“Gotong Royong” Bank?

To the uninitiated, the term “gotong-royong” means cooperation in Bahasa Malaysia. It is a concept where the community may come together to assist its community members without expectation of returns. In Malaysia, this is a community event to achieve a certain purpose for example a village wedding.

But how about having a “gotong-royong” Bank? Ms Rozana Gulzar, who contributed an earlier article on this site, made this interesting proposition that while the current Islamic Finance system set-up based on the conventional banking model is working sufficiently, a different model of banking may provide a closer structure espoused under the Maqasid of Shariah (Objectives of Shariah). A more inclusive and less profit driven model? It may provide a refreshing alternative to the existing financial system. Maybe not as a full 100% replacement of the existing models (where it caters for a large scope of requirements) but to complement and complete the Islamic Banking financial infrastructure.

Read about what she wrote below, as well as her earlier writings on this site.


DOWNLOAD : Cooperative Banking as the Solution for Islamic Banking Woes (pdf)

Excerpt from Rosana’s being cooperative:

While there are some differences in the models of cooperative banks in various regions of the world, a basic common feature is that they are owned by members, who in turn tend to be their depositors and borrowers. That’s mutuality built right into the system. This form of ownership then sets the tone for a business model that is more Islamic than ‘Islamic’ commercial banks. For example, because cooperative banks are owned by members who may be their borrowers, profit maximisation is not the main objective. Their raison d’être is in fact to charge reasonable enough rates so that those who cannot get financing from blood-sucking commercial banks can do so through the cooperative banks. And yes, they are not Islamic in form but I think they are more Islamic in spirit.

Bankers of cooperative banks are also known to have close relationships with their customers. A Turkish German once told me that his neighbourhood banker would come regularly for tea. When he notices a child in the household is old enough for a bank account of his own, the banker will ask the parents if he should indeed open one for him. Germany by the way is home to the largest network of cooperative and savings banks in the world. This close relationship has important implications. One it answers a call by some quarters for a move towards relationship-based banking as opposed to the transactions-based frenzy that characterises commercial banking and has been blamed for the crises. Secondly, it addresses a key issue that has been plaguing Islamic finance since its modern birth: How to implement profit and loss sharing (PLS) contracts such as musharakah and mudarabah which are at the heart of an ideal Islamic financial system when early attempts failed due to moral hazard and adverse selection issues.


Additionally, she makes a call to academia to rise to the occasion of re-looking the existing model and having more research to support the building of the new model. She throws the challenge that the road is still long and hard and only the ones who are able to persevere will make a difference.


DOWNLOAD : Islamic Finance Academia – We Can Do Better (pdf)

Excerpt from Rosana’s war cry to Academia:

Firstly, we need to address the controversies. Islamic finance is suffering from a dichotomy between theory and practice. What is taught in schools is a world away from what is being practiced. While ‘Islamic’ bankers keep an almost sole focus on producing the best ROE for shareholders, at the obvious expense of social welfare, Islamic finance professors go on and on about the ideals that shape this form of finance, oblivious to the divergence in practice. It is thus not surprising that the ‘solutions’ they come up with have no semblance to reality. I keep thinking, ‘We are not yet in jannah so how will this work in the real world?’

To come up with better solutions, I think we need to first face facts. Don’t gloss over them. I would prefer an honest (and mature) discussion of how we have gone wrong in Islamic finance and how to address them. This obviously needs rigor in thought and analysis. And critical thinking. Just because someone is from the IMF or World Bank does not mean he knows what he is saying or his intentions are purer than pure. We still need to evaluate the rigor of his arguments. On the other end, those who do not understand Islamic finance need to keep silent. The problem in Islamic finance is that we have many talking heads who really sound like empty vessels. And you know what they say about empty vessels right? (They make the most noise).


I like to make the same challenge to my staff as well; 90% of the practices we see today are derived from decisions, opinion and fatwa made in mid 1990s and has been taken as Urf (custom) and not challenged anymore… but we should re-look at some of them (especially with standing controversies) and see if current regulations and Shariah Advisory Council resolutions and product thinking and market development can offer a better solution. Doesn’t Islamic Banking allow for intelligent discussion to always evolve into something better? Just because it has now become Urf, it does not mean there is no better solution and be happy with the status quo. There’s always room for improvements to this 30 year old industry.

The purpose of this website is to encourage constructive discussions and perhaps find a better solution to the existing ones. Let’s have your views on these topics. Have a read of Rosana’s writing and I know she appreciates honest feedback on her work. Do spend that time reading, and your comments may perhaps resonate in someone’s mind and change the world.

To go to Rosana’s page, click here.

Popular Islamic Finance Terms

While Islamic Banking in general has been codified since early 1980’s in Malaysia, the familiarity to Islamic Banking or Finance terms remain a challenge. Terms like Mudarabah or Musyarakah or Wakalah remains difficult to remember but also it’s meaning have been lost to many, although there has been many attempts to communicate the various glossaries already available.

This makes the layman to go back to something more familiar, in most cases it is conventional banking, simply because of the ingrained understanding of conventional banking terms and terminologies. Some become “allergic” to Islamic terms simply because of the fear of failing to explain and understand the “arabic” terms. It does seem a daunting task to remember the terms, and understand what they mean.

So, I picked up a simple slide from a friend from IBFIM ie Haji Razli Ramli (his introduction available here in this website – click here) and made it into  a simple slide.

Get familiar with the terms for Islamic Finance, the easy way. Click on this 1-minute video. Share this video with friends. Know the meaning of those Arabic word. It’s quick and simple. In both English and Bahasa Malaysia. Comments are also appreciated.

Also, you can download the file into your desktop or mobile at the following links:

Share out to your friends. Thank you.

 

Is Islamic Finance Suffering from the Wrong Model of Implementation?

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One of the things that attract me to maintain this website on Islamic Banking is the opportunity to interact and share ideas with the various practitioners and academicians in the industry. There are many discussion topics and we intend to bring such discussions to the open table as constructive as possible. Interaction with Ms Rosana is always interesting as she dare explore the Islamic Banking model itself, making comparison to other similar models in the market across geographies. And I do share some of her views on the industry, and I have written about it to some extend in my earlier postings. What is interesting about Ms Rosana is that she is taking the discussion a necessary step further in evaluating the existing Banking model, as to whether it is the right model to begin with. She has written a short discourse on this topic and looking to explore in-depth its implication in the near future.

She welcomes constructive feedback, comment and discussion points for this posting and hopes to decide on the next step forward gauging from your kind response. Do read and give us your opinion and comments. Thank you.

Is Islamic Finance Suffering from the Wrong Model of Implementation?

By Rosana Gulzar Mohd

In this blog’s latest post ‘Disruption: Islamic contracts’, there holds an imminent danger. The Islamic banks in Malaysia are not so much inching towards becoming just like the interest-based conventional banks they were supposed to replace but in fact, running towards them. Even as the industry celebrates its trillion size assets and formerly astronomical growth, there lies a darker truth. In a recent class I taught on the dichotomy between Islamic banking theory and practice, a participant, a new ‘Islamic’ banker, came up to me and wanted to discuss commodity murabaha. She said her team had just tabled the product for the bank’s approval but she did not feel comfortable. The head of the Shariah committee also seemed disappointed. His comment, according to her, was that we no longer need Shariah advisers. The industry only needs commodity murabaha experts now.

Post-IFSA 2013 which fines and jails CEOs and everyone above and below for any wrongdoing and a flurry of policy documents telling banks how to implement Shariah contracts, ‘Islamic’ banks in Malaysia are seeking refuge in tawarruq. Musharakah and mudarabah? All that is left of profit and loss sharing contracts, which some scholars say are at the heart of the ideal Islamic financial system, is the policy documents by Bank Negara Malaysia (BNM). I would be pleasantly surprised if anyone can show me a bank which is genuinely implementing them. The supposed mudarabah-based products brought on by IFSA, namely the investment accounts and the IA platform, are currently being mutilated to look almost like any guaranteed and fixed return deposit. The IAP, I believe, are unlikely to be successful for laughable reasons.

When commercial banking, with its inherent tendencies for excesses, profit maximisation and desensitisation to social welfare, is the problem, how does crowdfunding through commercial banks become the solution? Won’t the banks still look for credit-worthy companies with an almost guaranteed future to fund? Who then takes care of the small and medium-sized entrepreneurs who are also seeking financing? Are not the SMEs the backbones of the economy? Not to mention, where is the upholding of Islamic values such as justice, equitability and social well-being? Granted there are other organisations in Malaysia meant to help the lower incomes and SMEs but why do ‘Islamic’ banks call themselves ‘Islamic’ if they are far from embodying the ideal values in Shariah? Unfortunately, this sad state of affairs extends to other parts of Islamic finance such as takaful (apparently ‘Islamic’ insurance), sukuk, the other beauty pageant contestant in this parade, and other capital market products such as interest rate, oh wait, ‘profit’ rate swaps.

How did BNM envision the success of IFSA with no changes to the current environment? We are still in a dual system where ‘Islamic’ banks are pitted head-to-head against interest-based conventional banks. ‘Islamic’ assets are still only a quarter of the entire system despite the country allowing all sorts of controversial contracts such as bai al dayn, bai al inah and the one that takes the cake, tawarruq. Where are the educational campaigns to explain to customers this shift in the industry that the central bank expects to happen?

When customers, including ‘Muslims’, have been accustomed to deposit guarantees and fixed returns their whole lives, how do banks suddenly sell them an ‘investment account’ that promises neither? Is it any surprise that conventional bankers are using this as a selling point? They are telling customers to avoid ‘Islamic’ products because there are no guarantees. Theirs still do. When the chiefs of ‘Islamic’ banks themselves seem cloudy in their understanding of the new regulations, how did BNM envision people on the street, who are banking with its ‘Islamic’ banks, to embrace the changes? A deputy director unfortunately got defensive when I asked. Other central bankers claimed ignorance because they “are not from that department”.

While BNM seems keen to reform the industry, perhaps the answer it has been looking for is that the Islamic finance industry, and within it, Islamic banking, has been built the wrong way. Trying to make it work in the commercial banking space is what has led to the frequent comment that it is like squeezing a square peg into a round hole. Commercial banking, with its profit maximisation mantra and desensitisation to social welfare, is antithetical to the Shariah ideals of justice, equitability and social well-being as embodied in the maqasid. And isn’t it the one that has been leading the world from one crisis to another? Why then are we so busy emulating them? Isn’t it time the powers that be wake up and face facts?

So why did all the big organisations in Islamic finance, from the global standard-setters such as AAOIFI and IFSB to each country’s central banks and each ‘Islamic’ banks’ Shariah committees condone these practices? Perhaps because they were the easiest thing to do and allows for a fast build if the intention is to grab fame and fortune through one’s achievements in Islamic finance. The countless Islamic finance awards and conferences and the effusive back slapping there are testaments to this. Bankers are such happy people.

So what is the solution? I believe it is cooperative banking. The true, genuine type practiced in Europe and not the ones in Muslim countries because they are largely used to fund political cronies and thus suffer from questionable management and corruption. My next article will thus explain cooperative banking, how the model works and why they are a better fit for Islamic finance than the current commercial banking model. In the meantime, I look forward to your thoughts. Students of Islamic finance intuitively get it when I explain these arguments while some practitioners acquiesce (quietly agree). Another group reminds me of this statement in a book by Upton Sinclair, who ironically was also an investigative journalist (uncovers scandals and corruption) as I was in my former life and whose solution to the 1930s Depression in California is to create cooperative ventures for the unemployed. The idea, to his surprise, received wide support but his bid to run as governor was waylaid, according to him, by the oppositions’ “dirty tricks”. He wrote this statement in his book about the political adventure, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” The reaction of the other group of bankers brings to mind this quote.

What do you think about her assessment and commentary on the Islamic Banking model? Do give us your feedback in the comment box. Thank you.

Check out her other contributions in the following page : Writings Rozana Gulzar Mohd 

Disruption : Islamic Contracts

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Under IFSA 2013, it is no longer about Product Innovation. It is about Product Compliance.

2 weeks ago I had a session with some bright individuals discussing the Islamic contracts commonly used in Corporate Banking financing structures. We went through almost all the available Islamic financing contracts such as Murabaha, Ijara, Musyaraka and Mudharaba, where I highlighted that all these contracts now have their own Policy Document issued by Bank Negara Malaysia (BNM). The Policy Documents, in my opinion, are a concise version of a lot of Sharia regulations and great reading source. It becomes a reference point where management roles and responsibilities are outlined, operational behaviour laid down, and theoretical basis is justified and explained.

It is a matter of time, I told the participants, that these Policy Documents are taken in their full context and finally developed into a comprehensive structure with clear compliance to Sharia requirements. We, as Islamic Bankers, are in for an exciting period of development where we will have a chance to develop “real” Islamic banking contracts.

The moment I said that, I realised it is NOT TRUE!!!

THE IMPACT OF IFSA 2013

The popular belief is that IFSA 2013 is meant to realign all the Islamic Banking regulations in the Islamic Banking Act, Takaful Act and various major guidelines into a single overarching Act. IFSA 2013  consolidates the various practices into more clarity and re-classification of concepts. However, the perception that Islamic Banking in Malaysia as an innovative development hub would no longer hold true. “Innovation” was the key thinking and pride-point prior to IFSA 2013; now I believe the right word is “Compliance”.

163170_477596024332_7522334_nWhen we first started the Islamic Banking journey in late 1990’s and early 2000s, BNM encouraged a lot of product innovation from Banks as there were no existing guidelines. We looked at the various structures that provides the desired outcomes and discussed with Shariah Committee on the design and component of products without breaching Sharia rules. BNM was supportive on us developing these “innovative” products. Some may have been controversial (such as Bai Inah, Bay Ad Dayn, Wadiah and Bai Bithaman Ajil) but it encourages discussions alongside the mantra that “whatever is not explicitly prohibited, is permissible“. Sometimes we were forced to think outside of the box, especially for sophisticated products mirroring conventional. We also received support from Sharia Committees whom temporarily approved “innovative” products with the understanding that over time, a better solution were developed as replacements.

Now with the issuance of the Policy Documents, such innovation becomes limited. Innovation is now ring-fenced around compliance to Shariah rules (either from regulators or internal Shariah Committee), and the Banks are expected to follow these rules to the letter. Breaches to these rules becomes the responsibility of the Bank’s Shariah Committee and detailed deliberation is greatly expected to provide the solution. Compliance first; if it is not covered in the documents, it probably cannot be done without a lot of effort.

CHOOSING THE SIMPLEST ALTERNATIVE

With compliance now being the vogue vocabulary with BNM, Banks had to look hard to the Policy Documents to ensure the requirements are identified and gaps filled for fear of breaches or fines. The gap analysis falls into the line whether “are we complying to the requirements?” and not “how do we do this without it becoming a gap or compliance issue?”. Both Shariah and Bank’s Product teams would now look on how to comply with Policy Documents instead of using the Policy Documents as a reference to develop a product.

What I noticed since 2014 is the obsession to comply with Islamic contract requirements, and if the team feels it is difficult to comply, the next logical step is to avoid such contract altogether and seek an alternative contract which is easier to comply with. For example, the Murabaha Policy Document issued in 2014. I have to say it is a beautiful document, and outlines the requirements for Murabaha Purchase Orderer (MPO) that reflects the full Sharia requirements of ownership transfers, risk taking, profit and management of actual assets.

These requirements, which in the eyes of many Banks, may be difficult to fully comply with due to many reasons: shortage of expertise, systems infrastructures limitation, people understanding, complicated processes, operational risks, credit issues and fund management requirements. Instead of the risk of breaching the Policy Documents, Banks opt for something less “complicated” which offers “similar” structure. The default solution is Tawarruq Arrangement i.e. Commodity Murabaha.

Or, the teams looks at Ijara Policy Document. It outlines further the roles and responsibilities of lessor and lessee, while the asset remained in the Bank’s ownership throughout the lease tenure. Again, if a roadblock occurs where a Bank cannot fully comply… Tawarruq Arrangement provides a quick solution. With very defined rules outlined in Tawarruq Policy Documents, the Banks are confident that offering Tawarruq will not breach any guidelines.

Tawarruq, therefore becomes the default Islamic contract in the market. When I asked the participants during case-studies to the question “What contracts should be used for this structure?”, the answers are unanimous “Tawarruq”. And they are not wrong.

DISRUPTION IN ISLAMIC CONTRACTS

155228_469014969332_6259944_nMaking Tawarruq as the “all-problems-solved” structure is having an unfortunate result to the industry. While the issuance of the Policy Documents as a reference was to galvanise the development of various Islamic contracts, the Banks have an easy way out in Tawarruq. Now, the rest of the contracts are in danger of being sidelined in favour of continuous development in Tawarruq.

For example, the Home Financing product which had evolved from BBA in the 1980s to Diminishing Musharaka in the 2000s. When BBA was introduced, practitioners and Sharia teams identified several practical issues that over a period of time needed to be resolved such as ownership transfer, rights to sell, and sale of properties under construction. These issues led to the development of Diminishing Musharaka as an alternative solution.

But with Diminishing Musharaka, there are still operational and legal issues that have yet to be resolved until today. For example, the “right” contract to be used for period of construction, the application of Ijara and the extensive outlining of Wakalah roles and responsibilities. Failure to understand the issues and provide real solutions puts the Bank at risk. There are also legal infrastructures that have yet to be addressed such as land joint-ownership by the Bank (as a partner), and different practices of land offices for the registration of Bank as a partner. These are roadblocks (and credit risks) to the Banks to take the structure further.

THE DOUBLE-EDGE SWORD OF TAWARRUQ

25547_378676189332_2665364_nMalaysia is in danger where I foresee that one day the industry itself will became the absolute global expert in Tawarruq and Commodity Murabaha. With Bursa Suq Al Sila as the leading commodity trading platform for the country, backed by the government (as a national bourse), the Tawarruq structure is expected to evolve into an efficient Islamic-structure engine. The processes of Commodity Murabaha will become seamless, and may even integrate into a Bank’s core banking system, the operation for buying and selling commodity will become commonplace and familiar, and this will result in effective processing, awareness of Shariah risks, compliance to trading requirements and well as reduction in overall operational risks.

Banks will one day become so well versed in Tawarruq, they will question the need for other types of Islamic contract, where they may not able to fully comply with.

With such development, more and more:

  1. capital investments will be made into perfecting the Tawarruq infrastructure, and Banks will also be able to comply with BNM requirements by investing in human capital familiar with Tawarruq.
  2. product structures will be developed around Tawarruq and once these products are established, it will be difficult to unwind as a prefered product simply due to the ease of the Tawarruq contract requirements.
  3. variations and hybrid products will be introduced based on Tawarruq, or containing elements of Tawarruq to solve “difficult scenarios” for compliance.

We will one day have an innovative and world class Tawarruq product, but no development in the other major Islamic contracts. Innovation will stall and Banks will choose quick returns and operational ease of Tawarruq. It is a dilemma of the industry where it is heading to “one” major solution for almost all “sale-based products”.

It is unfortunate if Banks chose to abandon the other contract alternatives, where such contracts will never reach its full operational and theoretical potential.

Hoping that a Bank will take the lead to develop products based on all the various Policy Documents instead of relying on only Tawarruq and its variations. The industry needs expansion and enhancement and by focusing on only Tawarruq, the industry will not be able to explore exciting products and expand its horizon. The Policy Documents, as beautifully written as they are, may tragically one day just becomes an academic relic issued by BNM.

Wallahualam.

Earlier writings on Tawarruq and Commodity Murabahah:

  1. Reliance on Commodity Murabahah
  2. Financing : Commodity Murabahah and Tawarruq

Interesting article in LinkedIn

EBOOK : Alternative Financial System Islamic (Halal) Finance – IBFIM

One of the ongoing efforts that some of us have is to figure out how we provide greater access of Islamic Banking to the mass market. This includes not just to Muslim readers, either here in Malaysia or other global countries, but also to access non-Muslims readers as well. And to do that in their mother tongue will be the ideal method as it will provide familiarity and ease in understanding on what is being communicated.

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Click picture to Download PDF

Realising this, the Islamic Banking and Finance Institute of Malaysia (IBFIM) has just launched a book in Mandarin Chinese titled “Alternative Financial System Islamic (Halal) Finance” with the hope of providing greater understanding on the concepts, rationales and practices of Islamic Banking and Finance. This is in line with IBFIM’s mandate from Bank Negara Malaysia to produce a pool of talent whom will be competent in Islamic Banking issues and practices. Also, IBFIM currently offer courses for various technical levels for the purpose of raising knowledge and awareness toward Islamic Banking in the industry. Over a period of time, IBFIM has become one of the knowledge leaders  and recognised internationally as a place where practical advisory can be obtained.

I have spoken to the folks at IBFIM about posting this book on this site and I am grateful they have consented, for the benefits of readers. Unfortunately I am not able to comment on the book (as I am not a Chinese reader) but I sincerely hope the book helps to provide some insight towards the mysteries of Islamic Banking.

To get a Hardcopy of this book, do get in touch with IBFIM directly at their website www.ibfim.com or look out for their various events nationwide.

To download the PDF copy, please click on this link: (Click Here)

ALTERNATIVE FINANCIAL SYSTEM ISLAMIC (HALAL) FINANCE

Thank you IBFIM for this great effort.