Leadership in an Emerging Asia: An Interview with Claire Chiang

Oct 24, 2012 | Civilisation, English, Singapore, TheColumnist

Claire Chiang is an entrepreneur, social activist and an author. She is the Managing Director of Banyan Tree’s retail operations, Chairperson of the Banyan Tree Global Foundation and has served as a former Nominated Member of Parliament of Singapore. The Columnist interviewed her for her opinions on leadership and the calibre of emerging leadership today.

The Columnist (TC): Asia has in recent years become a region to watch in terms of its economic, cultural and social influence. In your opinion, how do you think Asian leaders can contribute to the world today?

Claire Chiang (CC): Interesting that you would say “how Asian leaders can contribute today,” because if you read a book by Niall Ferguson called Civilisation you would see that in the 12th to 15th/16th centuries, Asia was the leader in terms of GDP, trade, navigation, architecture and design. For example, in the 15th century, China had built the Forbidden City and the Grand Canal. It had already gone through the Zheng He era then. At that time, the United Kingdom and the United States of America were really backwaters. What happened 400 years later was that Asia’s power declined and Western supremacy came about. It has been a long time since then and currently, Asia, or China, is again on its 2nd wave of supremacy. China’s GDP is at its top, and the West is declining, again. Hence, this book by Niall Ferguson talks about some of the drivers that made the West rise and the East decline and what is it that Asia has to take care of in order not to decline again.

Asia is definitely on the rise in terms of its GDP, economic power and tourism. Therefore, the platform for economic growth, cultural transformation and cultural sharing will be Asian–centric. There is going to be a flow of capital, people and interests towards the East. There will be an Asian Renaissance of a higher plane, facilitated by technology, including social media, Facebook, etcetera. Whatever happens in this part of the world will very quickly be known and transmitted to the West, if the West has access and is willing to listen and learn. Asia is taking centre stage now.


In the hospitality sector, all the big hotel chains were once Western. The West used to dominate, but now we have Asian brands. There used to be interest amongst Asians to travel to the West; there is now interest amongst Asians to travel within Asia, because standards have gone up. We have learned from past decades the various best practices – from the sciences to the arts, from hospitality to hospital management – from the West; these can now be applied by Asians in Asia.

Therefore, Asia is going to be the big stage for tourism and its possibilities. There’s less of that fear of Asian backwardness or ethnocentrism. In fact, I think we will see new best practices emerging from Asia, and it is going to be the platform for the next iteration of global trends.

I’m thus very optimistic about Asia being a focal point for the world. It is not going to be so clearly divided among the parameters of West and East, White and Asian. It’s going to be a rainbow of all colours. There’s going to be a mix and diversity, an excitement. That’s the promise; that it’s going to be less homogeneous, less monolithic. There is going to be a diversity that will play out and enrich humanity, networks, and all ethnic groups.

TC: What would you say are characteristics of a good leader?

CC: Someone who is able to give people hope, help people to aspire towards possibilities and guide them towards transformational solutions that have impact and relevance in the realm of their personal and professional lives.


TC: So it’s about the motivational aspect of leadership?

CC: That’s number one. Number two is that the leader has a vision; a compass to guide actions that are purposeful and meaningful to achieve the goals set. A leader is one who listens, who is able to maximise the efforts of collective contribution and turn them into a shared achievement.

I like quiet leadership; those who work, support, and facilitate. I like middle management leadership, who are the gravitas of the organisation. I like charismatic leadership; those who articulate well and connect the dots. Therefore you need leadership of all kinds to make any company a successful one. Any one leader is not going to be able to do it alone.

TC: What measures do you think we can put in place to raise the calibre of emerging leaders in our midst?

CC: That sense of curiosity and discovery must be traits that we nurture. We should be encouraging people to always ask “Why?”, “Why not?”, “What more?” and “What if?”. It’s always about using thinking sessions and boardroom sessions to think out-of-the box, to think the impossible, to imagine and stretch for the alternatives that will make people creative. You may come back to the original dot, but I think the process is one of engagement and discovery. If a leader comes into the room with a fixed idea, then we already know where to go. But if we come with an open-ended question or alternative questions, you’ll be surprised. That process of engagement is so important.

Therefore, the way schools teach, the way parents guide, the way family elders nurture, and the way governments rule are going to impact the kind of qualities we would like to grow. Flexibility, agility, thinking out-of-the-box, being able to deal with the what-ifs, being flexible in solutions and being open-minded about the possibilities and solutions are really the qualities we need now. This is because the world’s problems today are no longer that simplistic, no longer black-and-white, no longer “what I did before will succeed again today”. It’s going to be “What I did before may not work today. Some of it may work, but I’ll think of something new.”

It is about the ability to configure a new solution by observing and analysing a matrix of factors around the problem to come up with a new and innovative solution. It’s going to be the mindset that we really need for new leadership, because the kind of problems that we have are going to have such an impact – of a sudden and uncertain nature – that we cannot allow leadership with a rigid frame of reference.

Therefore emerging leaders must have a core competence, but they must be able to take a side-track, come back again, and to discover the next best solution. This is going to happen more and more because with the digital age, problems come quickly. Whoever gets to the solution first will get the first-mover advantage. Very soon, after you think you’ve solved it, a new level of problems will emerge. Therefore you really need leaders that cannot be too rigid. That’s what I think is a fundamental requirement now for the new generation of leaders. Diversity, openness, flexibility, agility, and that capacity to embrace and be inclusive of all ideas.

TC: Do you think these values are being fostered in our current education system?

CC: I think we’re trying. I think if you take it as a scale, we’re better than before. We’re looking at new pedagogies in schools, new methodologies in boardrooms, classrooms, courtrooms and parliament. We’re looking at all ways and manners of discourse to try to embrace diversity and know-how to process differences into new solutions. I think we’re trying. As to whether we’ve gotten there, not yet. As to whether we’re getting there, it’s still a work-in-progress, and the effort is observable now through the Singapore conversation too.

TC: As a leader, do you think that soft power (ideas, culture, diplomacy) or hard power (economic strength / military strength) is more effective and influential in leading global change?

CC: You need all kinds of leadership power to make all facets of life work. People ask me if there is “female power” or “male power”, or “soft power” and “military power”. This fairly dichotomistic view of power is handy for descriptive purposes, but in every one of us, we use all powers. If you look at me, you would think I wield “female power”, but many also view me as wielding “male power” with regards to the way I think and do things. In some men, I see a lot of “soft power” compared to some of the women I know. So I think we should see it as a repertoire of skills sets, and a leader would know when and what to apply and employ to solve the task at hand. If it is a necessity to use masculine power during a negotiation, do it. If you feel the situation demands a female touch, use it. I think it is humanising to see that we, as human beings, are able to recognise when to use which powers with specific people through our intuitive understanding, intellect, cognitive and emotional abilities.

As I am not a ‘war person’, I will not encourage any form of military power. However, in the world of diplomacy and international relations, it may be inevitable to defend what you treasure. I do hope that is the last resort. I cannot say which power is better. I can only say that I will keep the peace as much as I can and I will humanise a condition of conflict as far as I can by using all kinds of powers that will help me to achieve that resolution. It could be using emotional skills sets, conflict resolution skills sets, mediation skills sets or assertive skills sets. I look for that common interest and try to minimise the conflict.

It’s about a balance; looking at it situationally, applying all the skills sets that we have learned and grown up with, with the priority agenda to solve it.

TC: Business has traditionally been about the bottom-line. In the Banyan Tree Global Foundation, you have a triple bottom-line of economy, society and environment. How were you able to successfully champion the philosophy of “Embracing the Environment, Empowering the People” amongst internal and external stakeholders?

CC: We are children of the 60s. We grew up in an economy of scarcity. Conservation and scarcity is what I grew up with. It is a natural best practice in my own life. We use less energy, less water and understand the principle of “waste not.” I was not from a wealthy background. I dealt with “less is more” and I had to share. With that kind of upbringing, you tend to value what you have. My whole life has been about stretching and maximising whatever I have to get more. I transferred that to the way I grew up and into the business. Therefore, looking at conservation issues is a natural extension of this thought process.

Firstly, as leaders, we are able to adopt those values and it is easier to communicate that to management. It is harder if you are an employee and you are trying to talk to your bosses about it. But as leaders, we adopt it as a leadership value; a foundation value for Banyan Tree. And with that, our directors for Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) are able to take those values and walk the talk. It is easy to talk but it is hard to walk the talk, because walking the talk means you have to establish those leadership values. The leaders must believe it and embrace it.

Secondly, you do have to commit resources, and have directors to set up the management for it. Then, you need the administrative infrastructure, so I have CSR committees or triple bottom-line committees at every Banyan Tree hotel. It means people, resources and time commitment. It also requires training materials through our academy to inculcate and nurture these values which we are delighted to practise, but it really means you set up resources and time commitment to walk the talk.

At Banyan Tree, we have established three programmes, with one new initiative every year for every property. Each property plants 2000 trees. To date, we have planted more than 200,000 trees. We also take time out from our schedules to mentor 3 young children from the locales that we operate in.

If you look at our annual sustainability report published since 2006, there are hundreds of programmes we conduct every year, adopted by different destinations. We do an ecological mapping of needs for each area around which hotels reside and every team embarks on their own initiatives based on their budgets.

We created a performance evaluation to make our engagement purposeful and meaningful for all. We have a balanced scorecard that measures who does what, and we give recognition. We have external auditors to look at how we protect the environment by reviewing our energy, water and waste management. They benchmark us, then teach us best practices on how to implement certain measures in order to improve our efficiency. We measure our performance at the end of it and find if we have improved in the indices for energy, water and waste management. We are lacking in some measures, but by adopting certain best practices, we improve, and we continuously strive to be better than what we had done before. This is through the guidance and assistance of agencies such as Earthcheck from Australia.

TC: Has there any been any situation where you were faced with resistance when championing this cause?

CC: No, because we are the leaders. So we could say, “please do it”, we explained the rationale and we let them do it. Talking to our employees about the triple bottom line is mere talk. But asking them to act on an initiative – they do it the first year, the second year they’re motivated and the third year they are driven. When we asked them to plant trees, we explained to them that it was because of the climate change agenda. Let them do it, then talk about it. It is a much easier vehicle for communication and sharing. If you only try to convince them before they act, it takes too long. It is a behavioral change and in the process there is engagement. This engagement happens through dialogue, games and best practices sharing, through which people understand what the triple bottom line is about and the rationale behind it.

Therefore, they understand that while we improve business profits, it does not preclude us from protecting the environment, reaching out to the community and being an honest and good corporate example. They do not view CSR as being embraced simply because we have the funds to support these initiatives. It is not about charity. It is about the fundamental way we do business, the way we manage, the way we relate to local people, local communities, and local enterprises. Ultimately, they understand that connectivity is part of the whole business ethos.

TC: There has been an increase in the number of women in leadership positions. When you embarked on your business and social initiatives, did you face any obstacles because of your gender? If so, how did you overcome them?

CC: I am currently doing business development in China. I spend about 4-5 months in a year in China. I meet with the mayors, party secretaries and land bureaus to discuss the next site for Banyan Tree projects. I am the chairperson for this because there is a certain language and cultural sensitivity involved and I grew up in Chinese schools. Interestingly, I feel that being a woman is helpful. I don’t have to wine and dine. They do not insist that I do so. Being older is helpful, because in China, they respect their elders and they call me ‘Da Jie’ (big sister), so that’s useful. Being a woman dealing with a room of men, there is always that extra respect and kindness they need to show as gentlemen.

As a female I do not need to golf, take part in karaoke, or drink alcohol outside of our negotiation meetings. Therefore I save a lot of time. In fact, for me, I feel that being a woman and being older in China was not more difficult; it was in fact advantageous. I used my gender to my advantage. But that does not mean I am not masculine in the way I deal with them. If you define masculine characteristics as being assertive, systemic, focused, I am all that too. We meet, we are focused, we talk about work, we go for dinner, and we do not need to wine if we do not want to. So one must not use gender as an excuse for actions and decisions that are really not necessary.

TC: Back then, you were one of the first two women who joined a all-male committee at Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce & Industry (SCCCI).

CC: I could say that they both liked me, and disliked me. Insofar as they would say to me, “I would like my daughter to be like you, but I do not want my wife to be like you”, reflects a certain discomfort with women such as myself. But it also comes with respect as they see certain qualities that they admire and they want their daughters to have. Why they do not want their wives to be like me is probably because they are not comfortable with dealing with women like me. I would say it is due to ignorance and a lack of interacting with women like me that lead to these gender issues arising.

However, I do not deny that this is a very male world. I do not deny the glass ceiling, I do not deny that there are the “men’s clubs”, and women are often very disadvantaged in the corporate world because of all this. However, I tell women, “Do not waste your time trying so hard to only think about these issues. Use these as reasons for pushing yourself more. The only way to push yourselves more is to be extremely good at what you are doing.”

TC: You and your husband are both personalities. How do you build a distinction from Mr Ho Kwon Ping? What is the Claire Chiang brand?

CC: I think we share basic foundational values as a couple. We both believe in individualism; the self as making things happen. We don’t blame or depend on others. We don’t even expect each other to be the giving party. We both believe in family values, shared parenting, and in working at our marriage. We both also believe in being important stakeholders in community work – even though we are in business – and we don’t just look at the interests of shareholders, but also stakeholders such as local employment, suppliers and enterprises. We both believe in making a difference through the business platform. So these are our shared values.

Functionally, KP is the chairman, therefore he directs. Because we believe in collective leadership, all the leaders around him help to build the business. We have spheres of influence functionally. I deal with the Banyan Tree Gallery, spa products, procurement of the objects you use in a Banyan Tree hotel room and the corporate social responsibility arm. KP calls it the “CC”, based on my Initials, but it also refers to “Clear Conscience”. He always says that I am the conscience of the company, because of the values that I continually instill through a checklist; through the way we build and the way we relate to vendors. Even though I do business development now, which is the “hard” part of business – I still deal with connecting with people, building relationships and looking at sites to understand their culture and heritage. In that sense, business in general requires both feminine and masculine principles to make sense and create meaning and purpose.

So in a way, it is very difficult to say who wears the pants or who wears the skirt. I wear both the pants and the skirt and KP wears both pants and skirts – the skirt is a very long one and it’s called a sarong. I think we both are personas that use different repertoires of skills to assist us in realising our shared values of marriage, family values, our community ethos and world order. We see ourselves playing a limited but deeply meaningful role in doing business together and creating a dream together. There are times where he stands in front and I stand back, there are times where we stand together and there are times where I stand in front and he stands back. However, ultimately, he is the executive chairman and I respect that.

TC: What advice would you give to an aspiring business woman?

CC: If you come to a stage when you feel where the time you’re giving to the day’s work is choking you and you can no longer exercise choice and control, and you do not find meaning and purpose in what you’re doing, then get out, start a business and be your own boss.

But before you do that, go through the drudgery of working for somebody until you find your niche and passion. Becoming your own boss is very nice thing to say, but you have to know what kind of boss you want to be and what area you want to apply your talents to. If you do not find that and if you still want to stay in the business world working for someone, you can still be an entrepreneur within the organisation. If the organisation gives you that kind of free room to play, grab it, and in that space, be the best that you can be and sharpen your own talents as much as you can.

If you are extremely good at what you are doing, you will easily climb up the career ladder and be able to get out when you want to. You will always find a place you want and you will always have someone to back you if your product and service is good. So whatever you do, whatever you’re handling, you must be good at it.

This interview was conducted for The Columnist, a newsletter by Consulus that offers ideas on business, design and world affairs. The views expressed in this article are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views of Consulus.

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