People say that doing business in Asia or Africa – anywhere outside the Western world – is precarious. That ideas are often stolen, contracts always broken and relationships drift away, lost in translation.
Yet we all know Asia is the emerging global market force and cannot be ignored, and that any business aspiring for global presence and success must do business in Asia. So are the rumours true? Is it difficult or nigh impossible to conduct business well in Asia? And if so, how can one circumnavigate these treacherous waters and, not only survive, but make a little money and prosper as well?
Having conducted business all over the world, my synopsis would be that business is always about the people. Products and companies are secondary considerations. People behave in accordance with their local morals – values that have been programmed into them through family, culture and environmental values.
Furthermore, if you were raised in an environment in which communist values were preached, a spirit of self-preservation and survival tends to materialise. This is not to say that capitalism promotes an ideal society, as greed and self-entitlement are not known to be life-fulfilling values either.
Can the environment be blamed for all that is evil and maligned? Or should people assume a modicum of responsibility for their actions and realise that decisions have consequences, and that character is built from making the right choices, at least most of the time.
People in Asia are wonderfully clever, disciplined, hard-working and filled with what was once one of the old world’s core values, the ‘Protestant work ethic’. Living in an environment in which individualism had been repressed and suppressed for the alleged benefit of the ‘common good’ – whatever that is – is abhorrent to the human spirit. It is alike to putting a cork on a bottle of premium champagne without ever having the intention of opening it, releasing that pent up effervescence. Yet releasing it without dexterity, experience and purpose could also lead to a pseudo-freedom, a liberty that could entice doom.
People in Asia value wealth and success as a form of societal status. Failure, especially in countries like Japan, is seen as a source of embarrassment and shame. In China, the growing middle classes have embraced the materialism of the West much like a dry sponge thrown into a bath. However, having realised that whilst helpful, money does not always lead to automatic bliss, the Chinese are now looking beyond immediate rewards. They’ve started investing in longer term activities and relationships that are evolving towards strategy, as opposed to being transactional in nature.
In Asia, you also have a wide spectrum of religions with different approaches to the link between faith and money. And while everyone with a belief purports to embrace life-giving values, when it comes to money, temporary blindness and loss of memory can become frequent symptoms of a corrupt society.
Then there is language and the use of words or images, a variety of characters and symbols that can mean different things to everyone. Also, silence and nodding does not always mean acceptance or agreement.
So successful businesses in Asia must take into account people’s characters, historical nuances that have helped shaped their identity, and the values that determine the consequences of actions. Oscar Wilde also said that “Saints have a past whilst bad people have a future”. It is in that spirit that sound relationships can be built. Imperfection, when apparent, can be a cornerstone on which to build long-lasting and fruitful partnerships. But it is those things done in the shade that always challenge trust, and lead to destruction.
I have found while doing business in Asia, that it’s very often dictated by how I personally behave. Behaviour breeds behaviour and that, as such, if my tendencies were true, others tended to mirror them. In turn, if my approach was less than genuine, if I inspired mistrust and fear, the approach of others would also often be defensive and even malicious. Inside all of us there is a strong desire to form successful partnerships and to not be taken advantage of – not to fail. This is true for all relationships, both personal and business. We are all meant to be in communities, to coexist with our fellow man and woman and engage in mutually satisfying endeavours. The old adage that ‘no man is an island’ is true as long as the choice of relationships is birthed in wisdom and choice, rather than greed and despair.
My personal experiences have been very rewarding across the whole Asian continent. That does not mean that there have not been challenges. What it does mean is that we have been extremely privileged to have chosen or been selected by people and organisations of extraordinary quality: leaders who embrace the value of ethics in commerce.
To sum up, successful business in Asia, or anywhere else for that matter, is about making judicious choices in selecting people and organisations with which to partner. It is also about behaving in a way that promotes life-giving values such as trust and transparency so they, in turn, can be mirrored. Finally, it is also about accepting that all partnerships go through challenging times, moments driven by internal and external forces that create tension and division in the ranks. During those trials, it is critical to retain a moral compass, recognise and embrace the value of True North, and never let the end justify the means.
In business, as in life, there is a paradigm that we often reap what we sow. The only unknown is the time when the result of our choices will have manifested consequences.
“I hope you have not been leading a double life, pretending to be wicked and being good all the time. That would be hypocrisy.”
– Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest
Written by Eversys Chief Commercial Officer Kamal Bengougam