Friday, July 29, 2011

Violence and Conflicts

“The greatest gift is to give people your enlightenment” – Lord Buddha.

Even as the world gets more sophisticated and much smaller due to the internet and increased connectivity, violence and conflicts continue to rage on, if not deteriorating by the day. Tune in to CNN anytime of the day, and the broadcast is not that much different from the war updates of the world wars era.

Of course, topping the list is a conflict that has its origins from the end of World War II. Since the end of the British mandate and the formation of the state of Israel, both Palestine and Israel have been at each other’s throat at the smallest opportunity. To the millions of Palestinians, the very existence of Israel is unacceptable, whilst to the Israelis, neutralising Palestine is the only way to ensure their own survival. There is no middle ground, nor any middle ground possible in the near future, despite all the calls for a peace ‘process’. Adding to the mix is Iran’s nuclear programme, which threatens to ignite a deadly war between Iran and Israeli, while the situation in Iraq is far from peaceful.

Across the Indian Ocean, the deep-seated resentment between Muslim Pakistan and Hindu India has led to countless deaths of innocents. And closer to home, the political situation in Thailand remain volatile, with supporters and opponents of disposed premier Thaksin Shinawatra irreconcilably poles apart.

We are caught up in so much historical baggage, that even if we could resolve the religious difference and muster the political will to end these conflicts, there are still enough pockets of resistance and hatred to ensure these conflicts continue well past our lifetime. Sadly, the only international forum that could have the mandate and moral right to mediate and end these conflicts have more or less lost the moral right if not the mandate to do so. Even the UN itself is inundated with it’s own conflicts, as reflected in the highly political and volatile negotiation at Copenhagen.

Whilst many of these conflicts were rooted in perceived injustice – of stolen lands and honour, and of lost opportunities and resentment; many of the conflicts in our daily lives have a different cause altogether. Lest we think that violence can only take the form of war and street protest, we are also seeing an increased amount of road rage and domestic violence locally. Divorce rate is at an all time high – with some experts projecting a divorce rate as high as 45%, and that one-third of all marriages will fail in the first two years. We’re also seeing more incidences of rape, kidnapping, murder and other violent crimes. There is no denying that there is now more conflicts and violence in our lives. And the police are not to be entirely blamed.

How many of us can claim that we have not raised our voice more often than a year ago. Or that now we tend to vent our anger and frustration with work, family and life in general on others – usually those close to us? Are we tolerant of drivers who cut into our lane, or customers who jump queue? Or maids who refuse to take instructions?

In the age of the internet, where the only god many of us believe in is the god of prosperity, we are all racers in a track that has no starting or finishing line. Two decades ago, we had our richer neighbours and wealthier relatives to envy and aspire to outdo. Today, with Facebook, real-time news, reality TV and instant millionaires, we have millions of people to envy and aspire to outdo. As we measure ourselves in that endless chart of success, and see us close to the bottom, we vent our frustration and loss of Alpha-male status on everybody else. If we consider greed, lust and jealousy as the tools of the Devil; then he is certainly winning the war.

In Bhutan, they continue to measure national progress by Gross National Happiness (GNH) as opposed to GDP. And until recently, internet and television was banned from this tiny Himalayan nation. Perhaps they have discovered a winning solution – as crime is almost unheard of in Bhutan, and people are genuinely happy. The former king abdicated at the age of 51 in favour of his then 28-years old son; which fly in the face of our own politicians who still refuse to retire past their 70s.

While you can’t stop this cycle of violence and hatred, you can stop it from consuming yourself. Knowledge and enlightenment is indeed the key. Start by believing that there’s a solution to every problem and you only need to read it up somewhere. After all, it’s the age of wikipedia and I’m sure there’s an entry in it on conflict resolution.


Note: If this sound dated, that's because it first appeared in my column in SME Magazine March 2010 issue. 

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Religious Intolerance

The recent attacks on churches and mosques in Malaysia should serve as a wake up call for both our countries. Like Malaysia, Singapore has a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society.

Whilst the attacks on places of worship in Malaysia only happened recently, the undercurrent of religious and ethnic intolerance has been seething for decades now. As a result of divisive and racially defined politics, the country’s multi-racial community has become more polarised than it was prior to the country’s independence in 1957. Despite over 50 years of independence, the founding fathers, and subsequent leaders have tried but failed to promote national integrity. They have also failed to create a single national identity that Malaysians of all racial and religious backgrounds could associate with.

This resulted in the racial clash of 1969, which like the reformasi movement of 1997 in Indonesia, saw racial tension and street rule, with thousands of people of all races killed, and the fabrics of the nation changed forever. Due to the rapid economic growth of the country in the 80s and early 90s under the rule of Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, religious and racial differences were set aside, as better lives, prosperity and general content sweeped across all strata of society. But still, the underlying racial and religious differences remained.

When Dr. Mahathir retired in 2003, these differences resurfaced, leading to the political tsunami in 2008. Many believed that the first unprecedented loss of 5 states by the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition was due to general apathy against the coalition’s perceived arrogance and widespread corruption.

The real reason for BN’s electoral setback in 2008 could very well be the rising racial and religious intolerance. For example, many policies and political actions enacted prior to the 2008 elections, such as the relocation of Hindu temples and Chinese schools, turned the ethnic Chinese and Indian Malaysians against the ruling coalition, which they perceived to be Malay supremists and therefore, represents everything they could not agree with. The Malays, on the other hand, felt that UMNO, as the senior party within the ruling BN coalition, were giving away too much leeway to the Chinese and Indians, and hence voted in droves for the Islamic party, PAS. The net result is Malaysians of all races rising against the ruling coalition, ended its historical dominance in the parliament, and gave five (out of 13) states to the opposition. The opposition Pakatan Rakyat coalition immediately took credit for the advances, when it was luck and fate, and more importantly, the strong undercurrent of religious and racial divide, that gave them those limited victories.

Racially based organisations, including those purportedly are umbrella organisations of the Malays, Chinese and Indians, did not help at all – and continued to make racially lopsided demands. These are large and powerful organisations, and I shall not name them, but one thing is sure – they are about as racially divisive as can be possible.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak recognised the problem, and introduced the 1Malaysia concept, with the hope that Malaysians of all races could see past their differences and work towards building a single nation with a single identity. But it will take years, decades even, to undo the ingrained racial and religious polarisation that has gradually built over the past five decades.

This is where Indonesia under the Suharto regime has done better than Malaysia. Despite the much criticised authoritarian rule of Pak Suharto, one of the right thing I felt he has done is to ensure assimilation of the minority, including the Chinese, into the mainstream by ensuring the widespread usage of a singular language, and diminishes the importance and usage of minority language and culture.

In Thailand, this process of integration has achieved almost complete success, and today, whilst some Chinese Thai still speaks and writes in Chinese, everyone could speak and understand Thai. The right to religion remains, with the Chinese Thais having a different set of deities and religious practices than the ethnic Thais. Most importantly, Chinese Thais (and to a lesser extend, Chinese Indonesians) identify themselves as Thais (and Indonesians, respectively). The same integration has happened in the Philippines, where any conflict between the races, is more of a wealth-divide issue, rather than on the basis of religion or ethnic background.

In Malaysia, do not be surprised to meet a Chinese Malaysian who could not speak Malay. Tune in to the local stations and you will get programmes of various languages. Very few Malaysians have close friends who are of a different ethnic background. Every race has their own racial jokes about the other races. That is how polarised Malaysia has become. In the absence of a unifying theme and assimilation, it’s a racial time-bomb waiting to explode.

In Indonesia, we have seen in the late 90s some of the ugliest episodes of racial unrest. Many of us have learned from it. And since the downfall of the Suharto regime, and the better institutionalisation of the democratic system in Indonesia, they have managed to steered themselves away from further racial clashes.

What needed to be done here, in both Malaysia as well as Singapore, is to promote further inter-racial and inter-religious understanding. Tolerance itself is a misnomer – for to tolerate means you find the other side to be wrong and obnoxious. We need to move from intolerance to tolerance, and from tolerance to understanding and acceptance.

All of us, regardless of our racial or religious background, believe in harmony, peace and justice. Let us now use those common ideals, and common beliefs, in our dealing with fellow citizens who are of a different background. History should serve as a lesson, not as a reason to further our own interests.

Those of us in the business community, and as leaders of our own enterprises, need to set the right tone and examples, to enable those we lead and those who see us as examples, to move towards this goal.

The alternative is simply unimaginable.


This article first appeared in my column in SME Magazine February 2010 edition. For more information, visit

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Growing Up Left Handed

Yesterday, 13th August was the Left Handers' Day.

It wasn't fun going up lefthanded. I remember how my parents would mock me for not using the 'right' hand to eat. And how I was regularly penalised by my aunt (with whom I live with till 15) for being a left-hander.

At school, it wasn't much fun either. Copying notes during lectures is a torture, as being a left-hander means I've to grip the pen in an awkward position... and constantly smudging what I write. If you are left-handed, be prepared to think fast - because during exams, you are bound to write answers slower than the rest, and have a less legible hand-writing as a result. Art class was a torture too: because of the awkward way I grip brushes, I could never paint my colours accurately.

Even till today, I find it awkward during meals, as I would constantly knock the hand of whoever sits on my left, since more likely than not, he/she would be using the right hand.

I remembered the first time I used a subway. I put the card into the left slot only to realise that it opens the gate to my left!

I've never complained about my left-handed though. Being left-handed helped - I represented my school in fencing when I was young, not because I was particularly good, but because being left-handed gave me clear advantage in a melee.

Being a left-hander means you are disadvantaged to in many aspects: most tools and equipment are made for right-handers. It is interesting to note therefore, that in almost all fields, left-handers excel:

  • In football, both Maradona and Pele are left-handers.
  • In science: Einstein, Aristotle and Newton. 
  • In music: Beethoven and Mozart.
  • In arts: Leonardo da Vince, Raphael, Michelangelo
  • In politics: Obama, Cameron (UK's new PM), Bill Clinton, Ghandi, and even Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Napoleon, 
  • In entertainment: Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Keanu Reeves, Oprah Winfrey, Lady Gaga, Julia Roberts, Marilyn Monroe and many more. 
  • In business: Bill Gates, Henry Ford, Rockefeller and too many to list.

Even the world's most wanted man: Osama bin Laden is left-handed.

So, being left-handed isn't that bad after all. Happy Left Handers' Day!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Age of Instant Gratification

It does not matter if you are a baby boomer, Gen X or Gen Y. We have all joined the new religion called instant gratification. Quietly and without warning, and without us saying ‘I do’ – we have come to practice this new mantra. We want everything and we want it now.

Thanks to instant messengers such as MSN and Skype, and Tweeter and Facebook, and of course, 24/7 news, the whole society has drifted towards an expectation of instant gratification. Some call it progress. Some applaud the ‘do it now, get it now’ attitude. Some say it’s the sign the world is coming to an end.

Get this straight – instant gratification is big business
Just look at how restaurants have spruced up everywhere. Who wants to cook when you have to shop for groceries, cook, dish the food out, wash dish, empty the garbage, etc.; when all you need is just walk into your favourite restaurant and voila – you have your meal!

Talking about food – manufacturers are now making big money selling supersize. The trick is – don’t sell 6-packs. Put them all in one tub – and if it’s any good – the consumer will finish everything in one go. It’s the age of instant gratification!

An entire industry has emerged churning out academic certificates in exchange for money. After all, who needs to wait 3 years for a degree and another 3 to add the ‘Dr.’ title in front of their name, right? On the same topic, fresh graduates now expect jobs to land on their laps. After all, with a degree in hand, shouldn’t employers come knocking? Guess who prospered? See all those job sites popping up everyday?

And when these same people landed a job – they expect to be made manager in 3 months. And double my salary, thank you sir! Or else they are off looking for another job. Yes, buy shares in job sites right now.

When we feel we are ready to do business – we expect to have investors lining up to snap up our ideas. And, yes, we are all ready for IPO next year. So here’s another business idea – setup an IPO consulting firm. There are enough instant suckers out there to keep you in business for a long, long time to come.

Retailers, as usual, are the first to catch on. Look at all those ‘buy now, pay later’ ads. Banks are laughing to the … well, banks, thanks to people using and not paying their credit cards. Because in the age of instant gratification, everyone spends now and pay later. Whoever said the recent financial crisis was caused by subprime mortgage must be kidding themselves – have they not heard of instant gratification and how it has brought the world to its knees?

If everyone has a choice, no one will want his or her money in some retirement fund. Why take care of the future when you have your needs now? And you know what – that makes sense too!

Yes, it’s everywhere
If you think it’s a generational problem – think twice. How often have you honked when the car in front moved a tad too slow? And how often you switched lanes at immigration just so there are fewer people in front of you? And have you never prayed for things to happen faster, and with less effort?

In politics, entertainment, sports and even religion – instant gratification is now the new mantra. And no, there’s nothing you can do to reverse. Just try a little patience, or join the crowd.

This article appeared in the January 2010 issue of SME Magazine. Visit or get a copy from your nearest book store!

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Irrefutable Law of Decision Making

When we go to business school, we were trained to think rationally, using the full set of analytical skills and subject knowledge that we have been taught. Whilst it is not possible for us to be taught solutions to every possible business problem, the broad-based curriculum of most business schools prepares graduates to make informed decisions based on available data and possibilities. As a result of such education, many of us function methodically, and to a certain extent – logically.

Yet, when you start looking at some of the greatest inventions in the world, and some of the smartest business decisions in history, very often you will find that these flout the established ‘logic’ and ‘truth’ of the day. In fact, some of the greatest businesses of all times were built against what was then common sense, and defied conventional wisdom.


When Steve Jobs re-joined Apple as its CEO after a stint outside the company, one of his first initiative was an odd looking all-in-one PC called the iMac – bucking the trend for ‘clones’ and customisation at that time. The result? The iMac became one of the best selling PCs of all time, and Apple today continues to lead the PC industry.

Similarly, when Genting founder Lim Goh Tong proposed to build a resort in a mountain far from the city, his closest friends thought he has gone crazy, and bankers stayed away from what they thought was an illogical, completely emotional decision. We know better now.

Employees and suppliers thought Ingvar Kamprad was not thinking straight, when one day he declared that IKEA furniture will be flat-packed and customers will have to assemble it themselves! Defied conventional logic, they sure did!

Sometimes, the wisest thing to do is not even wise at all. As entrepreneurs, we need to balance our entrepreneurial instinct with what we know to be logical. Once in a while, we need to act irrationally, defy logic, and let our instinct take charge.


Like this famous proverb, sometimes, too much education kills our entrepreneurial instinct. I’ve known many great business people, some with close to zero formal education, and many with letters piling up behind their names. With few exceptions, I find that the more education one has, the longer and more thorough the person tends to think things through.

I’ve seen MBAs that put out spreadsheets and charts just to arrive at the same decisions they would have without the spreadsheets and charts. Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for informed decision and measurability. But very often, in business, speed is the essence. And if you are going to get your CFO to crunch the numbers to arrive at a decision that you know you need to take anyway, you may have lost not just time, but precious opportunity.

Another case in point is this publication. While our team works towards ensuring we’ve the best articles, the best layout and the best strategy in place before each issue, our less thorough competitors are taking advantage by making empty promises with the hope of delivering them later. Not surprisingly, they achieve some short term success at our expense. Would I do it differently? I don’t know. But what I do know is that the better educated one tends to be, the less risk one is willing to take. Professional and academic pride kicks in, clouding one’s judgement and allowing one to hesitate a moment too long.

Just compare the street-fighting style of Richard Branson, Steve Jobs and Donald Trump, and you will understand the secrets behind their success. Despite the huge conglomerate that they head, they remain entrepreneurs through and through. Not surprisingly, their competition, headed by paid CEOs, may have better management, featured more often in ‘Best Place to Work’ lists, and are loved by investors and analysts alike. Yet, our street fighter trio continue to kick asses again and again. Unlike Trump who actually finished school, Branson and Jobs never did. And all of us know another genius of our time who never completed school – who now work full time giving away his money.

Again, don’t get me wrong. I am not against education. People like Lee Iacocca, whom I admire, was an excellent scholar. What I am advocating is a need for us, entrepreneurs, to realise that sometimes, we need to stop analysing and follow our instinct. Our intrinsic need to worry and our self-doubt rob us off precious time. If all of us are to do things the way they are meant to be, the world will truly come to a stop.

The irrefutable law of decision making, dear readers – is to just do it!

This article appeared in the December 2009 edition of SME Magazine . Get a copy of the SME Magazine at your nearest bookstore!

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Political Stability

We’ve heard time and time again that we need political stability. We’ve been told, via government controlled media, through the various government functions and other means of propaganda, that without political stability we are doomed as a country. The message is clear: keep the ruling party in power, or suffer as a nation.

Some politicians and academicians continue to argue that our prosperity today is the result of decades of shepherding by the present government. That investors continue to pour billions of dollars into our economies because we have the same government since independence. That we have the opportunity to develop real infrastructure and build a sustainable, modern economic framework as we do not need to deal with shifting preferences and policies. That our fragile inter-racial community requires a strong political authority to keep us in harmony.

As business people, we generally like the idea of stability. Because that means we can continue pulling in weighs, counting on favours, and operate in an environment we are familiar with.

While I agree that political stability in any country is important, I do not share the idea that political stability equals continuous political dominance by the same party. I am not calling for a change of government - far from it. But the present government need to ensure that dissent and popular opinion are taken into consideration in governance. More importantly, we need to build into our system a clear separation of power between the executive, the judiciary and the legislative, as a safeguard against excesses by the present and future government of the day. We need to favour strong institutional safeguards versus whims and fancies by politicians, no matter how well meaning they may be.

Compare us to the US, the world’s wealthiest and most powerful country, or to Germany, France, the UK and even Italy. You will find that governments change every few years. As are economic policies. Yet, the Americans and Europeans have become so used to these changes, they have developed an instinct so sharp, they could instinctively change their business game plan according to the way the wind is blowing. Businesses are rarely bankrupted because of shifts of policies and political affiliations. Warts and all, these countries have something we need to emulate: independent legal and legislative institutions as safeguards to drastic changes that could rock the boat. And that, is the ultimate stabilising factors for businesses in those countries.

We have become so dependent on the idea that we have the same government and policies in place that as globalisation continue to hit us, we find ourselves in shock when operating in countries that have different systems and in many way, more democratic, than ours. We find their system to be lacking, that we cannot get things done the same way we have been at home, and that there is little help to be expected from the government. A business culture shock, in short.

We have been boasting of the few companies that have succeeded in expanding our reach beyond our own shores. Yet, we have failed to see that most of these are government-back companies, where a lot of political arm-twisting and horse-trading were done to ensure these companies succeed overseas. And the few that succeeded on their own, find that operating in more developed countries to be too challenging, and are generally less profitable than at home.

Having the same party in power, with the right check and balance is fine by me. But unless we are able to better institutionalise these, in the long run, these same political stability that has brought us to where we are today, will take us back to where we were before.

This article appeared in the November 2009 edition of SME Magazine . Get a copy of the SME Magazine at your nearest bookstore!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Shortcuts to Success

In the age of Quad Core and Mach 3 travel, no one seems to have the patience for anything nowadays. A person in front of us in a queue is one too many. The same kiasu-ness is now so ingrained among entreprneeurs and businessmen, that we are constantly looking for shortcuts and other ‘lubangs’ to success.

Some will argue that success in business is about finding the fastest way to your objectives. I would agree if in so doing, we do not neglect our integrity and ethics. However, many of us tend to forgo the very principles we are brought up with, in favour of shortcuts to success. Expediency rules.

A few examples come to mind. One is our tendency to now ‘buy’ talents rather than groom them internally. Some would say that’s smart management. After all, aren’t clubs in Premier League known to pay millions for top players? Again, I would agree, if job hopping among senior executives is not as prevalent as it is today and by so doing we are not starting a talent-pinching war among ourselves. Some of us are blind to the fact that not all sweet-talking MBAs are any good or have any loyalty to you or your business. And certainly, few of these people stay long enough to do good for your business.

The sad truth is, few businessmen would have any qualms about pinching their competitors staff, if that means they would learn their competitors secrets and steal their clients. Again, that’s good business to some.

Another phenomenon that has hit many SMEs is the eagerness to raise fund rapidly to expand their business and hopefully make it big in a short time. Words like ‘mezzanine financing’, ‘investors’ prospectus’, ‘IPO’ and ‘exit strategy’ are being brandished even by mom-and-pop operations. Some of these companies seems to have lost all interest in taking care of the basics of business: developing good quality products and services, building relationship with supplier, staff and clients, and earning money the traditional way. Perhaps the lessons of Lehmann Brothers have not sinked in for many of us. Many of us are still caught up with the dotcom tagline: if you have an idea, money will start pouring in.

I don’t discourage businesses raising fund from whatever sources for whatever reasons. But it is good business sense to realise that businesses cannot be built on air. Many of the dotcom wonders that you read about have also gone through hardwork and setbacks like you and I. And business news are so full of unchecked facts nowadays, you should not allow yourself to be swayed by news of a competitor hitting it big through some investment from some mysterious funders. The truth is, money don’t grow on trees. And businesses don’t just grow on their own. If you thought labouring for your business is futile; well, it’s at least a notch better than day dreaming.

This brings us to another shortcut many are resorting to. I call it the ‘sugardaddy phenomenon’ (or ‘sugarparent’, to be gender sensitive). The government call it SME assistance program. Again, I would say go for it as it means free money in many cases. But if you are going to be building a business on the back of government handouts and nothing else, you will be steering an empty ship to nowhere. Real businesses are built on solid ideas and real products and services. There’s really no shortcut to success.

The lowest form of ‘shortcut’ to success must be those among us who bribe our way through. Some of us would be tempted to offer inducement to get that one lucrative project. After all, some grease between palms make some people easier on the cheque, and shorter on the memory. But consider the long term costs of such business experdiency. Many of the truly successful people I know are men of true integrity. Hard to believe, but it is true. Integrity and ethics do make good business sense.

Rich Kids, Poor Kids
I have nothing against direct selling. But before you are convinced by an eager sponsor hoping to pin you somewhere among his downlines, make sure you understand what you are getting yourself into. Like any business, it’s 99% effort and 1% luck. 99.9% of everyone who joins a direct selling business fails. And that’s a higher failure rate than conventional business. So YES, direct sales can be a route to success and financial independence, but NO it is not shortcut to success either.

Some of us are born with a silver spoon. Nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, capitalize on it. But again, that is no short cut to success. Your daddy and mommy can only help so much, the rest is still up to you. One of the inmutable laws of success in business is this: value creation. If you are not creating value with what you do, if you are a consumer of idea and products rather than creator of value, then you will never meet success.

I am going to tell you the real shortcut to success. It is one fact that the world’s three richest men: Warren Buffett, William Gates and Carlos Helu Slim, agree upon. It is called hardwork.

I wrote this for SME Magazine October issue. If you haven't got your copy of SME Magazine, get one today!