Are We Feeling ASEAN Yet?

Nazrin Hassan, CEO of Cradle Fund -Malaysia

Nazrin Hassan, Malaysia

While the thoughts of tapping a huge ASEAN market may get one excited, Malaysian businesses need to acquire the knowledge of regional markets to turn it into a reality.

This year, Malaysia has the honour of being chair of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), and one of the highlights towards the end of the year will be the Asean Entrepreneurship Summit.

Recently, I had the opportunity to be a part of the 1AES (1Asean Entrepreneurship Summit), where many government agencies and private sector parties collaborated to initiate and catalyse events and programmes that would kick-start the foray into ASEAN Entrepreneurship and capitalising on a market of over 600 million people.

If we’re honest with ourselves, we know very little of our regional neighbours in Asean other than, perhaps, from a tourism perspective, such places as Koh Samui, Bali, Manila, Ho Chi Minh City and a few more of popular destinations in the region. There is very little cultural awareness of the practices of other Asean countries.

We’re not entirely aware of their historical legacies and their political situation – our appreciation of it is shallow.

Our knowledge of the national languages or native dialects of the other Asean countries – other than where it relates and could still be understandable from a Bahasa Malaysia or English perspective – is minimal to none. Our understanding of their business environment and nuances is not widespread, other than among a small group of regional entrepreneurs, multinational companies (MNCs), government-linked companies (GLCs), and sometimes, students crossing the national borders.

In truth, although the desire is there, the core foundation of what being integrated means is absent. We’re not ready to be a region which does more with each other. As a community, we’re just a little bit better than strangers in the region.

Reaching out

So, what does it actually take to be more ASEAN-like – or to create a more effective Asean business citizen? How do we spread that awareness quickly? How do we link-up better at the community level, rather than waiting for each of the national governments to drive the efforts to bring us together?

Given where we are currently, we know that there are no short-cut solutions. However, due to technology and the social media, the world is a much smaller place than it used to be.

Firstly, you need to give people a reason and the motivation to be more Asean in their thinking. They must see the potential opportunities of expanding their business into the region. They must appreciate the possible requirements of adapting their products and services in each of the different markets, which will have different behaviours and value appreciation.

They must understand that Malaysia is a relatively small market and that in order to scale, one must begin to acquire the knowledge of regional markets to push their business into the 7-10 digit revenue range.

The reality of having million-dollar or billion-dollar businesses is not impossible if we can scale into the Asean market, which is becoming increasingly sophisticated and where, gradually, the purchasing power of consumers may increase and start exceeding our own.

I’ve always believed that it’s absolutely misleading to look at a percentage of people with purchasing power in markets like India, China and in our own region, Indonesia. They’re huge countries in terms of population and in absolute demand numbers. It may be fairer to compare their cities, with our own country.

Secondly, it’s probably time that we encouraged all Asean business citizens to master more than one national language and to add to their repertoire, fluency in the language of another Asean country, if not more. MNCs, GLCs, business chambers, professional service firms and entrepreneurs should collaborate and encourage more Asean language classes, perhaps coupled with a business and historical culture angle and to encourage more business travels and exchanges.

Embracing diversity

An ASEAN citizen is one that embraces diversity, appreciates our common ground and believes even more in our inward potential, while looking regionally outward. We will let our regional learnings lift us from the sometimes regressive chains of national political and religious beliefs. It should make us more enlightened and universal in our approach and less tribal.

God knows, there are inherent strengths that we can all learn from one another.

Thirdly, we need to plan to make the integration happen within one generation. And there is no better way of doing this than to start with Asean students and young people. Bring them together via music and entertainment and social media. Inspire them to create new genres of cross-cultural content, stories and contexts.

Let them collaborate on business ideas and projects together like the one recently done by the Global Startup Youth (GSY) Asean programme by Startup Malaysia recently at 1AES (1Asean Entrepreneurship Summit). The results and the combined talent pool will be an inspiring one.

Have a bigger allocation of students sent to universities in the region, so that their regional awareness may be heightened and the crucial bonds of friendship and business can be formed at an earlier age.

Malaysians are, by nature, highly adaptable. Throw them into a different culture and country, and they will not only swim but will begin to influence the tides. This is why so many of our Malaysian emigrants do well abroad.

I am excited about the prospects of the opportunities afforded by Asean in the medium to long term, especially for the younger generation. It’s a fragmented and difficult market, but those who learn how to weather and influence it will lead and dominate regionally for a long time.

So, Believe. Percaya. Maniwala. Tuong. Cheu-a. Chue. The Asean age is emerging!

About the author
Nazrin Hassan, is the CEO of Cradle Fund, a leading government agency that funds the majority of budding startups in the country. In his spare time, he likes to watch movies and predict football results for the English Premier League. He is also a diehard Arsenal fan.


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