A voice for common values

He’s gone on to become one of Malaysia’s most influential figures, but Tan Sri Dr Michael Yeoh still holds fond memories from his Monash days.


Tan Sri Dr Michael Yeoh’s life in leadership began at Monash University 34 years ago. After enrolling in a Bachelor of Economics he arrived at Clayton in 1973 and soon found himself the president of the Malaysian Students’ Union. Later, he was elected national director of overseas students at the Australian Union of Students.

These days, the co-founder and chief executive of Malaysia’s influential Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute (ASLI) regularly meets world leaders and other prominent global actors, but back in his leadership infancy his instincts had to be honed.

“I wouldn’t say leadership came naturally to me, although I was always interested in it,” he says. “I have had to develop the skills involved.”

Malaysia’s leading independent think tank, ASLI, was founded 24 years ago by Dr Yeoh and Tan Sri Dr Jeffrey Cheah, the pair joining forces after seeing a need for such a privately-run body in Malaysian public life.

In another Monash sidebar, they were also instrumental in Monash partnering with the Sunway Group, of which Dr Cheah is chairman, and paving the way for the successful Monash University Malaysia campus after working closely with then Vice-Chancellor Mal Logan.

“At that time there was no private think tank in Malaysia and we saw a need, so we started it ourselves,” says Dr Yeoh. “We started off by focusing on leadership development, on promoting strategic leadership, on training young leaders in both private and public sectors.”

Its mission, stated boldly on its website, is “to make the world a better place” through a commitment to developing Asian leadership and strategic thinking.

ASLI later established a ground breaking Centre for Public Policy Studies (CPPS), where the agenda covers a swath of subjects including economic policy and competitiveness, regional economic co-operation, education reforms and human capital development. National unity and national integration, human rights, corporate governance and ethics also feature prominently.

Both bodies are highly respected internationally: ASLI was this year ranked as Malaysia’s top institution and the world’s 48th best by the University of Pennsylvania’s Lauder Institute, while CPPS was rated fourth out of 100 think tanks in South-East Asia and the Pacific by the same Global Go-To Think Tank Index Report.

One of Malaysia’s most prominent public intellectuals, Dr Yeoh wears numerous hats. He’s a member of Malaysia’s National Unity Consultative Council, a commissioner in Malaysia’s Competition Commission, and was the nation’s representative on the ASEAN High Level Task Force on Connectivity. He’s also been appointed by the government to the advisory board of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission.

It is a testing time in Malaysian politics, with a corruption scandal threatening the government of Prime Minister Najib Razak.

“I think we are becoming increasingly concerned about corruption in Malaysia. There is good leadership and bad leadership here, as in every country,” says Dr Yeoh, who at ASLI has promoted dialogue with the business community about the importance of transparency and ethical governance.

“Ethics and integrity are very important in leadership, and there does seem to be a growing incidence of corruption in Malaysia. We certainly need more efforts to overcome this challenge. The country may not be at crunch point yet, but it still may get that way.”

In demand around the globe as a speaker, he cites his proudest achievements as the number of global leaders with whom he’s shared ideas.

“Nelson Mandela to me is No.1, for his incredible humility,” he says, adding that he has met with a plethora of Australian prime ministers, from Bob Hawke and Paul Keating to Kevin Rudd, “with whom I am close”.

In May, he was received by Pope Francis at the Rome Roundtable in Italy – thanks to an invitation from the Melbourne-based Global Foundation – at which Dr Yeoh delivered a speech about shaping a narrative for “co-operative globalisation” that is both inclusive and sustainable.

People are listening to the extremists, and we need to get them back to the centre. It’s critical in the fight against terrorism.

Dr Yeoh says he stressed to Pope Francis the concept of moderation. “I think the danger that the world faces right now is that people tend to take extremist views, whether from different ethnic groups or from different religious groups. People are listening to the extremists, and we need to get them back to the centre. It’s critical in the fight against terrorism.”

In facing down one of the big challenges of our time, Dr Yeoh believes one of the important things is to emphasise common values.

“That we are people who have more in common than we have differences – whether Malaysian, Australian, Indonesian or so on, we share good universal values.”

ASLI has been actively promoting the unity it espouses at roundtables involving religious and ethnic groups, and targeting younger people in particular. It’s about building trust and confidence, Dr Yeoh says, to reclaim the centre despite evidence that the globe is facing growing uncertainty and accusations from the politically disenfranchised about the rising tide of inequality.

“There are the same issues and concerns in Australia, for example, as there are in Malaysia,” he says. “We are all still getting used to Trump, but I think in many ways globalisation is irreversible.

“It will go on with or without the US. The rest of the world wants to do things closely together; the rest of the world wants to pursue free trade deals so they can increase the prosperity of their people. There are negative aspects of globalisation as well. People feel it has led to the loss of jobs, but in my analysis I don’t think that is the case.

“I think we have lost more jobs to automation and now perhaps to robotics than to globalisation or free trade.”

Dr Yeoh was among the first cohort of students at Richardson Hall, and returned to Monash Clayton earlier this year for the 40th anniversary celebrations. “I still have very good friends from Monash days,” he says. “We had dinner, then went back to the hall … it was good to reflect on the foundations the Monash experience gave me.”