Yayasan Sime Darby (YSD) chairman Tunku Tan Sri Imran Tuanku Jaafar and Sime Darby group CEO Datuk Jeffri Salim Davidson use the word “impact” a lot when they talk about the work the foundation has done over its 40-year existence. “Most critical is that the projects we fund must have impact. We should not just be doing things, but what we do must have a purpose — this will also help the fund recipients,” Tunku Imran says emphatically.
The YSD team has an example to quote on the ready — its long-term support for the reforestation and rehabilitation of heavily degraded forests in Ulu Segama, Sabah, has not only created a lush forest that supports a growing population of orangutans, but has also resulted in policy change. It is now known as the Bukit Piton Forest Reserve and will remain untouched forever. “The seedlings initially planted are now fully grown trees, which are important food sources for the orangutan and ultimately, a rich habitat for them and other wildlife in this area,” adds Jeffri, who is also a member of YSD’s governing council.
Sime Darby Bhd started doing corporate social responsibility (CSR) and environmental, social and governance (ESG) 40 years ago, well before the terms became part of our lexicon. YSD was established in 1982 to offer scholarships to outstanding and deserving individuals and is today a multi-faceted entity providing far-reaching assistance that also supports conservation, outreach and development programmes. The foundation is now the primary driver of Sime Darby Bhd, Sime Darby Plantation Bhd and Sime Darby Property Bhd’s CSR initiatives.
“The foundation would not have existed if not for the vision of its founders, including the late Tun Dr Ismail Ali, the visionary Tunku Tan Sri Ahmad Tunku Yahya, and our former chairmen, including Tun Musa Hitam, who was with us for more than 10 years,” shares Tunku Imran. “With the synergy we have built and cultivated within the foundation, and with our close network of donors, beneficiaries and partners, we now continue our pursuit of the common dream we share of making the world a better place for all.”
Following the merger of Golden Hope Plantations Bhd, Kumpulan Guthrie Bhd and Kumpulan Sime Darby Bhd to create the enlarged Sime Darby Bhd, YSD’s focus was realigned in 2008 under the stewardship of Musa Hitam, the then-chairman. It was also during his time that the foundation’s five pillars were established: added to education (by which time YSD’s scholarships were among the most coveted and sought after) were environment, community and health, sports as well as arts and culture.
Understandably, a pillar close to Tunku Imran’s heart is sports and he recalls with much amusement and affection the Midnight Football initiative he was invited to witness in Sarawak. “We went to a rural area outside of Kuching, and there was a small football academy with one coach who was teaching kids to play! These were kids with disciplinary issues, but the academy refocused their energies and they became excellent players. For me, that was exciting because it was by the Yayasan, it was related to sports and it affected children. It was a wonderful thing to witness,” he says. The programme turns lives around and puts these often-wayward kids on the right track — what YSD CEO Dr Yatela Zainal Abidin says is an extremely impactful programme in that part of the country.
Ah, there’s that word again. “It’s what we want, really, to make a difference,” Tunku Imran adds thoughtfully. “We recognise the impact human actions have on the community and environment alike. Driven by this factor alone, we hope to carry the vision of our founders, to lead and make a sustainable impact on and difference in the lives of others. This is especially so today, with the world plagued by crises such as climate change, disease, poverty and hunger.”
“Between the three companies, we contribute RM80 million a year to the foundation. That’s a pretty big amount of money,” says Jeffri, who is most interested in the environmental work YSD has done over the years. “I am personally very proud of what we have achieved with the Menraq patrol teams at Royal Belum State Park. The term menraq means ‘people’ in the Jahai language used by the Orang Asli community.
“In 2021, in collaboration with Perak State Parks Corporation, we committed RM1.2 million for three years to sponsor two new Menraq patrol teams made up of 10 Orang Asli to protect and increase the rapidly dwindling numbers of Malayan tigers in the wild. With this project, we sought to not only conserve wildlife but also provide another source of income for the community. With borders closed for so long, the tiger population has grown but now that borders are open and poachers coming back, there is more work to be done.”
Although all 80 project partners across the five pillars continue to do exemplary work owing to the high standards they are held to, three that Tunku Imran and Jeffri have noticed making great strides in research and executing their findings are Management and Ecology of Malaysian Elephants (MEME), which conducts research and capacity building to shape elephant and biodiversity conservation policies; the Malaysian AIDS Foundation, which ensures equitable access to life-saving HIV treatment and prevention actions; and the UKM-YSD Chair for Sustainability, which has provided much-needed sustainability literacy towards climate change education and awareness.
The evolution of YSD is marked most obviously to incorporate all its pillars instead of merely one, and the present leadership is keen on having continually good years of creating impact. “These past two years have been marred by thwarted plans but the resourcefulness, creativity and perseverance of our partners and beneficiaries have inspired us in many ways to do better and continue to break down silos and take joint action to promote planetary health,” says Tunku Imran. “What we have also been focusing on recently is ensuring that all our projects have an impact. To this end, we will be rating all our projects together with the managers based on their annual performance and set clear benchmarks for improvement.”
Looking ahead, Jeffri says to expect a stronger focus on the environment as the health of our planet becomes a major concern. “At YSD, we are very clear on our mission to create sustainable impact, to create a ripple effect that contributes to the development of the people’s well-being and socio-economic advancements while preserving the environment. The impact we have borne witness to over the years on the different segments of society and the environment, is what keeps us going. In the years to come, we hope to play a more significant role in funding more research and affirmative action plans to combat climate change and its impact.”
Our conversation moves to the role that privately-run foundations like YSD play to fill in the gaps the government cannot. Jeffri uses the Royal Belum State Park as an example. “The government cannot do everything, so that’s where we can come in... to provide funds for the rangers. It is the same thing in Sabah.”
“Foundations such as YSD continue to have vital roles in spearheading corporate social responsibility,” Tunku Imran says. “More so with the global push towards ESG, it is particularly important for companies and organisations to make a meaningful impact in the communities in which they have a presence. To effectively steer a company’s sustainable development and create value for society and the environment, the key is to remain relevant by keeping a pulse on prevalent challenges that need to be addressed, and to work with relevant stakeholders to bring about impactful solutions. Through the five pillars we have in place, this is what YSD strives to achieve.”
Although Tunku Imran prefers to look forward rather than reminisce, looking back at YSD’s history does unearth some spectacular projects that have really put Malaysia on the map. Its support of KL’s preeminent theatre space, klpac, for example, and Professor Datin Paduka Dr Teo Soo Hwang, a Sime Darby scholar who now runs Cancer Research Malaysia, one of the top research centres in the world that YSD continues to be a part of. In fact, for YSD’s 40th anniversary celebration on June 17, its partners will showcase the work that they have done with the foundation’s help.
By looking ahead, Tunku Imran hopes to increase the impact of everything YSD does, taking into account a rapidly changing world. “Our aim is to keep up with the times and possibly stay ahead of the times. We are about to embark on an exercise where we will discuss our strategy and look at the new environment, new technologies, the new Malaysia. It is always changing — the Malaysia of 1982 is not the that of today and will not be the Malaysia of 30 years in the future.”
Whatever that future looks like, YSD plans to play an active part in it. Forty years down, many more to go.
This article first appeared on June 13, 2022 in The Edge Malaysia.