Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Future of ASEAN

Ambassadors to the Netherlands of Lao People's Democratic Republic, 
Indonesia and Thailand attended ICAD 2016 
On 3 September 2016, I was one of the speakers at the International Conference on ASEAN Development (ICAD) at Leiden University. Goal of the 2016 edition of ICAD was, as stated by its organizers PPI Belanda (Indonesian Student Association in The Netherlands), “to build a bridge between the EU and ASEAN and to learn from the EU in the fields of Law, Politics, Economics, Culture and Technology for a deeper integration and development of ASEAN”.

Although my speech focused on economic parallels between the EU and ASEAN, whereby economic integration in the fields of trade and investment and economic  disparity of its member states were highlighted, it struck me that my fellow speakers as well as the audience at the Conference were quite sceptical on the (future) achievements of ASEAN. They did not have much confidence in ASEAN gradually assuming a leading, both political and economic, role in the region and beyond. The Conference’s audience was made up of approximately 120 Indonesian students, pursuing Bachelor-, Master-, and PhD-degrees in The Netherlands and other EU countries, representing the around 1500 Indonesian higher education students in The Netherlands and over 5000 in Europe. 

Recent surveys held in Indonesia and neighbouring countries show that the “awareness” of ASEAN is increasing. In addition to large multinational companies, now also SMEs and individual entrepreneurs are seriously eyeing cross-border opportunities . However, apparently, there is still quite a large number of young people in the region that are hesitant when it comes to truely believing in the concept of ASEAN. The Indonesian students who attended ICAD 2016 pointed out the economic disparity between ASEAN member states and the unwillingness, or incapability, of showing leadership and decisiveness.

I am far most optimistic than some of these Indonesian students and strongly believe that ASEAN will in due course develop into a powerful union. But ASEAN will have to do it the Asian way, looking at the EU for some guidance, in particular from an institutional perspective. Jakarta could become a kind of Brussels, but nevertheless assume its own definition of a central role. Where the EU is struggling to keep its member states on board and is having a hard time enforcing agreements on them, politically as well as economically, ASEAN will work out its own way of dealing with geo-politcal and geo-economic issues. This may be regarded as being indecisive, but quick decisions and agreements without true support lack  credibility. The monetary crisis, the refugee crisis, the Brexit, are all examples how NOT to deal with political, economic and humanitarian issues.

As I said earlier, from an institutional perspective and as far as intra-union trade is concerned, the EU is a good example. ASEAN can definately learn from the EU how to better “organize” its institutions and how to boost intra-ASEAN  trade and investment. But as far as aligning individual member states on common (?) political and economic (monetary) challenges, ASEAN should create its own framework, whereby initial disparity between member states may not necessarliy be an obstacle. However, its geo-political and geo-economic balancing act is even more delicate than Europe’s. ASEAN is embarking on a cautious and careful course whereby a non-confrontational approach will prove to be far more effective than going head-to-head on matters of national interest or on geo-political sensitivities. 

Will this road be a mere “walk in the park”?  Definately not, ASEAN will stumble every now and then, face set-backs occasionally. It is a complex journey.  As in Europe, ultra-nationalism and populism are also on the rise in Southeast Asia. National governments will have to explain policies in a convincing way in order to avoid xenophobia coming along with migration. There is bilateral friction between member states. Philippine newspaper, The Inquier, as well as the Japan Times, this week expressed their concern on the political indecisiveness of ASEAN. Both articles referred to the ASEAN meeting in Vientiane, Laos, last week, where ASEAN failed to take a firm stance against China’s interference in the South China Sea. The articles questioned China’s commitment to ASEAN’s Code of Conduct in the South China Sea and the international ruling of the arbitral court of the UN Convention of the Law and the Sea (UNCLOS).  Concluding  the meeting in Vientiane, ASEAN failed to align all member states to issue a joint statement in which it would stand up to China in this maritime conflict.

And how to deal with “different leadership styles”, to put it euphemistically in the case of Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines, for example ? Are the rulers in these member states a threat to the cohesion within ASEAN ? They could be, although their unpredictable, radical way of governing their countries may have a greater effect on their relationship with the "international community" in the West, than on their dealings with neighbouring states in Asia.

These are all enormous challenges that ASEAN faces, I have to admit. But the outcome of the Laos meeting is no surprise to me as ASEAN will have to perform a balancing act between being friend or ally with China, and/or with the so-called “international community”. Earlier I mentioned the “Asian way”: addressing regional conflicts or interfering in eachother’s national affairs will not be done “bluntly”. A quick solution putting a superficial plaster on wounds, will not be the way ASEAN will resolve its problems. Complex problems will have to be tackled by means of bilateral talks between individual member states on various levels of government.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Winning the hearts & minds

In this second decade of the twenty-first century, China has become a superpower. In particular, in the last 10 years, the country has established itself firmly in the global political and economic arena. Was it Europe that dominated the world in the 19th Century and the U.S. in the 20th Century, this new era may well be China’s !

Geopolitically and geoeconomically, China is making its presence felt in the region and in the rest of the world. Numerous acquisitions in Europe and the U.S., economic expansion into Africa and, of course, trade and investment in its own “backyard”, Asia. 

The One Belt, One Road initiative, the “claiming” of territorities in the South China Sea, the establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), its prominent role in the recent Paris Climate Conference, are all signals that China is not only spreading its wings economically but also politically. China is letting the world know that the days that Western nations solely dominated the political and economic agenda are over. 

However, China faces a tough battle. Although large parts of the world do turn away from Western influence, whether in Africa or in Asia, this does not mean that China is automatically embraced as the replacing superpower. Just as the U.S. is struggling with “winning the hearts & minds” in large parts of the world, China is having to deal with this on maybe an even larger scale. Where the U.S. at least has loyal Europe unconditionally on its side, China is having a hard time lining up “allies” even within Asia. Whether historically-determined, or driven by more recent events, China’s gesture of goodwill is not seldom met with a lukewarm response. 

It takes more than just money and know-how to be accepted by the world as a leading superpower. In the years to come, China will have to work hard on “winning the hearts & minds” of other nations in Asia and in the rest of the world.

This article appeared earlier in e-magazine Business Trends Asia  

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Getting to Belitung Island

H.A.S. Hanandjoeddin Aiport

In2008, relatively unknown Pulau Belitung off the coast of Southeast Sumatra gained instant fame with the Indonesian box office hit “Laskar Pelangi. The movie pictures a group of young boys coming of age on the island. Millions of Indonesians embraced the movie and since then, domestic tourism, primarily comprising ethnic-Chinese from Jakarta, has surged dramatically.

The island attracted curious visitors once more when East-Belitung-born Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, better known as Ahok, rose from Deputy-Governor under current-President Joko Widodo to Governor of Jakarta in 2014. Several middle-class hotels and the occasional upmarket hotel have sprung up in the captital town of West-Belitung, Tanjung Pandan, from which pristine beaches along the Northwestern coast and numerous tiny islands off the Northwest tip of the island can easily be reached.

Belitung Island (residents pronounce it as Belitong), which, together with neighbouring Bangka Island, makes up Bangka-Belitung Province, was named after Dutch Mining Company, Billiton. While the island is less suitable for rice farming, it is rich on tin and agriculture consists of pepper, coffee and rubber, among other crops.

With approximately 275,000 inhabitants, the 5,000 island is sparsely populated (in comparison with the island of Bali which is slightly bigger but houses over 4 million people !). Belitung's population forms a harmonious mix of ethnic-Chinese, who, contrary to their fellow-countrymen in Java (mostly Christian), are primarily Bhuddist here, Muslims and even Hindus, who left the island of Bali and came to Belitung as a result of former-President Suharto’s“transmigrasi”- policy. Their dessa in the heart of the island is called“Balitung”. The dialect 
spoken on Belitung is Melayu (Malay).
Photo taken from lighthouse on Lengkuas Island

The island’s marvelous white-sand beaches and off-coast rocks and islets are not only stunning, but also quiet and peaceful as a result of tourism still being in its infancy. Flights tot the island are limited; several times daily from Jakarta (45 minutes), while NAM Air connects the island with Pankal Pinang on neighbouring Bangka. 

This article appeared earlier in e-magazine Business Trends Asia

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

India, a country of contradictions

My former teacher, Mr. Van den Broek, requested me whether I could write an article for his website on how I ended up in India. That is a very easy and short story. Once upon a time I came across this course called Trade Management aimed at Asia, which is a BBA course combined with Asian language and culture, at the Rotterdam Business School. That really appealed to me. Part of this course is going to Asia for one year for a student exchange and internship. So the real question here is not, how did I end up in India, as all of his students at one point go to Asia. The real question is: why did I stay?

Before coming to India, the question I heard most often was: why India? You, of course,  have the Indian growing economy, the rising middle-class, the neglecting of seeing the opportunities in India as most people doing business in Asia focus on China, the highly educated youth, the technological developments etc.. My decision was not based on facts like these, but on a gut feeling that I had to opt for India. Every day I am still happy I did not listen to the people telling me to go to China and listened to my gut feeling.

Now that I have decided to stay in India, the questions I hear more often are: do you have a boyfriend in Delhi (no) and did a Dutch company send you to Delhi (no). The idea that I am in Delhi because I choose to be in Delhi is difficult to comprehend for many Dutch as well as Indian people. I have fallen in love with this crazy, beautiful, hectic city and I can’t imagine another place where I want to live, at least not for the coming few years. 

My school did its best to try to prepare us for Asia. During two days of self-reflection in the middle of nowhere they taught us all about the curve you go through when you move abroad. You start with the honeymoon phase, where everything in the new country is amazing. The creators of this theory have obviously not been to India. India is right in your face. It is impossible to have a honeymoon phase in India. The first few days you see the beggars, the poverty, the crowds and you just think by yourself: how am I ever going to feel at home here. I was lucky that I had a relatively easy start in India, as I arrived in Mumbai. Mumbai is, compared to Delhi, a less aggressive city.  Especially when you are staying with a friend, who still lives at home. Her mom was very sweet and protective, resulting in me rarely stepping outside alone. So my real introduction of having to deal with India came after two weeks, when I travelled alone through Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu for three weeks. 

My first introduction to travelling alone was a mixed one. When I think back about my first solo trip, I usually at first only think about the positive things. The Dutch heritage at Kochi, boating in the backwaters of Kerala, trying to swim in the ferocious waves in Gokarna, biking around in the breathtaking landscape of Hampi, doing absolutely nothing in Bangalore, exploring the mix between India and France in Pondicherry, merging with pilgrims in Rameshwaram, enjoying the nature in Kodaikanal and seeing three oceans merge in Kanyakumari. When I dig deeper into my memory I remember the negative things. The sometimes innocent, sometimes not so innocent eve-teasing, difficulties with finding the right tickets and accommodation, vicious food poisoning while being in a sleepers bus, people trying to scam you and being an attraction for Indian tourists. While complaining about the negative sides of travelling to friends they all told me the same: wait till you get to Delhi. South India is nothing compared to Delhi.

Luckily, they were wrong. I arrived in Delhi on the 1st of July in 2014. I came to Delhi with the intention of only studying there and trying to find an internship in Mumbai. Within one month I changed my mind and decided that I wanted to do my internship in Delhi as well. Within a few months, I decided that being in India for one year was too short and I would try to write my thesis there as well. 

 After arrival in Delhi, I had a few weeks till my school started. One of my teachers in the Netherlands had put me in touch with a friend of hers in Delhi and he asked whether I could help out at his company for a few days. His company, Siddhartha Das Studio, is a design studio aimed at the cultural field. They work on projects like museums, art installations, heritage spaces. I went to helping out for a few days, to working part-time during my student exchange, to doing my internship there, to writing my thesis for his company, to working there fulltime. 

 I am balancing in between of two worlds. I will never fit in within the Indian culture, but I also don't feel comfortable with some aspects of the Dutch culture anymore. I truly understood how much India had affected me when I went back to the Netherlands for three weeks after having been away for almost a year. I felt like a stranger in my own country. The Netherlands seemed like such a cold, empty and colorless place. I was missing the hectic, colors and smells of Delhi. I often tell Indians who don't understand why I choose to live in Delhi: "this city has more residents than my country, which means that there is always so much to do, to see, to explore."

 During my two years in India, I have experienced so much. It has been a very intense time. I studied, I travelled a lot, I worked. It feels that the longer I am in India and the more I see of it, the farther away I get from understanding this society and the more peace I have with that fact. I am convinced that every closed question about India can be answered with both a yes and a no, depending on where and with who you are. India is a country of contradictions. From the world's most expensive residential home to the largest slum, from Hindu to Muslim, from traditional tribes to trendy yuppies, from tinder to arranged marriage, from history in every little part in South Delhi to Gurgaon with its skyscrapers. India is a mystery I will be never able to understand, but of which I am very eager to learn more. 

About the author: Anouk van de Kar is a BBA graduate from Trade Management Asia, Rotterdam Business School

This article appeared earlier in e-magazine Business Trends Asia 

Monday, May 9, 2016

Women of Myanmar initiative

Women of Myanmar (WoM) is an initiative founded by an energetic multicultural group of experts, on the job wherever people and organizations are in need of creativity, innovation and change. Working on the edge of intellect and intuition, WoM takes on serious challenges and answers with results.

WoM's founders are experienced professionals with different backgrounds; garment industry, business development, international cooperation, education and human development field. A perfect combination to offer great new programs on business/human development, creative leadership and empowerment.

WoM's concept and way of working has a proven track record not only in developing countries like Myanmar but also the countries within the European Union.

WoM strongly believes that women have a major role in an emerging market. Education/vocational training is an important ingredient for development. Entrepreneurship and intrapreneurship* are ways to enable Myanmar women to profit from the upcoming success of a developing country.

In the power of the collective, WoM wants to work conform the principle "pass it on". "Knowlegde is only interesting if you are able to share it". Part of WoM's offer is based on this principle. It develops a program in which it trains a group of potential leaders that will pass on the learned knowlegde to 10 people within the organization. By pushing people to look outside their comfort zone, WoM changes followers into leaders.

WoM develops applied training programs. In order to learn new skills, perspectives and behavior, WoM believes it is necessary to work with the actual, relevant and emerging business and personal situation. It links theory and skills to the actual practice in order to to realize immediate change. The training sessions are highly practical and result-oriented, every new concept introduced will be explored through practical exercise.

See clip on the WoM program

* Intrapreneurship is the concept that focuses on employees of a company that have many of the attributes of an entrpreneurs and are taking risks in a effort to solve a given problem

This aricle appeared earlier in e-magazine Business Trends Asia 

Friday, February 5, 2016

Catching up with Timothy Kong

It was the second time I met with Timothy Kong. This time in Amsterdam where we shared ideas about The Netherlands, Malaysia and Southeast Asia. Timothy Kong was born in Amsterdam, 29 years ago, and completed his education at Hogeschool Inholland. During his student years, he founded 
Stage in AziĆ«, which is Dutch for "internship in Asia", focussing on internships in Malaysia for Dutch students. In Malaysia, his company is known under the name Kong International 

When asked what he loves about Asia, he passionately describes the variety of fantastic food and the dynamics of cities such as Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok. "Walking through a skyscraper city makes you feel alive", he adds. Kong also emphasizes the entrepreneurial spirit in Asian cities, where "companies are being built every hour".

"What brought you to Malaysia ?", I wanted to know. Timothy explains that his brother was studying in Singapore and while visiting him he spent a couple days on the Malaysian island of Tioman. Later, in 2011, he did an internship himself at a tour operator in Malaysia. It was then that he saw the tremendous potential that Malaysia has for students. "Everyone speaks English. And who doesn't want to stay in an affordable apartment with a swimming-pool, a gym and security ?"

Kong proudly states that Stage in Aziƫ/Kong International carefully selects the best companies in Malaysia for its interns. What are Kong's plans for the (near) fututre ? "As a company, we are still growing, expanding our service portfolio into new industries, such as Game Design, Web Development, IT and Finance".

"Good luck with your business and see you again soon, Timothy !"

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

One of Japan's best-kept secrets

"This beach......only three hours from Tokyo"
When we were planning our 2-week family holiday to Japan, we definately wanted to include some quiet nature retreat days, preferably with beaches, to counterbalance the metropolitan dynamics of Tokyo and the cultural splendour of temple city, Kyoto.

When you look for tropical beaches in Japan, you will most likely be led to the tropical Okinawa islands, two and a half hours by plane from the country's capital, Tokyo. There you will find Japan’s picture-book beaches, so it says.

We decided to look a bit closer to Tokyo and our eye fell on the peninsula of Izu, about 2-3 hours (depending on how far south you want to go on the peninsula) by train southwest of Tokyo. We did not expect to find white-sand beaches, but all we hoped for were quiet coastal towns with some sea views and an occasional seaside promenade. Some fresh air and a sub-tropical mild sea breeze to soften the summer heat would be just fine after having been in steamy crowded cities for over a week. 

When in Kyoto, I had picked up a free magazine from a tourist office, 
"Time Out Tokyo". In the July-September issue, it featured an article, named ”This beach….is only three hours from Tokyo”, which included a beautiful photo of a long stretch of pristine beach along a crystal-clear, green-blue ocean ! The article stated that the area surrounding Shimoda on the southeastern tip of the Izu Peninsula boasts several stunning beaches. 

The Izu Peninsula offers a comfortable train ride along its East Coast, taking around 45 minutes from the Northern part of the peninsula to the town of Shimoda in the far south. Northern towns, such as Usami and Ito, do have pretty nice (black sand) beaches too, but the most exotic ones you will find further South, so it was promised. 

From the train station in Shimoda, we hopped on a bus to Shiharama Beach, which took us through Shimoda’s picturesque historic harbour and steep hills with spectacular ocean views. After a 10-minute drive we descended upon the magnificent Shiharama Bay, where blue waves gently rolled in on a white-sand beach. The beach as well as the North Pacific Ocean were as pristine as elsewhere in the world’s tropical paradises ! 

Although Shiharama Beach was pretty busy with cheerful Japanese families and young surf dudes, it was not extremely crowded. Nor was it packed with tourists, foreign nor domestic, in other places on the peninsula. The towns of Ito and Izu-Kogen, for example, were quiet, almost deserted, with only elderly residents going about their daily routines. The seaside of Ito town, although peaceful, seemed a bit old and rundown as if its glory days were long gone, which gave it a certain kind of pleasant melancholic feel. 

Maybe, Izu Pensinsula does not have what it takes (anymore) to draw in the big trendy crowds from Tokyo and abroad, but its natural beauty and tranquility are definately making Izu a place worth visiting !

This article appeared earlier in e-magazine Business Trends Asia