sustainability, underscoring the importance of responsible progress in energy transition and sustainable development. Malaysia is on the path to achieving net zero emissions by 2050, as outlined in the National Energy Transition Roadmap. This transition involves shifting away from a traditional fossil fuel-based economy toward a high-value economy, aligning with the nation’s commitment to environmental stewardship and a greener, more prosperous, future.

PETRONAS, Malaysia’s national energy conglomerate, has aligned its business goals with the nation’s vision as well as global sustainability principles. In fact, carbon reduction has been its pursuit for a decade. Since 2013, PETRONAS has cumulatively reduced 18.1 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO2e) of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the implementation of decarbonization activities throughout PETRONAS Group-wide operations.

Building on this momentum, the company has set its own pathway to net zero emissions by 2050 (NZCE2050 Pathway), with clear and solid short-, medium- and long-term targets. PETRONAS is racing to decarbonize to meet these targets, starting with aiming to cap GHG emissions at 49.5 MtCO2e by 2024, covering Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions for its operations in Malaysia. Additionally, PETRONAS aims to enhance its role in energy transition by focusing on both energy security and the responsible delivery of energy solutions. “It is our commitment to deliver our ‘Amanah,’ or trust, to safeguard and manage the nation’s hydrocarbon resources responsibly for the people and the country,” says Datuk Bacho Pilong, Senior Vice President of Project Delivery and Technology, PETRONAS.

Digitalization Crucial to Economic Growth

The digital economy is another crucial pillar of economic growth under the Madani Economy Framework. It is one of the fastest growing sectors in Malaysia, representing 23.2% of the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP). Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC), the nation’s lead digital economy agency, has been leading Malaysia toward becoming a globally competitive digital nation through the development and execution of the Malaysia Digital initiative, which aims to ensure that people, global companies and investors will conduct business in Malaysia.

“The idea of Malaysia Digital is to attract good, purposeful and contextual digital opportunities that will be strategic to Malaysia,” says Mahadhir Aziz, CEO of MDEC.

“Additionally, we aim to create local champions and drive the digitalization of Malaysian society, starting with businesses and eventually extending to individuals. This is the crux of Malaysia Digital—we are here to do business, so we invite global giants to invest in Malaysia.”

One remarkable tech champion leading the charge is Silverlake Axis, an enterprise technology, software and services company that has been intensifying its efforts toward developing innovative financial solutions to facilitate the digitalization journey of the financial services sector.

With the ongoing disruption caused by next-generation technologies, such as cloud computing, artificial intelligence, big data and machine learning, Silverlake Axis has expanded its capabilities and expertise to better serve its clients and secure a competitive advantage in the ever-evolving landscape. The company has a strong presence in Southeast Asia and serves 40% of the top 20 largest banks in the region.

Innovation Increases Global Competitiveness

Meanwhile, innovation remains a priority as Malaysia strives to compete on the global stage. The nation is committed to intensifying its efforts in nurturing local innovation and technological advancements, with the overarching goal of establishing itself as a formidable global contender.

BookDoc, a local healthtech startup, has innovation at its core. Initially established to help individuals find healthcare providers, the company has evolved into a prominent player in the area of corporate wellness programs. These programs cover physical wellness, mental wellness, nutrition and teleconsultations. What’s different about such programs is the use of smart technology to gamify healthy behavior while incentivizing individuals through personalized rewards schemes—all through its superapp.

Over the years, BookDoc’s corporate wellness program has gained significant traction, finding adoption among large multinational corporations. With the corporate wellness solutions market projected to reach US$94.6 billion by 2026, there are plenty of opportunities for BookDoc to seize.

All this bodes well for the overall economy. As Malaysia aims to become one of the world’s top 30 largest economies in the next decade, the implementation of the new economic reforms will bring it closer to achieving this goal.

Singapore Retains Competitive Edge

As one of the most competitive economies in the world, Singapore continues to build on its strong financial system, market efficiency and macroeconomic stability. The city-state has been ranked fourth out of 64 economies in the 2023 World Competitiveness Ranking by the International Institute for Management Development (IMD), based on economic performance, government and business efficiency, as well as infrastructure. Although it slipped a rank from the previous year, Singapore remains the most competitive economy in Asia, ahead of Taiwan and Hong Kong.

In the wake of a rapid economic rebound from the pandemic in 2022, Singapore’s economy registered a 0.4% year-on-year growth in the first quarter of 2023. This growth, albeit moderating from the previous quarter’s 2.1% expansion, signifies the nation’s resilience. In the second quarter of 2023, the economy expanded by 0.5% year-on-year, mainly supported by the transportation and storage, other services, and information and communications sectors, according to the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI).

Like many economies, Singapore is not immune to the challenges posed by the slowing global economy and geopolitical tensions, coupled with tightening financial conditions. The MTI anticipates the nation’s GDP for 2023 to fall within the range of 0.5% to 1.5% as external demand remains subdued.

Despite this muted growth forecast, bright spots remain as some sectors are showing signs of recovery. The growth outlook for aviation- and tourism-related sectors such as air transport and accommodation remains positive, given the ongoing recovery in international air travel and inbound tourism. Consumer-facing sectors such as retail trade and food and beverage services are also expected to continue to expand, bolstered by resilient labor market conditions and the resurgence of inbound tourism.

Global Expansion Through Singapore

As a leading trade center, Singapore consistently attracts foreign investment due to its global connectivity, pro-business environment, exceptional infrastructure and a highly skilled workforce. Singapore stands out as the preferred destination for multinational corporations seeking to put down roots in the region.

Among them is SHEIN, the global fashion and lifestyle juggernaut with 11,000 employees based in key centers around the world including Singapore, the U.S. and Ireland. SHEIN’s global expansion is being led out of Singapore due to its strong governance and access to key markets in the region, among others. “SHEIN’s decision to be headquartered in Singapore is a testament to our belief in its vibrant ecosystem and alignment with our global vision,” says Leonard Lin, SHEIN’s Global Head of Public Affairs and Singapore General Manager. “Our commitment to Singapore goes beyond our business operations, and is also reflected in our continuous efforts toward engaging with the community, nurturing local talent, and fostering a sustainable fashion ecosystem right here in the heart of Asia.”

A Vibrant Fintech Landscape  

Meanwhile, Singapore’s fintech sector has expanded significantly, backed by a strong regulatory environment and digital infrastructure. The Monetary Authority of Singapore has recently announced a fresh round of funding over the next three years to boost the sector. The S$150-million (US$111 million) funding program aims to accelerate fintech innovation, particularly in areas such as artificial intelligence, data analytics and regulatory technology (regtech). 

The thriving fintech sector, showcased through events such as the annual Singapore Fintech Festival, cements the city’s role as a prime hub for fintech innovation. The diverse range of fintech entities, coupled with abundant venture capital investment opportunities spanning various funding stages, further solidifies Singapore’s position as the preferred destination for foreign fintechs seeking ASEAN market expansion and global recognition.

Take for instance, Surfin Meta, a Singapore-based fintech founded in 2017 with a mission to drive financial inclusion in emerging markets. The company selected Singapore as its base to better serve the markets in the region. It made a notable entry into Indonesia in 2018 with an online personal loan platform, and rapidly expanded its operations to Vietnam, Mexico and the Philippines in the same year. Today, Surfin Meta operates in 10 markets, serving 35 million unbanked and underserved users.

Wealth Management Excellence

The growth in global wealth in recent decades has contributed to the rise of family offices around the world. Many wealthy families are turning to professionally run family offices to help them manage their wealth and secure their legacies. As a global financial hub, Singapore has benefited from this trend, with some 1,100 single-family offices established in the country at the end of 2022.

Bank of Singapore, the private banking subsidiary of OCBC, has emerged as a major player in the family office segment in Singapore, managing more than a quarter of the 700 single-family offices established in Singapore at the end of 2021.

“Singapore’s status as an international financial center is key to its allure. With excellent global connectivity, a deep pool of skilled professionals in wealth management and a supportive tax environment, it serves as the ideal gateway to regional investment opportunities,” says Robin Heng, Bank of Singapore’s Global Market Head for Philippines, Australia, Indonesia, Thailand and Indochina.

The bank has a dedicated Family Office Advisory team that focuses on understanding clients’ needs and tailoring plans accordingly. As demand continues to grow for family offices in Asia, Bank of Singapore aims to enhance its offerings and expand its footprint in the wealth management space.

Prospects in Real Estate

Singapore’s growing number of high net worth individuals (HNWIs) has spurred activity in the real estate sector. Strata-titled offices and conservation shophouses stand out as attractive investments for HNWIs and family offices.

Homegrown boutique agency Brilliance Capital has emerged as a strong player in this segment, offering tailored real estate investment services for wealthy families, institutional investors and publicly listed companies from around the region. The firm, led by Executive Director Sammi Lim, has chalked up an impressive list of transactions since its inception three years ago, including the sale of a suburban mall for S$220 million (US$162.3 million), among others. 

Despite the prevailing market uncertainties, Lim believes that Singapore’s strong fundamentals and resilience will position it favorably against its regional peers. She anticipates that well-funded institutions, family offices and HNWIs with longer-term investment horizons will remain active in the market.

Looking ahead, Singapore’s journey as a competitive economic powerhouse continues to unfold. Despite global challenges, the nation’s commitment to innovation, diversification and adaptability fuels optimism for sustained growth.

Thailand: Riding The Growth Momentum

Thailand is well on the road to economic recovery after recording a GDP growth of 2.6% in 2022. The positive momentum has carried into the first quarter of 2023, surpassing expectations. In Q1 2023, the Thai economy expanded by 2.7% year-on-year, supported by the rebound in tourism and private consumption.

Traditionally reliant on tourism, Thailand has received a much-needed boost with the return of international visitors, especially from China, following the country’s reopening. In the first quarter of 2023 alone, approximately 6.5 million tourists visited Thailand, with the Tourism Authority of Thailand aiming to attract 25 million foreign tourists by year-end.

Taking Travel to Greater Heights

The country’s flagship carrier, Thai Airways (THAI), is well positioned to support this tourism revival. With a vast network spanning 47 international destinations, including prominent European cities such as London, Paris, Frankfurt, Munich, Zurich, Stockholm and Copenhagen, THAI is further expanding its reach by reintroducing direct flights from Milan and Oslo by early 2024, after a temporary suspension due to the pandemic. With more direct flights, travelers get to enjoy uninterrupted journeys to Bangkok, avoiding time-consuming and tiring layovers and connections.

Recent investments in new wide-body aircraft such as the Airbus A350-900 and Boeing 787 guarantee a comfortable and spacious onboard experience. From its roomy business class seats and personalized services to the extensive menu of high-quality Thai cuisine and a wide range of inflight entertainment options, THAI ensures that travelers have a seamless and enjoyable journey. This combination of comfort, convenience and true hospitality has contributed to its success as the choice airline for many discerning travelers.

Another local company looking to support the growth of the tourism sector is TRAViZGO, Thailand’s pioneering travel tech startup. After more than two decades in the travel market, TRAViZGO is ready to scale new heights with its recently launched TRAViZGO Super App. To cater to the needs of the modern consumer, the app offers a wide range of travel-related services from booking and managing flights, accommodation and transportation to package tours and travel insurance—all within a single platform.

TRAViZGO has also been working closely with the Tourism Authority of Thailand to further promote the country to international visitors. Last November, the company collaborated with the Digital Economy Promotion Agency (depa) to develop a business-to-business online platform that connects tourism service providers in Thailand with travel agents worldwide. The platform opens new opportunities for local players, especially small businesses, to expand their market reach by tapping into new customer segments and geographic markets.

Staying Committed to Sustainability Goals

Amid this economic expansion, Thailand remains committed to its sustainability goals. As the second-largest economy in Southeast Asia, Thailand has made significant strides in achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Furthermore, the country’s bio-circular green (BCG) economy model, developed in 2021 and aligned with the UN SDGs, has gained greater prominence as Thailand contributes to global efforts to address environmental challenges and promote sustainability.

Thai corporations and businesses actively support Thailand’s sustainability and net zero targets. Among them is Indorama Ventures, the world’s major polyethylene terephthalate (PET) resin producer and recycler, the plastic commonly used for beverage bottles. One of the largest petrochemical companies in the world, Indorama Ventures set up its Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) Council to explore ways the company can implement sustainability initiatives across its business segments. Through its Vision 2030 plan, the company aims to achieve a 30% reduction in Scope 1 and 2 combined greenhouse gas (GHG) intensity, a 15% reduction in energy intensity, a 20% reduction in water intensity, 25% use of renewable electricity and more.

In 2022, the company established Indorama Ventures Investments & Holdings as a startup business incubator to identify and invest in projects with advanced technologies and innovations, including bio-based materials. The company plans to invest more than US$7 billion to increase recycling capacity, decarbonization and bio-based feedstock to 2.4 million tons by 2030. These targets are aligned with Thailand’s BCG economy model and the UN SDGs.

Another industry leader, Thai Beverage Public Company Limited (ThaiBev), the largest beverage company in Thailand and one of the largest in Southeast Asia, is also leading the charge in the sustainability journey. The company’s ESG commitment is largely inspired by the late Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s Sufficiency Economy Philosophy, a principles-based framework that promotes balanced development with respect to the environment, economy, community and local culture.

As clean water is the most important natural resource for the beverage manufacturing industry, ThaiBev is committed to water conservation initiatives and aims to achieve 100% water replenishment by 2040. In the area of packaging, the company ensures that its products create minimal carbon footprints. It also aims to achieve packaging circularity and has been active in reusing and recycling its bottles. These are just some of the company’s efforts that are part of its “Enabling Sustainable Growth” strategy, designed to drive resilience across its business, while protecting the environment, supporting local communities and practicing good corporate governance.

Positive Outlook

Looking ahead, the Office of the National Economic and Social Development Council (NESDC) forecasts that the Thai economy will expand between 2.7% and 3.7% in 2023, driven largely by the ongoing recovery of the tourism sector, rising private consumption and expansion in both private and public investments.

Thailand’s economic priorities for the remainder of the year include fostering the export sector, stimulating private investment, catalyzing the recovery in tourism and related service sectors, supporting agricultural production, and advancing initiatives in the Eastern Economic Corridor and other special zones, among others.

Real Estate Remains Resilient

The real estate sector in the Asia-Pacific (APAC) region is projected to stabilize in the second half of 2023, on the back of improving macroeconomic conditions. Experts predict that as inflation eases and interest rates reach their peak, investors in the region will have exceptional opportunities.

Several key themes have emerged across the real estate markets in the region. Offices will continue to be the go-to asset class although the pandemic has had a deep and lasting impact on how people work and the concept of the workplace. A joint report by PwC and Urban Land Institute reveals that the demand for modern, high-quality office buildings remains strong, even as hybrid and remote work practices continue. Additionally, multifamily build-to-rent developments are gaining traction in APAC, with investors exploring opportunities in Australia and China.

Meanwhile, although Singapore remains an attractive destination for foreign investors, emerging markets such as Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam are gaining momentum. These markets offer high rates of economic growth and boast emerging consumer classes, according to the report.

Sustainability Considerations Transform Real Estate

In the Philippines, the real estate sector is evolving to the next level, with one of the largest property developers in the country, Ayala Land, Inc. (ALI), leading the transformation. The group’s commitment to sustainability is evident in the projects it undertakes—from its integrated mixed-use developments to luxurious residences spearheaded by its two business units Ayala Land Estates and Ayala Land Premier.

“Our vision extends beyond real estate development,” says Robert Lao, Group Head of Ayala Land Estates. “We aim to create thriving sustainable communities that provide diverse growth opportunities and inclusive spaces to all. It’s about planning for a mix of developments and spaces that nurture the environment, social and economic growth.”

Boasting a robust portfolio spanning over 45 sustainable estates across the country, ALI is the mastermind behind the nation’s most prominent mixed-use developments, including the Makati Central Business District, Bonifacio Global City, Cebu Business Park and Nuvali.

Indeed, sustainability is a common theme across markets in Asia as investors are placing a greater emphasis on Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) criteria and ratings of real estate. Over in Hong Kong, Sun Hung Kai Properties (SHKP) is transforming the city’s skyline with its iconic and environmentally friendly developments. Its latest project, the High-Speed Rail West Kowloon Terminus Development (XRL Development), aspires to be more than another office complex, combining work and leisure elements for the well-being of tenants. Designed by Zaha Hadid Architects, the XRL Development incorporates low-carbon design and materials, including photovoltaic panels at roof levels and portions of the facade.

The project has received numerous sustainability accolades including LEED Platinum, BREEAM Excellent rating, BEAM Plus (Platinum), WELL (Platinum), China Green Building Label (3 star) and China Healthy Building Label (3 star).

As real estate investors look ahead, many will be drawn to APAC’s resilient and dynamic market with cautious optimism.

ESG Remains Crucial To Building A Sustainable Future

Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) has evolved from a nice-to-have to a corporate imperative over the years. Governments, businesses and investors recognize the importance of ESG in driving the world’s transition to a greener and more sustainable future and are doubling down on efforts to achieve nature-positive targets.

At the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos earlier this year, global leaders discussed how new approaches and partnerships could lead to new solutions, such as leveraging philanthropy in new ways, driving climate adaptation and spurring more ambitious, comprehensive and sustainable infrastructure investment plans that could stabilize the planet and help the world meet the 2030 emissions reduction goal.

Driving Sustainable Change

Among the businesses driving sustainable change is Apical, part of the Singapore headquartered RGE group of companies. As the world’s second largest vegetable oil processor, Apical has embarked on a journey to become a leading second-generation biofuel feedstock provider through the collection of waste and residue from mill and palm oil refineries, along with used cooking oil, to act as an alternative to other forms of feedstock.

The company has also diversified its operations into other downstream areas such as sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) used to power aircraft. Through a joint venture, Apical is now commercially using at scale the waste generated by its operations as viable feedstock to produce SAF. These efforts highlight the company’s commitment to driving sustainable change in the palm oil sector.

In the real estate sector, Hong Kong’s Sino Group is leading the way toward a climate-resilient built environment. Sino Group integrates sustainability into all aspects of its operations and aims to achieve net zero by 2050 through more energy-efficient design, green construction and procurement, renewable energy usage, reduction of waste and carbon emissions and promoting sustainable living at its properties.

As of June 30, 2022, the company recorded a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and electricity consumption by almost 40% from its 2012 baseline, exceeding its initial target.

Capitalizing on the Green Transition

As the world transitions to a low-carbon economy, investors are ready to capitalize on opportunities presented by this global shift. HSBC Global Private Banking offers investors three main ways to embed sustainability into an investment portfolio: ESG enhanced, thematic and impact investing.

ESG enhanced investments refer to investing in companies that score well on ESG criteria, while thematic investments focus on specific sustainability themes such as renewable energy, water conservation or circular economy. On the other hand, impact investing aims to generate an intentional, direct and positive social or environmental impact alongside financial returns.

The bank believes that by adopting an ESG approach to investment and finance, investors can play a crucial role in driving the transition to a low-carbon economy, while also generating long-term financial returns.

Bridging the ESG Trust Gap

But while companies are starting to make progress on sustainability objectives, some investors feel strongly that they are not getting the quality of ESG data required to evaluate a company’s strategy and risk profile, according to the Asia-Pacific findings in the latest EY global corporate reporting and institutional investor survey. This information gap threatens to stifle access to capital for many organizations and ultimately, could hinder progress on decarbonization.

Investors believe that Asia-Pacific organizations are “highly selective” about the information they provide and unless there is a regulatory requirement to do so, most companies will provide only limited ESG disclosures useful for decision-making.

The good news is that both sides acknowledge that there are weaknesses in current reporting standards, including issues such as lack of requirements for supporting evidence, separation of ESG reporting from mainstream financial reporting and a lack of forward-looking disclosure, so more can be done. Asia-Pacific companies can bridge the ESG trust gap with investors by taking key action to ensure that sustainability is built into their reporting processes—systemically, strategically and rigorously.

Advancing Social Justice

In addition to environmental concerns, organizations are starting to give the same attention to the social component of ESG. Businesses today are faced with a growing number of social justice issues that can affect their corporate reputation—from human rights and gender equality to health and safety, and community engagement.

FGV Holdings Berhad, a global and diversified agribusiness based in Malaysia, is one of the world’s largest producers of crude palm oil. In its efforts to operate a sustainable and socially responsible business, FGV has implemented various programs to strengthen its labor practices, including aligning its policies and recruitment practices with international labor standards.

One of the main standards adopted by FGV is the no recruitment fees policy for the hiring of migrant workers. The company has taken several measures, including setting aside about US$25 million to compensate current and former FGV migrant workers who had paid recruitment fees to secure jobs.

Indeed, there is plenty that businesses can do to build on the ESG framework to drive real change. Those that lay the right foundation now are likely to succeed long into the future.

Japan: A New Way Forward

Japan is ushering in a “new form of capitalism” to reinvigorate its economy after more than two years of closed borders due to the pandemic. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s new economic policy, unveiled last June, aims to achieve a “virtuous cycle of growth and distribution” through public-private partnership. As part of the policy guidelines, the government aims to pave the way for wage growth to offset the impact of inflation and boost investment in technology, startups, human capital and decarbonization.

On the back of these ambitious plans, the government revised its economic growth forecast for fiscal 2023 to 1.5%, up from the previous forecast of 1.1%. The overall GDP is projected to reach 558 trillion yen (US$4.31 trillion) this year, exceeding the pre-pandemic record of 554 trillion yen (US$4.28 trillion) in 2018. Companies are projected to increase investments by 5.0%, with exports and imports set to rise by 2.4% and 2.5% respectively, despite concerns of a global recession. 

Focus on Long-Term Growth and Innovation

Central to Kishida’s economic strategy is incentivizing long-term growth and strengthening Japan’s capacity for innovation, particularly in industries such as biotech, smart cities, artificial intelligence (AI) and space technology. As part of this push to champion innovation, the government is also taking steps to cultivate a world-class startup ecosystem and help local startups succeed on the international stage.

Indeed, Japan has always been a leader in innovation and technology. Japanese companies continue to create maximum value at home while making their mark on the global stage.

Take THK, for example. The global automation giant has set the standard for innovation in factory automation technologies and processes since 1971. Today, the company is leading the way with solutions bolstered by AI and IoT applications, and more than 60% of its sales come from overseas markets.

THK’s latest digital offerings include a customer communication platform that adds value to the purchasing process and an IoT platform that can predict faults in components and automatically minimize malfunctions without human intervention.

Meanwhile, soy sauce manufacturer Kikkoman has penetrated more than 100 countries since its establishment in 1917. Kikkoman Corporation Chairman and Honorary CEO Yuzaburo Mogi attributed the company’s long-term growth and success to the foresight of its top management. He says, “Now, more than ever, it is critical for top management to have a clear grasp of the global business environment and an ability to see ahead.”

Kikkoman aims to keep expanding in Asia, South America and eventually Africa in the next decade. 

Global expansion is also on the agenda of Japanese advertising firm ADREX, founded in 2018. The company’s client-first philosophy, coupled with its business transparency, has contributed to its success. While many young enterprises are focused on immediate profits, ADREX believes in investing in long-term growth. The company celebrated a couple of milestones last year: the launch of its first in-house data analytics tool and the setup of its first overseas base in New York City.

With the domestic economy finally reopening—alongside government support—Japanese businesses are poised for further growth in the year ahead. 

Indonesia Staging A Strong Comeback

Indonesia has proven to be resilient in the face of challenges on multiple fronts, from geopolitical tensions to rising inflation and interest rates. Buoyed by robust demand for its natural resources, a vibrant digital sector and surging foreign investments, Southeast Asia’s largest economy has weathered the global turbulence to put itself back on a growth trajectory.

The country’s economy is expected to grow by 5.4% in 2022, and by 5.0% in 2023, according to a report by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) released in September. The Asian Development Outlook 2022 update notes that robust consumer demand has more than offset lower government spending, while demand for Indonesia’s commodity exports has also been healthy, supporting growth and generating a fiscal revenue windfall.

“The Indonesian economy is coping well with threats to growth. Consumer spending is robust and commodity exports have boomed,” says Jiro Tominaga, ADB Country Director for Indonesia.

Reflecting this growing optimism over Indonesia’s outlook, foreign direct investments spiked by almost 64% in the third quarter of 2022, compared to the same period in 2021, boosted primarily by development of resources processing. Indonesia’s Minister of Investment Bahlil Lahadalia says the economic slowdown in China, one of its biggest partners, would not affect the flow of investment into the country.

A Tech Resurgence

Indonesia’s burgeoning digital economy is also regaining its momentum, driven in part by the country’s technology startups, whose innovative solutions are helping to overcome high distribution costs and provide access to goods and financial services to more Indonesians.

Indeed, amid an uncertain environment for the global technology sector, Indonesia’s startups continue to attract the attention of investors seeking new avenues for returns. In particular, industry watchers believe that the country’s early- to growth-stage investments present an attractive risk-reward profile for investors.

Indonesia is now home to a rising number of tech unicorns such as Traveloka, Xendit and Akulaku; local startups raised US$9.4 billion in 2021, almost three times the US$3.42 billion raised a year earlier. Indonesian venture capital (VC) firms have also been actively investing in the sector, further fueling growth.

One leading investor in the tech startup space is Alpha JWC Ventures, Indonesia’s first independent and institutional VC firm. Established in 2015, the firm’s total assets under management have grown to around US$700 million across three funds. Its portfolio of over 70 companies features four unicorns and 27 centaurs, with valuations of between US$100 million and US$1 billion.

Indonesia has also seen some of Southeast Asia’s most prominent public listings this year, including GoTo Group, the country’s biggest technology company. As of 10 November, the Indonesia Stock Exchange has recorded 54 new listings in 2022, exceeding 2021’s total.

The Return of Travel and Spending

Meanwhile, the lifting of pandemic-related restrictions and the reopening of borders are proving a boon for the country’s hospitality and consumer sectors. Amid this recovery, the first Langham Hotel in Southeast Asia opened its doors in downtown Jakarta.

The ultra-luxurious Langham, Jakarta sits on the uppermost stories of a skyscraper in the Sudirman Central Business District, with upscale shopping and entertainment nearby. Staying true to its roots, the property pays homage to the refined British elegance of the iconic Langham Hotel in London.

Growing confidence in the economy is also giving a boost to consumer spending. Fitch Solutions forecasts real household spending in Indonesia to grow by 4.8% year-on-year in 2022, an improvement from the 2.2% growth recorded in 2021. While household spending will moderate slightly downwards in 2023, growth is expected to remain strong at 4.7% next year.

As the largest and most successful bread company in Indonesia, PT Nippon Indosari Corpindo Tbk. is well-positioned to meet rising demand for its market-leading bread and cake products under its flagship brand Sari Roti.

To capitalize on the buoyant consumer sentiment, the company announced plans to enter the chocolate spread and chocolate milk business, after observing that Indonesian consumers had developed a strong affinity for Sari Roti’s chocolate flavor.

Healthy Demand for Natural Resources

Indonesia’s resources sector is expected to be another beneficiary of the recovering global economy. In particular, palm oil prices are projected to strengthen as demand increases for its use in food and biofuels. Indonesia is a major exporter of the commodity.

The uptick in palm oil is benefitting Indonesian producers such as PT Sumber Tani Agung Resources Tbk (STAA), which has established itself as a leading and sustainable player in the palm oil industry. Founded 50 years ago, the company has leveraged its expertise and experience to consistently deliver superior results to its key stakeholders.

STAA is now venturing into the downstream business to fuel growth, and is constructing a refinery and fractionation plant in Dumai, Riau. Coordinating Minister of Maritime and Investment Affairs Luhut Pandjaitan says Indonesia’s exports could surpass US$300 billion by 2024, as the country regulates the exports of a range of commodities to encourage investment in local downstream industries.

Meanwhile, sustainability has become a priority for many businesses in Indonesia. The country’s largest integrated energy company, Pertamina, is incorporating Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) factors into its operations as it views ESG and sustainability as fundamental to its future growth.

While threats to growth still abound, Indonesian businesses are riding the economy’s resilience to position themselves for long-term success as the effects of the pandemic fades into the background.

Building A Better Future With ESG

As the fight against climate change becomes a key priority for governments and people around the world, businesses are heeding the call by placing Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) factors at the top of their agendas. Many countries are working towards the ambitious goal of keeping global temperatures from increasing by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by achieving net zero emissions by 2050.

However, the task of achieving this target remains elusive, with a recent United Nations report warning that the current climate plans from governments worldwide are insufficient to limit rising temperatures. Against this grim backdrop, a rising number of companies globally are stepping up their ESG efforts to help their governments meet these targets. Investors are also reassessing their portfolios and channeling more funds toward responsible companies that operate sustainably and with clear ESG metrics.

Addressing the problem at its source, energy companies and product manufacturers are taking significant steps to reduce the environmental impact of their operations, both by embracing circular economy models and by harnessing renewable energy solutions such as solar, wind and hydrogen.

One such energy company is Malaysia’s PETRONAS, which has responded to this need for change while continuing to provide a reliable supply of energy. PETRONAS has been actively working to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from its hydrocarbon resources, as part of its efforts to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

The company’s path to net zero supports Malaysia’s own ambitions to help limit the rise in average global temperature to well below 2 degrees Celsius. Malaysia ratified the Paris Agreement in 2016 that deals with GHG emissions and climate mitigation. As such, PETRONAS  has taken progressive steps to decarbonize its operations by undertaking and consolidating climate action activities across the group.

Real estate companies are also changing the way they do business by placing sustainability at the core of new developments, ensuring that water and energy waste are minimized while implementing eco-friendly initiatives designed to bring residents closer to nature.

Central Pattana, the property arm of Thai conglomerate Central Group, is pursuing sustainable outcomes through a variety of means, including the use of solar cell and automation systems at all its developments, and installing over 400 electric vehicle (EV) charging stations at Central shopping centers in 2022. The company is also ramping up the use of sustainability-based designs at its projects.

Collectively, these efforts will help Central Pattana elevate the quality of life of people, the communities they live in, and ultimately the planet, while striving simultaneously to become Thailand’s first mixed-use developer to reach net zero emissions by 2050.

Central Pattana’s sister company, Central Retail, is leading the charge for environmentally aware retail practices that reduce waste, cut carbon-based fuel use, and enrich the quality of life across communities. The company is fully committed to becoming Thailand’s first Green and Sustainable Retail organization. To this end, the company has set long-term goals to reach net zero by 2050 and developed short-term 2030 goals with a strategic initiative called ReNEW.

In the aviation space, Airport Authority Hong Kong (AAHK), the statutory body overseeing Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA), is committed to ESG principles. Since pledging to become the World’s Greenest Airport, back in 2012, a decade of transformation has seen AAHK look to make good on its aspiration across every applicable ESG metric. Among other initiatives, AAHK has developed a carbon management plan which includes expanding the EV fleet from all airside saloon cars to other airside vehicles, electrifying and pooling of ground services equipment at the airport, and developing innovative energy management solutions such as the award-winning Weather Forecast for Air-conditioning Control System.  

Focusing on Social Issues

While environmental considerations take most of the limelight when it comes to sustainability, companies also recognize the importance of the social and governance aspects of the equation in reaching their organizational goals.

For instance, ensuring that everyone has access to affordable financial products and services is critical when it comes to tackling the social issue of inequality globally. A large portion of the populations in many countries remain unbanked or underserved by the traditional financial system. This lack of access limits the opportunities of this group, trapping them in a cycle of poverty.

One financial services provider that has been dedicated to financial inclusion is Home Credit, which offers consumer finance solutions through its responsive mobile application, bringing credit and other financial services to millions of individuals underserved by traditional financial services institutions. Since its establishment in 1997, Home Credit has actively worked to provide a bridge to financial systems as one of three main pillars in its ESG strategy.

As the importance of ESG gains awareness in the business world, more companies are looking for guidance on how they can embark on this critical journey. Professional services firm CLA Global TS (formerly known as Nexia TS) has a long track record of working with their clients to help them reduce their carbon footprint. The firm also focuses on the social and governance aspects of ESG, as it balances the needs of people and regulators with that of the environment to promote ambitious, yet achievable targets for the companies it works with.

On November 1, the firm joined CLA Global, a leading global organization comprising independent accounting and advisory firms, as the group’s independent network member in Asia, covering Southeast Asia and China. CLA Global TS plans to play a pivotal role in developing the Sustainability Reporting and Advisory service standards within the CLA network. The firm’s Sustainability & Climate Change team has also branched out into advisory and compliance work by leveraging its experience in sustainability reporting.

As ESG continues to evolve in Asia, these companies and more are breaking new ground in the sustainability space, and shining a light towards a brighter future for all in the region and beyond.

Malaysia On Track For Further Growth

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

In its latest report, Bank Negara Malaysia noted that the country saw a stronger growth of 8.9% in the second quarter of 2022 compared to 5% in the first quarter.

It attributed this strong showing to an increase in domestic demand, underpinned by the steady recovery in labor market conditions and ongoing policy support. The central bank also said the higher growth was reflective of normalizing economic activity as the country moved towards endemicity and reopened international borders.

The country’s Finance Ministry said foreign direct investment flowing into Malaysia in Q2 2022 remained positive, totaling US$3.63 billion (RM17.3 billion), buoyed by sectors such as manufacturing, financial and insurance, wholesale and retail trade primarily from the United States and Singapore.

Malaysia’s trade performance has also seen an uptrend. The Malaysian External Trade Development Corporation noted that trade surged by 56.7% to US$55.7 billion (RM265.7 billion) compared to August 2021.

Bright Outlook for Local Companies

As recovery gains momentum, Malaysian companies, such as Silverlake Axis, have also done well and experienced marked growth this year despite the impact of the pandemic. The company has a strong reputation in Southeast Asia and counts over 40% of the top 20 banks and three of the five largest financial institutions in ASEAN among its customers.

But despite its success, the Singapore-listed company has recognized the need to diversify its business and adapt to new market demands. The company is developing cloud-based and software-as-a-service solutions to compete more effectively with newer financial technology companies. It has also successfully made inroads into Thailand with these new products, with Indonesia as its next growth target.

Another company that is diversifying into new business is Gentari, a wholly-owned subsidiary of PETRONAS, which has identified the world’s need for clean energy demand within three important areas: renewable energy, hydrogen and green mobility.

The newly-formed company aspires to be a low carbon hydrogen producer that will supply its hydrogen value chain to industrial, power and transportation customers in domestic and export markets. It has plans to build an overall energy capacity of 30 to 40 gigawatt in key markets by 2030 through utility-scale projects across solar, onshore and offshore wind, and battery storage.

Open for Business

Meanwhile, Malaysia’s international financial center, the Tun Razak Exchange (TRX), has opened its doors to three financial institutions—Affin Bank, HSBC and Prudential Assurance.

The 70-acre development has been benchmarked against the most stringent international standards and offers a unique proposition to potential investors and tenants as it employs biophilic designs, which bring in natural light and better air circulation.

These innovative designs support the future of work, where workers want to be agile and mobile and have seamless connection between outdoor and indoor spaces. TRX also emphasizes sustainability, with 23% of the district dedicated to green and open spaces and where the buildings are sustainably-designed and user-oriented.

Looking forward, Malaysia’s future looks bright following the country’s transition to the endemic phase and the opening of international borders. Its economic growth is expected to be supported by more vigorous economic and social activities, as well as strong domestic and foreign demand.

“While external demand could face headwinds from slower global growth, the Malaysian economy will continue to be supported by firm domestic demand. Growth would also benefit from improving labor market conditions and higher tourist arrivals, as well as continued implementation of multi-year investment projects,” says Nor Shamsiah, Governor of Bank Negara Malaysia.