About Bravery, Modi and a Singaporean Attitude

May 29, 2014 | English, Singapore, TheColumnist

The Columnist talks to Richard Koh, a principal consultant at Consulus about his experiences in the region.

1. Tell us more about yourself

I graduated from the University of Aberdeen (Scotland, UK) with a Degree in Mechanical Engineering. Over a career spanning more than 30 years, I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to work for public and private sector organisations. Starting out as a contracted officer in the Army, I was given the opportunity to perform at both ends of the spectrum, i.e. operational management and policy-making. These experiences laid the foundations for my corporate career. After I left the services, I had 3 job offers – 2 as research engineers and 1 in sales & marketing. I chose the sales & marketing one, even though it was the lowest paying one, as I couldn’t see myself stuck in front of the computer for 8 hours-a-day.

As someone who needs to be always on-the-move, I felt that a career in sales & marketing was most suited to my personality and I’ve not regretted that decision. However, not wanting to lose touch with my engineering roots, I combined both desires and embarked on a career marketing various types of industrial products. Building my career along that path, it subsequently led me into the echelons of management. I held management positions across various industries and sectors. I worked for a government-linked company, a US Fortune 500 company and also local SMEs. I also had the opportunity to be based in India for a year, managing a joint venture and was ultimately headhunted to head the ASEAN Office of an Indian Group. In between, I also had a stint in a prominent business association, which gave me the opportunity to work on a number of initiatives involving government departments and agencies. Also started my own company and convinced a public-listed company into becoming a shareholder.

As you may have observed, I like taking on challenges. I believe that in order to learn the lessons of life, one must be brave enough to take on the challenges that come with it.

I’ve no regrets as I’ve learnt much over the span of my working life.

While some may feel that I’ve not acquired any special skills, I believe that whatever I’ve embarked on gives me a wider perspective of management. These experiences have enabled me to handle scenarios, sometimes complex and critical, calmly and strategically. Armed with these skills and experiences, I believe I’m in a position to help companies scale the next level.

2. You served in Singapore Business Federation(SBF) for a while, care to share what were the highlights?

Yes, the time spent in SBF ranks amongst some of the best of my career. I recalled the day I received a call from a very good friend and ex-colleague from my Sembawang days. He remembered that I had spent some time in India managing a Sembawang joint venture company and wanted to check if I was interested in a position at SBF focusing on the South Asian sub-continent. While I was apprehensive of what I could contribute, I was also up for the challenge. I knew I had very little time to learn the ropes, especially with India being the “in Country” at that time. Whilst my knowledge of India, at that time,  had been limited to ground experience working with Indian companies, it also served me well when it was time for me to speak about investment opportunities in India to Singapore companies.

The SBF days also taught me new skills. As the apex chamber in Singapore, SBF’s Board Members were frequently invited to speak at international events. Until then, the only time I had to write a speech was for my wedding. At SBF, it became a routine chore – writing speeches for VIPs whom we invited to represent SBF. I was especially elated on one occasion when staff from International Enterprise Singapore (IE Singapore) praised a speech I had written for a senior SBF Board Member, without realizing she was actually saying it to the writer himself.

I also had the opportunity to work closely with government ministries and some of the most prominent businessmen from India and Singapore.

I also quickly learnt the ”politics” involved when dealing with the respective ethnic business chambers and used the acquired knowledge to gain their support in many of the initiatives and activities that I developed at SBF.

I was also very fortunate to have been directly involved in establishing two high-level platforms to facilitate closer relationship building between India and Singapore.

The 1st of these platforms was the Singapore-India Partnership Foundation, which was  set up to strengthen relations between Singapore and India through economic, government, academia and cultural linkages and to raise the positive profile of each country in the other. The Foundation was the brain-child of Senior Minister Emeritus Goh Chok Tong. My involvement included the setting up of the Secretariat and being the Secretariat’s first Coordinating Secretary for the Foundation’s activities. The Foundation is co-chaired by Mr. Sat Pal Khatter from Singapore and Mr. Jamshyd Godrej from India.

The 2nd high-level platform was the India-Singapore CEO Forum, which was co-chaired by Mr. Koh Boon Hwee and Mr. Ratan Tata.

I have special memories of my time spent establishing this Forum. The fact that I was involved in the conceptualization of this Forum, together with our Indian counterpart (the Confederation of Indian Industries) and our Ministry of Trade & Industry, gives me great satisfaction.

While I had tremendous pressure to ensure the successful launch of these two prestigious platforms, I am also very pleased with my achievements and most of all the friends that I made and some of whom I’m still very much in touch with.

3. India has a new prime minister, what was your experience in India and what does the future hold?

Good question! I was there during the early days when India first opened its doors to foreign investments. I had gone there under the sponsorship of Sembawang Shipyard (now known as Sembawang Corp.) to manage a joint venture company.

I realised very quickly that I cannot bring the “Singapore Attitude” there and expect to obtain immediate results. They say “Guanxi” is important in China and so is relationship in India.

In my opinion, India is a far more complex country. Unlike China, where it communicates with a single language, India has more than 1,000 officially recognized native languages. While English is the business language of the day, it is difficult to build relationships with the diverse native mix. Like most Asians, Indians are conservative and one must be patient and sincere in wanting to make friends.

For as long as I can remember, India has been plagued by corruption for the longest of time. While there are Groups such as the Tata Group, that are known for their intolerance toward corruption, they are far and few. While it is not for me to judge the people for their penchant toward corruption, I understand the fundamental reasons for it.

These days, with a better educated population, corruption is detested in many sectors. Anyway, this is not the forum to discuss this subject matter.

It is this culture of corruption that has caused the Congress Party to lose the recent national elections so badly. Ironically, it was Dr. Manmohan Singh, from the Congress Party, who was touted as the savior of India only slightly more than two decades ago. The sentiments against corruption has been long coming.

Many of my Indian friends have already predicted a Narendra Modi victory more than 2 years back. So it’s no surprise that Mr. Modi won the elections. However, it’s the overwhelming results that surprised most and it’s a clear signal from the people that corruption needs to be eradicated as soon as possible.

In my opinion, Mr. Modi has his work cut out for him. Though he has obtained a strong electoral mandate, it’ll still be an uphill task for him and his cabinet. Unlike China, where it is based on a communist governance system, India being the world’s largest democracy will find it hard to stamp it out over-night. However, this is a problem Mr. Modi cannot delay tackling.

While Mr. Modi has earned a reputation as a business-friendly politician and has proven it with the success in Gujarat, he has to be able to translate his philosophy and methodology for success throughout the rest of India.

The electoral mandate will probably not help much when he negotiates with his alliance partners and most of all his political opponents. Foreign investors will also have to be thoroughly convinced before India sees an influx of investments.

The changing of the guard signals a brighter future for India, moving forward. I would expect FDIs to increase significantly during his first term of governance. However, in my opinion, Mr. Modi shouldn’t rely too much on the allies that help him turn around Gujarat as it would land him in the same hot soup as his predecessors – perceived corruption. Instead, he should harness the best and most able business groups throughout India to help the country regain lost ground.

Indians and Indian companies have been recognized for their intelligence and astuteness.

Many Indians are also holding senior positions in many American and European institutions and corporates. Indian companies such Tata, Reliance Group and Hinduja Group have been on the international business scene for many years. India needs to build on this branding and further build on it.

4. In the future, what do companies in Asia need to look out for?

With your permission, I would like to re-phrase your question. Instead of what do Asian companies need to look out for, I would like to suggest that it be read as “what do Asian companies need to do?”

For the longest of time, we had to look to the West for quality products. Only Japan was able to meet the need for quality products but it was also, almost always, ranked 3rd, after the Americans and Europeans respectively.

It saddens me to see Asian companies lacking in innovation and most of all, the lack of willingness to invest in R&D. Ironically, there are many Asians who perform that role for western companies.

However, I do see a change taking place in Korea and China. While Japan has traditionally been in the forefront of innovation and R&D and they a still are, especially in the business of robotics. However, in recent years, the Koreans seemed to be rapidly catching up with the traditional key players. The Korean automotive and electronics industries have seen significant improvements when measured against the traditional international rivals.

The Koreans seemed to have found the winning formula and their electronic products have been making their way into many households globally. Their automotive industry has also taken giant strides, especially with their design, manufacturing quality and in-car features. The Chinese are also showing signs of improvement and it’s only a matter of time before their manufacturing quality reaches world class standards. As I’ve always said, with money – you can buy technology. The issue is whether there is a desire to use that technology and improve on it.

As Asia continues to grow economically, the educational level of Asians will also get better – so what is there to stop us, Asians, from developing or inventing new products or technologies? What Asian companies currently lack is the boldness to “shout it out to the world”. In this aspect, we need to learn to take a page out of the western book by way of branding. Mind share plays a critical role in the success or failure of a product. In my mind, a Mercedes Benz occupies a bigger share of my mind than a Lexus, even if the Lexus is equally as good overall.

Therefore, moving into the future, I would definitely like to see more Asian companies grow into world renowned companies by way of innovation and R&D. Asian companies should have the desire to be world beaters and be acknowledged by their international peers for their work and corporate culture.

5. What do you hope to achieve through your work?

I hope to be able to play a part in helping more Asian SMEs especially the ones in Singapore to take the next step into becoming world beaters. I believe my skills and experiences will be helpful for these companies to lay the foundations for sustainable growth. I’m also glad that the management at Consulus share the same desire and objectives to see more Asian companies succeed on the world stage.

Richard advises CEOs and senior leadership in B2B sectors covering Singapore and South-Asia. If you like to have a chat with Richard, he can be reached at richard_koh@consulusgroup.com

This article is part of The Columnist, a newsletter by Consulus that offers ideas on business, design and world affairs. For past issues, browse the complete archive.

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