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An Interview with Steven Okun

Updated: Dec 27, 2022

Politics is complicated - and there’s no way around that. But, here at The Last Word, we’ve been fortunate enough to speak with Steven Okun and to get his help in answering some of our questions about his experiences and the political environment we live in today. Okun is the founder and CEO of APAC Advisors, and is considered a global leader in sustainability, market equity and corporate affairs. He also has experience as an analyst with CNBC and The Straits Times, plus political experience while working with Bill Clinton in his administration.

Steve Okun’s Career

You were part of Al Gore’s campaign for President in 2000 - what was it like being a part of that while everything was unfolding with the Bush v Gore case?

I had worked in the Clinton Administration up until 1999 and then I left to join United Parcel Service. But for about the two and a half weeks or so before election day I took holiday, and that's where a lot of the political veterans were parachuted into whatever campaign, and with my political background and experience with press events, they sent me to Little Rock, Arkansas. What’s crazy about campaigns is your whole life, 24/7, is focused on trying to get your candidate elected. We knew at some point that Vice President Gore wasn’t going to win Arkansas, but we were fighting for Democrats in congress as well, and President Clinton came and campaigned that last weekend which was great. On election night we were on the phone with all our friends: so we had friends in Florida and we had friends in Washington at the headquarters, and the people in Florida said: ‘it’s not over, it’s not over. There are still votes coming in, we know what the turnout is, we know how many votes should generally be democratic.” So on election night when they called it for Bush and then it came back and was up in the air, we knew it wasn’t going to be called on election night. We had no clue it was going to go to the Supreme Court of course. Generally, though, the great thing about elections is you know who won and lost, except this time we didn’t know!

You’ve worked for both CNBC and The Straits Times as an analyst - considering the differences in freedom of press between the US and Singapore, have you noticed any differences in processes at the two news offices?

No, but I’ve got to put it into some context. The first question to ask yourself is who is your audience, and so my role on CNBC and with a business audience, being here in Singapore, having worked in the US government, having worked on American campaigns and having worked for US companies overseas, primarily in Singapore, is to say: this is the impact on US businesses. In that regard, there's no issues whatsoever in terms of discussing business perspectives. For the Straits Times, my job is to put into perspective issues in the US for Singaporeans: why this could impact Singapore, why Donald Trump is doing what he's doing. Now, I wouldn’t critique the Singapore government, that’s not my job, it's the job of Singaporeans, but I would criticise the US government, and I have done in the past. So I haven’t seen any issues there.

Current Political Issues

How do you see the Russian invasion of Ukraine ending given the current trajectory Russia is on? Is there any way this ends without an exceedingly great social cost?

Hopefully, it won’t be even worse than it is now. The problem is this is one man, it’s Putin who’s calling all these shots. He’s basically been an authoritarian ruler and is becoming more isolated, so predicting what one person’s going to do, getting inside their mind, is very difficult. What we’ve seen the West do, not just the west but even countries like Japan who share a border with Russia, are taking sanctions against Russia. Singapore, which has only once before taken sanctions against a country, is now taking sanctions. Hopefully there’ll be some way that this economic pressure and the heroic efforts of Ukraine will lead Putin to find some face-saving way to de-escalate. But there are so many questions: does China try to be a broker for peace or does China become a lifeline for Russia? I hope, though, that President Biden, Prime Minister Johnson, Chancellor Scholz of Germany and countries in Asia will influence Putin’s decision making enough to bring this war to an end.

Many are unhopeful for the 2022 midterms for the Democrats - do you believe the Democrats have a chance in the midterms, or is it going to be as big a victory for Republicans as some suggest?

We’ll do the Senate first, because as a Democrat that’s the better story to tell. The Senate is very much individual races and individual candidates really matter. Each state will typically only have one candidate up for election in that year and they’re very well known so have a record within their party. So, if the incumbent Democrats can hold all their current seats they’ll be in a position to hold the Senate. It really depends on who the Republicans nominate. For example, in Arizona, you’ve got Mark Kelly, a Democrat who’s been in office for less than two years. The real question in predicting this race is who’s going to run against him? Are they going to nominate someone from the far-right wing and from the Trump group who’s strongly anti-immigrant, believes that the 2020 election was stolen etc.. If that happens, Kelly has a very good chance of winning this state. If the republicans nominate a more moderate business conservative candidate like Mitt Romney, Kelly will be in a very tough place. Because you've got high inflation, an unpopular President, it could be hard for Kelly to run against a Republican of this type. So, if the Republicans nominate a Trump-like candidate, the Democrats should do it, if they nominate a more moderate candidate, they can do it but it’ll be very uphill. In the house, all 435 seats are up every 2 years so it’s very hard to break out as an individual house member against the national opinion, which is currently anti-Democrat. Americans generally like to have a Democrat in the White House and a Republican controlled Congress, or vice versa. Right now we’ve got a rare thing where we have a Democratic majority across both, so it’s our nature to vote out the incumbent party to the party opposing the president. So we’ve got history, the national mood, the economy and Biden’s unpopularity working against the Democrats. So everything points to the Republicans getting the house, but there’s still time. How does Biden’s popularity change post Ukraine? Does Inflation calm down? These are all questions that change the national mood, and how the House elections turn out.

Do you think that the UN SDGs will be achieved by 2030? If not, who would you say is ‘at fault’?

Not all of them are going to be achieved, for certain, by the deadline. What you see happening is people, especially younger people, are doing something about it and pushing businesses. That’s where the real change will come from. It’s not just going to be that the governments are going to set standards because it’s very difficult for governments which have their own, different self-interests to come up with a carbon tax which is the best way to control greenhouse gas emissions. And this needs to be the same across borders which forces business and consumers to pay for the carbon emitted, which now instead has all these externality issues. But people are forcing businesses to change and that’s where it’s going to happen the fastest and I work with businesses now who recognise the terrible impact the climate impact is having on their businesses and employees, all the extreme weather events and extreme heat. And they’re realising they have to do something about it. So I don’t think the real change will be governments, it’ll be people saying we don’t want any more single use plastics, we don’t want any more disposable cups, we want to know how much carbon has been emitted for this product. We will demand businesses become net-zero in manufacturing sooner than later. I’m optimistic we’ll get there but it’s not coming

Growing Asian Influence

How far will the QUAD alliance go in maintaining security in the APAC region and countering any threats that may arise?

You have to think about how you work together with alliances. If you see what’s happening with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it’s that alliances have become even more important and have become more cohesive to deal with the illegality and the war crimes Russia is engaging in. That lesson about the power of alliances, not only from a military perspective but an economic perspective, that’s going to influence even more what happens in Asia where countries say having friends is a multiplier for defence, diplomacy and economics. The Quad, which started well before the Russian invasion, becomes even more important, so you’re going to get those lessons. When you think of foreign policy, there’s three pillars to it as per Secretary Clinton: defence, diplomacy and development. How do you help countries move forward, through the pandemic, become greener with their infrastructure? If the Quad can do all of that and not just be a security alliance but be used for diplomatic and economic purposes, it’ll become much more powerful.

Do you believe that the same pre-pandemic potential exists for US businesses looking to expand into Asia, despite all the challenges over the past two years?

Well the way I describe it in my career, having worked in the US government at the Department of Transportation - a regulatory agency, and representing companies like UPS and KKR is that I’ve worked at the intersection of business and government. Now that governments are working with a different definition of public interest, and it could be because of rising nationalism everywhere and in part the pandemic, it is no longer the intersection of government and business but the collision. It is much harder to operate as a business today because that definition of public interest is becoming much more nationalistic from every government. People used to talk about free trade agreements and now the US talks about reshoring the supply chain or you have China now with their initiatives like ‘Made in China 2025’, or Singapore giving out fewer Employment Passes because they want to be thinking about Singaporean workers more. So it is much harder now for a business to expand globally, and I think the pandemic has really accelerated this.

Seeing as Southeast Asian countries are bearing the brunt of climate change, how important is it that governments continue to support climate start-ups in the region?

It’s very important, but the investors are there to make money, that’s why you’re investing. If you’re not there to make money, you’re not an investor, you’re a philanthropist and those are two very different things. But both are applicable in solving this crisis. It’s going to be much more impactful if investors demand it, and entrepreneurs create businesses knowing they can get investment because their business will solve the societal challenge. The thinking is we’re only going to save the planet if it creates profits. Investors and entrepreneurs know that and they’ll come together. Of course there are people like Elon Musk helping this, but you’ve got to think from the ground up. My friend who started a company called East Bali Cashews which is sustainable in its manufacturing, for example they have reduced the supply chain which reduces emissions from aeroplanes. They burn the shells to generate the electricity as opposed to using coal. All these businesses are being created, investors are looking for them and it’ll make the biggest difference. Southeast Asia has huge challenges and one of the biggest challenges is that when you talk about the SDGs, they're often in conflict from an environmental perspective. So if one goal is no poverty, and another is cleaner air, if you are going to have cleaner air you are going to be reducing electrical use and coal-generated electricity, which harms people as they’ll lose their jobs and their income increasing poverty. You’re often in conflict with these goals - so the question is what role do businesses and governments have to address this conflict. It’s very difficult to come up with a simple answer. Hopefully investors will drive this, then if both investors and consumers want sustainable businesses the government will come third but catch up and that’s going to be the answer.

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