Building Back Greener: Addressing Climate Change in Asia

Climate change and environmental degradation are increasingly impacting our society and have highlighted the necessity for collective action by individuals, governments, and the private sector. However, in a region where most economies are still emerging, striking a balance between ambitious environmental efforts and development goals adds a layer of complexity.

This report examines the ways in which Asian private capital—from corporations, investors and philanthropists—is being brought to bear on environmental challenges. Drawing insights from interviews with 163 individuals and experts from companies, foundations, and nonprofits across 10 Asian economies (Mainland China, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Philippines, Chinese Taipei, and Thailand) we look at what actions local companies and organizations are taking to adapt to and mitigate environmental challenges. It provides unique Asian perspectives on climate action and offers recommendations for public and private sectors.

The report identifies four characteristics of the ways in which funders push resources towards environmental challenges, identifies the challenges companies and organizations face when doing so and presents recommendations and next steps for funders in this space.

Dr. Jemilah Mahmood (Malaysia)
Executive Director
Sunway Centre for Planetary Health

Published date: 14 March 2023

Professor Tan Sri Dr. Jemilah Mahmood is the Executive Director of Sunway Centre for Planetary Health, hosted at Sunway University, Malaysia. Established in 2021, the Centre focuses on the climate emergency, creating healthy cities and achieving sustainable food systems, recognizing the centrality of good governance, effective communications and an education revolution to effect long-term system level changes to the relationship between planet and people. It forms part of Sunway Group’s focus on achieving sustainable development in Malaysia and fostering regional cooperation for environmental action.

CAPS spoke to Dr. Jemilah in late 2022 to learn more about planetary health – the intersection of human health, planetary health and sustainable resilience – and the role of private social investment in addressing existential crises in the Asian region.

CAPS: Dr. Jemilah, thank you for taking the time to speak with us. Could you start by explaining the relationship between the health of people and the health of the environment?

Dr. Jemilah Mahmood: It’s abundantly clear by the events of the last three years that the health of humanity is intrinsically linked to the health of the planet. There are limits to the amount of stress the planet can take before we start to experience systemic collapse, until those tipping points that science is telling us to be worried about are reached. When we start transgressing those boundaries there is a massively negative impact on the systems that are important for humanity: health, food, water, energy. This damage in turn impacts on our economic well-being, our social cohesion, gender relations, equality, education, everything. One event can generate cascading crises, as we saw during the pandemic when we experienced this up close and personal. There are so many things that are affected when health is not protected.

CAPS: That sounds incredibly complex.

Dr. Jemilah Mahmood: It’s complex because, when it comes down to it, everything in nature is connected. The disconnection is with us – we are not connected anymore. This is because our political, economic and social systems have evolved in ways which are simply not sustainable, not respecting the limits of the Earth’s ability to provide for us, to clean up our messes, to process our trash and the toxins we create, to protect us from poorly thought through development choices. And it’s starting to more immediately touch upon a lot of sensitivities. For example, in Malaysia, the massive flooding in late 2021, generated a huge tension in politics. People felt that the government wasn’t taking care of them. People didn’t talk about climate change until it impacted them, until the triple crisis of the pandemic, the floods and then economic recession became very personal.

There is no escaping the fact that human beings drive environmental and planetary destruction, whether through their own consumer behaviors, though silent acquiescence to damage caused by big businesses and corrupt politicians or simply through participating and accepting the poorly thought through development decisions our leaders and private sector managers make – decisions that don’t take into account planetary boundaries or respect for nature. So, we are trying to get people to flip it and see things from a different perspective.

CAPS: How easy or difficult has it been for you to get people to shift that mindset?

Dr. Jemilah Mahmood: Every crisis provides opportunities. In the immediate aftermath of disasters it’s easier for us to talk to governments, to say, “Here’s the situation, you need to act.” The pandemic provided a significant opportunity to open dialogue on the need for more sustainable change and better risk management. The government has included planetary health and climate change in its development plans. The caretaker Prime Minister at the time called for a planetary health roadmap. We have a sustainability centre, bringing the SDGs into our development planning, and we’re setting up a sustainability fund so that we can look at what innovations can happen at the community level to drive sustainable transformation. It is still tricky, but it is not impossible.

I think that everyone needs to use this opportunity, making sure we don’t forget that the pandemic showed us the need for speed, to keep driving forward the transformational change that must happen now, especially because governments and people have so many competing priorities. For the normal person on the street, it is about, “How do I bring food to the table?”, and for politicians, it’s about, “How do I survive?”. For businesses, “How do I make money?”. Doing business well and right means good business outcomes. For governments, making the right policy decisions will ensure better political survival and thriving. But the ultimate driver of positive change needs to be us – the people. Changes in our behaviors will be reflected in changes in our institutions which will generate change in our interactions with the Earth.

CAPS: We often hear people say that sustainability and climate change seem too big and too complicated, and it’s difficult to know where to start. How would you respond to that concern?

Dr. Jemilah Mahmood: There’s no short-term or easy solution to this. This is going to be hard work for a long time to come – but we’re running out of time to get started. In my opinion, the most important thing is education. How do we build an awareness of the importance of the environment, of sustainability, of planetary health? It needs to start from a very young age, in schools.

At the University, we prioritized incorporating planetary health as a central theme, no matter what discipline you are in. We are piloting a course now, that will become mandatory from 2024. Every student entering Sunway University will need to complete a seven-week course on planetary health and community service before they graduate. In the process of educating people, you create greater awareness and develop leadership skills.

We also run a lot of youth engagement activities. I think that’s a factor in how we change things in the long term, through young people. They already know this is important. They know that their generation is facing an existential crisis. We give them the tools and the skills so that they are better able to handle it, but also build that transformative innovation that is required to develop solutions for us all.

CAPS: What role can philanthropists play in supporting businesses and communities to take action on planetary health? 

Dr. Jemilah Mahmood: I think philanthropy would do well to increase its focus on impact. That’s where the real value for money lies. But a lot of the time, philanthropy is not strategic. For example, when there’s a crisis, everybody pours money into relief, but funders are less willing to provide money that helps to prevent these crises from happening in the first place. I want to see philanthropists think about strategy and impact, more intelligent theories of change, and long-term progress.

Philanthropy also has such an important role to play in building institutions. I would love for our Centre to have endowments to help us do research and build the evidence to change society through education and influencing policies. We also want to influence businesses, including SMEs, to look at how they can innovate and to help them become more aware of their environmental impact. We have to get people to see that protecting the environment is good business and good FOR business.

Asia’s social sector sees a funding decline

SME Horizon

COVID-19 has exacerbated income inequalities and social disparities across Asia, serving as a force multiplier for trends already in place. Assessing performance across four sub-indexes – Regulations, Tax and Fiscal Policy, Ecosystem, and Procurement – CAPS’ biennial flagship study, the Doing Good Index 2022, examines the social investment landscape in Asia. Read here.

In Conversation With Ruth Shapiro, Founder and Chief Executive of Centre for Asia Philanthropy and Society


According to the Doing Good Index 2022, which analyses the social investment landscape in Asia, Covid-19 has exacerbated social disparities and income inequalities and across the region. We talk to Dr. Ruth Shapiro, the Co-Founder and Chief Executive of the Centre for Asian Philanthropy and Society (CAPS), which conducts the study biennially, about the pandemic’s impact on people in Asia, her work and improving Hong Kong’s social sector. Read here.

Funding for Asian NGOs falls amid tighter regulations

Philanthropy Age

Almost half of Asia’s social delivery organisations have reported a decline in funding in the last 12 months, some as much as 50 percent, according to new research. The Hong Kong-based Centre for Asian Philanthropy and Society (CAPS) surveyed more than 2,000 entities and some 120 experts across 17 Asian economies, including India, Pakistan, China, and Singapore. Read here.

The Doing Good Index Reveals Asia’s Social Sector Sees a Funding Decline Despite Having the Highest Pandemic-Induced Poverty Globally

Yahoo Finance

Covid-19 has exacerbated income inequalities and social disparities across Asia, serving as a force multiplier for trends already in place. A new social impact study released today by the Centre for Asian Philanthropy and Society (CAPS) shows how to maximize philanthropic and policy responses to cope with these post-Covid challenges. Read here.

Doing Good Index 2022

Assessing the Health and Well-being of Asia’s Social Sector

Doing Good Index microsite

Our interactive microsite lets you visualize, explore and compare our data. Use our graphics and maps to help you understand Asia at a glance. The data dashboard allows you to compare economies and track changes across time. Economy profiles present a visual and digestible deep dive into each economy.

What is the Doing Good Index?

The Doing Good Index 2022 is the most comprehensive social impact index in Asia to date, highlighting the factors that drive or hinder private capital flowing towards social and economic challenges across 17 Asian economies.

The Doing Good Index comes at a critical time when economies have been heavily impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. Inequalities have been exacerbated, and hard-won progress in social and economic growth has been undone. An estimated two-thirds of those newly forced into poverty live in South Asia, East Asia and the Pacific.

To address these shared challenges, all parts of society—individuals, companies, government and the social sector—must work together to drive more resources towards building a better future together. The Doing Good Index shows how. It provides a roadmap of the policies and practices that can unleash this capital by mitigating the trust deficit; leveraging local support; and facilitating cross-sector collaboration.

In 2022 we surveyed 2,239 SDOs and interviewed 126 experts across 17 Asian economies. In mapping the landscape of social investment, the study examines four sub-indices: Regulations, Tax and Fiscal Policy, Ecosystem, and Procurement. We also include a section on how the Covid-19 pandemic impacted the social sector.

The Doing Good Index is published every two years. Read the inaugural edition from 2018 and our 2020 edition.

DECODED: Blended Finance in Action in Asia

Our DECODED series unpacks, explains and crystallizes issues critical for social investment in Asia. It draws upon our expertise in research and access to an extensive network of sector experts and philanthropists in 18 Asian economies. This enables us to identify emerging trends in the region. Through DECODED, we translate these concepts into digestible insights.

This edition of DECODED explains what blended finance is and how it is deployed in Asia. The initiatives emerging in this region illustrate how blended finance can be a win-win strategy to pool private and public capital and bridge a yawning funding gap in the wake of Covid-19.

Dato’ Noor Rezan Bapoo Hashim (Malaysia)
Board of Trustees & Former Deputy Director
Yayasan AMIR & Ministry of Education

Published date: 13 October 2021

Education can fall short of community needs when it fails to adequately cultivate children into well-rounded, productive adults. This can have dramatic flow-on consequences for a country’s workforce, affecting its productivity, innovativeness and competitiveness. The antidote to this is an education that centers on the holistic development of the child, especially in the formative years of learning. 

This was the chief mission of Yayasan AMIR, a nonprofit organization incorporated in 2010 to “improve the accessibility of quality education in Malaysian public schools” in partnership with the Ministry of Education. It achieves this through a multi-year intervention—the Trust Schools Programme—to transform individual schools by building the capacity of teachers, administrators and principals. The idea is not to modify what the child learns, but the way they learn. CAPS sat down (virtually) with Dato’ Noor Rezan Bapoo Hashim, who is on Yayasan AMIR’s board of trustees and is a former Deputy Director at the Ministry of Education, in September 2020 followed by an update in October 2021. She spoke about the journey of getting this groundbreaking model for education off the ground. 

CAPS: Dato’ Noor Rezan, thank you for taking the time to speak with us today. You’ve had an esteemed career in the education field. What was it about Yayasan AMIR that caught your eye, and why did you get involved? 

Dato’ Noor Rezan: In 2009, I was in charge of operations as the Deputy Director General at the Ministry of Education. Shahnaz Al-Sadat, the initiator of Trust Schools Programme (TSP), approached us in July. We had been trying to steer away from exam-oriented education system for years, so it was a meeting of the minds when she started talking about holistic education. I had always been a strong advocate for growing the child, not just teaching the child to score A’s in exams. TSP aligned with this goal completely, so it was easy for me to become highly engaged with the program. 

CAPS: You were an educator yourself before joining the ministry. Was that when you realized there was more to education than just checking off grades? 

Dato’ Noor Rezan: I started teaching in 1974, and over a span of 20 years moved from teaching to being a principal to being in the education ministry. I saw how the education system had changed to become more focused on a student’s marks as a measure of achievement. It was clear what this was doing to the children. Parents were also conscious of the system’s pitfalls that centered on student scores. Their children were getting fantastic results, but were not being prepared to become successful in the world. 

In Malaysia, the national philosophy of education stipulates the development of a well-balanced, holistic child. It has taken many years of public outcry and several education ministers to steer the system back towards this thinking. TSP came to the ministry at just the right time when, in 2010, education was included as one of seven key national results in the Government Transformation Programme. 

CAPS: How does the Trust Schools Programme steer schools towards holistic education? 

Dato’ Noor Rezan: By changing the delivery of education in schools. We do this by transforming the entire school and giving the same training to teachers as to the principals and school administrators so that everyone is aware and can buy into the change. By focusing on the way education is delivered, we can make sure that change is sustainable, not just for a single class of students but for every class of students that comes through. 

TSP was piloted in 10 schools, including high-performing and challenging ones, at the start. We realized that the issues that schools experience are often idiosyncratic, and it was important to draw differentiated lessons for the variety of schools we have in the country. Today, we bring this approach to over 100 schools. 

CAPS: What was your role in steering the TSP? 

Dato’ Noor Rezan: I was with the program when it first started. As it grew, I switched from the ministry to becoming part of the Board at Yayasan AMIR. Since I maintained good relations with the ministry, I acted as a bridge and buffer between Yayasan AMIR and the ministry. For instance, whenever there was a meeting planned with the ministry I would brief the Director General first. I tried to help where I could, especially through the difficult times. Support from the very top is crucial for a program like this and we were very fortunate to have a succession of Director Generals at the Ministry of Education on board.  

CAPS: What were some of these difficulties? 

Dato’ Noor Rezan: We made some mistakes at the program’s start when we were still learning to work with the Ministry of Education. The ministry oversees over 10,000 schools and half a million teachers. Introducing a new program within this bureaucracy must be delicately managed. For instance, all division heads must be made aware of the program. However, we only onboarded a few of the key departments at the start.  

I knew we had made an error when I spoke with my former colleagues at the ministry and was shocked to find some department heads were not aware of the program. They would simply shut the door to changes if they were not properly engaged. Luckily, we caught this misstep early. We have a marvelous team that was able to uncover shortcomings like this and start putting things right. 

CAPS: Starting a new initiative in the established public school system could not have been easy. Were you met with resistance when working with schools? 

Dato’ Noor Rezan: We did experience resistance at the operations level. Having been a teacher before, I understand how teachers think. A new program will simply add more to their plate. The TSP builds in a period of adjustments for teachers and other school staff to review current practices and identify areas of improvement before internalizing the necessary changes. Inevitably, there are doubters at the start of the program, but six months in the results speak for themselves. You can tell by the children: they are much more vibrant, they enjoy coming to class and are keen to talk to teachers. They are less self-conscious about participating in the classroom. And once these results become apparent, we start to change minds and overcome doubts.

CAPS: That is a great indicator of success. Are there plans to expand this model to more schools across the country? 

Dato’ Noor Rezan: We have shifted to the next phase—to a TSP 2.0. We’ve streamlined the program, reducing the transformation period from 5 years to 3 years so it is less costly to adopt and easier to scale. We also work with state and district officers to train them, so that the local bureaucracy can come in, monitor progress and keep the program running. We hope Yayasan AMIR can eventually exit the program when the state government assumes greater ownership of school transformations.

With TSP rolled out in over 100 schools, there is a good spread of schools with experience that they can share with other schools in their vicinity. This is one suggestion I have made to the ministry: allow other schools to learn from and visit the schools that are part of the TSP. Allow the program to spread through to other schools, whereby teachers in a TSP school could provide training and advice to other interested schools. The schools have taken this on, and we hope it continues to grow this way.

Bridging the Talent Gap: A Study on Talent Development in the Philanthropy and Non-Profit Sector

Asia Philanthropy Circle (APC)

This report shines a spotlight on the talent deficit in philanthropy and social sector leadership in Asia. The dearth in talent can limit the ability of the sector to grow when there is insufficient leadership behind it. Recommendations for how challenges in recruitment, integration and retention of talent can be mitigated are discussed. The report draws from 20 interviews conducted in five Southeast Asian countries: Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. Read it here.