What are the main objectives of the WIEF?
HITAM: WIEF stands for the World Islamic Economic Forum. The many Muslim countries around the world who gather to talk politics also need to have an economic face. The WIEF tackles economic and business issues within the framework of the then political face of Islamic countries, who were a part of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). The OIC did not satisfy the Muslim business communities from around the world. In order to meet their expectations, the World Islamic Economic Forum was formed, becoming a completely separate entity from the Organization of the Islamic Conference. The main objectives are simply to promote business and economic collaboration, to enhance the well-being of the Muslim communities from around the world. The Muslim communities have been one of the most neglected communities in the world. Not enough attention has been paid to Muslim economic or business issues. The WIEF plans to change this. We have been working very diligently on this for the past seven years. In doing this, we discouraged people in our forum from talking about anything but business and economic development. Politics and religion are to be discussed in other forums. Our forum is strictly here to talk business and to network, so our overall goal can be achieved. Whenever we ask questions in our forum, we do not ask what religion people belong to. We want those who are interested in economic and business matters to feel welcome. So far the reception to this idea has been excellent. If you look at the list of participants and contributors, you will see what I mean.
What role does Malaysia play in the growth and development of Islamic financial services globally?
HITAM: As far as Islamic finance and banking is concerned, we like to think that we are the pioneers. I can personally vouch for this as I was in government when we began this approach. By virtue of being the pioneers, we have been very active in this field. Islamic finance is a relatively new sector in overall financing. In the past, when you talk about banking and finance, we only looked at the Western concept of finance and banking. In the early days of the idea of Islamic finance and banking, we simply focused on being Sharia compliant. There were many members of the community who do not believe in interest, which is forbidden in Islam. We thought of ways out of that, by marginalizing the wealth of the Muslims, especially the villagers, so that they can keep money without interest, and we found ways to make it viable, business-wise, to invest their money. This initial movement has grown very slowly. Within the last decade there has been turmoil and scandals in Western banking, which have caused business communities all over the world to become disillusioned with the way Western banks conduct themselves. Naturally, there was a search for a better alternative. There is great interest in Islamic finance as this alternative. Even non-Islamic countries are trying to adopt the ways of Islamic finance, because they are attracted to the fundamental principles. They feel it is safe and secure. There are levels of ethics and morality that people like, and under Sharia compliance, the banking and finance communities behave themselves. Islamic banking is still a work in progress though.
Beyond Islamic financial services, where do you see further opportunity for collaboration among WIEF’s attendees?
HITAM: Participation at the World Islamic Economic Forum is not by country, even though we proudly talk about how many countries are represented. People do not represent their own country. They represent their own business. They come to network and discuss business possibilities. Investment, trade, and many other different types of business are discussed once they get together at WIEF. There are 61 countries represented at this conference, which makes it very productive. Each time we hold a forum, the participation has been very widespread. Business people would not waste their time here if they didn’t see potential. We help to facilitate this.
With regard to trade and investment, which areas in the Islamic world represent the best investment opportunities?
HITAM: Malaysia is of course a great country for investment opportunities. Indonesia is a large and vibrant Islamic country. Bangladesh is very active as well. We are going to have one of the largest representations from Bangladesh, made up of good quality business people. They are looking at investment opportunities here in Malaysia and they are very welcome. They are very serious about investing. Bangladesh projects an image of low-level possibilities, but they are growing quite rapidly. If a country manages to attract investments, there is a spillover effect that benefits everyone. Whether it is investments or trade, there are benefits. For example, I saw Somalia on a list of countries that came to WIEF. Somalia came to look at opportunities and possibilities. Anything that they manage to bring back will benefit their country indirectly. This is what we call the spillover effects of business.
Within the last decade there has been turmoil and scandals in Western banking, which have caused business communities all over the world to become disillusioned with the way Western banks conduct themselves. Naturally, there was a search for a better alternative. There is great interest in Islamic finance as this alternative.