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The Asean promise

As Asean marks its 50th anniversary, CEOs of companies that operate in the region share their stories with us in the first of a three-part series.


THE numbers around South-east Asia, or Asean, have attracted a number of superlatives. If it were a single country, Asean would be the seventh-largest economy in the world and the third-largest labour force, with a market of US$2.6 trillion and over 600 million people.

Yet sweeping, agglomerated numbers mask the sheer diversity of the region, geographies, cultures, languages, and stages of economic development each country is in.

Opportunities and challenges can be seen in each country, and this year's CEO Conversations series – timed with the 50th anniversary of the formation of Asean – aims to shed some light on how businesses view the region and its prospects.

We interviewed top honchos running regional businesses big and small, from industries as diverse as banking, consultancy, health care, logistics, property, and technology.

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In three instalments over three days, we feature their thoughts.

China looms large in any discussion given the country's economic transition, which businesses here and around the world are grappling with.

In this respect, OCBC Group chief executive officer Samuel Tsien's message to businesses is: Don't worry. "They don't have to worry that China, all of a sudden, will disappear from the buyers' list," he tells The Business Times in an interview.

Trade flows will still go on, and even at a 5 to 6 per cent growth rate, China is still growing substantially, he says. One development he highlights is China's One Belt One Road initiative, which will result in less developed countries in the region getting a capital injection.

Analysts have pointed out that governments in the region are keen to improve their infrastructure to boost trade and other industries like tourism. But given high debt levels, non-government financing is key. Foreign investment and public-private partnerships are required.

Mr Tsien says that from a purely business and economic perspective, countries which China invests in will benefit from toll roads, airports, and railroads. In return, the Chinese will benefit from more demand for goods and services to soak up their excess capacity.

He points out that the Chinese can envision what they want and are planning well in advance to get there. "Which other country can you name in the world that is willing to announce a five-year plan? They are willing to do that because they have full confidence in being able to manage their economy," he says.

Today, we feature entrepreneurs confident in the Asean story and hungry to make it big. E-commerce platform Qoo10's CEO Ku Young Bae, for example, is aiming to list his firm by 2019.

Listed electronics component distributor Serial Systems CEO Derek Goh is aiming for his company to pull in US$5 billion to US$10 billion in sales within the decade, from over US$1 billion today.

A word of advice from Sundara Raj, chief executive officer and markets leader of PwC's South East Asian consulting services, is relevant here. He says that some Asean clients aspire towards immense growth, but do not necessarily have the building blocks in place yet. "In the quest to be ahead, sometimes you forget you leave people and infrastructure behind," he says.

Yet one should never underestimate the capacity for businesses to venture into new markets. An example is Goldbell Group, a commercial and industrial vehicle leasing giant that is now expanding into small and medium enterprise (SME) loans.

As its chief operating officer Alex Chua says: "If you do one thing for your customer, you're dispensable. But if you do 10 things for them, you're not."

Finally, today's supplement will also feature a number of consumer companies in the healthcare space, such as Axe Oil maker Leung Kai Fook Medical Company, health food products direct seller E. Excel International, and homegrown herbal hair treatment firm Bee Choo Origin.

As the region grows, and lifestyles change, they all envision opportunities. As E. Excel founder Chen Jau-Fei says: "Standards of living have improved and people have the financial means to seek longevity and a better quality of life."

Supplement editor: Lilian Ang Sub-editor: Lee Kim Siang Cover design: Gareth Chung Illustrations: Alice Ang, Gareth Chung Photographer: Yen Meng Jiin Advertising sales: Lam Wy-ning 9368 5685; Jaclyn Sim 8333 5665