In another world

  • South Asia’s participation in the Asia Summit was hardly enthusiastic

Sep 21, 2016-

The Milken Institute organised the third Asia Summit in Singapore last week on September 15 and 16. Over 450 high-profile executives, CEOs of Fortune 100 companies, institutional investors, asset managers, policymakers, philanthropists and academics from 25 countries participated in it. Deliberations ranged from crucial social sectors like health and education and accelerating modern infrastructure and cyber security to global capital markets and emergence of new leaders.

It was different from the usual conference bonhomie and rhetorical jamboree in four major ways. First, presentations were mostly from the horse’s mouth and narrations were based on experimented practices. Second, no one reinvented the wheel as the audience was fairly well versed in basics and looked forward to more advanced pathways. Third, it brought together stories from all across the globe, with much more focus on the Asia and Pacific region. And finally, the speakers were drawn from varied professions with a sprinkling of younger generation women and men.

Interesting stories

The session on ‘New Faces of Asia: Leaders Transforming the Region’ brought together people who have significantly transformed  their professions and solidly impacted on the immediate societies. Most of them were second generation entrepreneurs and deviated magnificently from what their parents did. Malaysia based Anthony Tan’s grandfather was a taxi driver and his father started a taxi company. Tan now owns ‘GrabTaxi’, a mobile application that assigns available cabs to nearby commuters using mapping and location-sharing technology, which has grown to become a household name in South-East Asia.

Dilhan Fernando from Sri Lanka, owner of the Dilmah Tea, while calling tea a ‘boring beverage’ narrated how, away from family traditions, he started mixology and gastronomy to provide a palatable drink for the younger generation. When Fernando initiated the MJF Charitable Foundation, his primary objective was to blend the business of ‘ethical tea’ with social and environmental responsibilities. This is where he connected Dilmah Tea with peacebuilding in war-torn Sri Lanka and employed a huge number of war affected communities. He realised that it is actually inequality that is the corrosive precursor to conflict and that is debilitating society. And business can play a role in it during pre- and post-conflict situations.

For Dubai based Leili Gerami, both as the chairman of LEGE Investments and a partner at Maven Pictures, success is achieved only when it is relevant to ones values. Devoting over 30 percent of family business to philanthropic activities, Gerami, a social entrepreneur, finds human resources the most cost-efficient and hence concentrates primarily on linking people’s emotions with what is happening at the ground level. Her projects include the redevelopment of the ocean liner QE2, Burj Khalifa and the Great Mall of Dubai, and she actively participates as an advisor of DKMS, the world’s largest bone marrow donor centre.

Purpose with performance

Michael Milken, Chairman of Milken Institute, himself a powerful intellectual and global giant in the management of corporate heroes, brought together some of the most sought after CEOs. This included Indra Nooyi of PepsiCo and Andrew Philip Witty of GlaxoSmithKline (GSK).

While PepsiCo a $65 billion beverage and food products company reaches Rimbik, the remotest village in Darjeeling, its head Indira Nooyi sleeps for just four hours on average. In a brilliant exposition of how modern day CEO could be irrelevant if they are not intellectually alert and strategic about the companies’ war games, she narrated how she has fought on gender issues numerous times.  When she started in the 1970s, she had to work more than double a man, just to prove that she is capable and talented like her male counterparts.

In the remaining 20 hours of her day, she grapples with lifelong learning, as what you learn today becomes irrelevant tomorrow.  Nooyi strives for a ‘sustainability trio’—human-environmental-talent. She made great remarks while talking about how people’s choices have shifted from full sugar soda to diet and sodium less drink and finally to plain water and how she started recognising the talents from within the industry. It is her famous ‘purpose with performance’ dictum which has now mesmerised the global corporate community.

Innovation without access is meaningless. Andrew Philip Witty convincingly remarked that whatever GSK, a British pharmaceutical company, produced, it has been people-centric. And it is clean water, vaccines, calories and medicines that steadily increased the lifespan of people from 40 years in 1916 to a remarkable 80 by 2016.  GSK serves 17 million HIV affected people mainly concentrated in sub-Saharan Africa where no intellectual property resources regime is in operation, as they have no money to afford it.  There has been a huge reduction in the HIV affected population.

A resourceful panel on Philanthropy consisted of John Wood of US, Kris Wiluan of Malaysia, Binod Chaudhary of Nepal and PNC Menon, an Indian-Omani businessman. Chaudhary enthralled the audience with the stories of Chaudhary Group’s effective participation in the post-earthquake relief and rehabilitation in Nepal.

Myanmar’s Serge Pun, who has been the most dynamic banking service provider, made a nostalgic intervention as to how his family was uprooted by the military regime in 1962 and how they fled to China to spend some of his most harrowing years during the Cultural Revolution. When he left China for Hong Kong, he had only $5 in his pocket. He re-entered Myanmar in 1989 and never looked back since then.

The other side

Another fascinating tale by a senior leader of JP Morgan in China made all of us realise how powerful China has been as a state. In the recently held G-20 meeting in Guangzhou, the entire city was so quiet and tranquil as all its 8 million people were literally asked to go for a forced vacation. Guangzhou lost 6 billion RMB during these three days as all the manufacturing units were closed down. It was for the first time in the last several years that Guangzhou saw such a clear blue sky. Michael Milken, while corroborating this, remarked that when he was in Beijing in 2004, someone told him that the present four lane roads will be converted into 16 lanes before the 2008 Olympics Games started. As he wandered how, his Chinese assistant told him all the buildings around them would soon be demolished. That really happened in 2008, which could have taken two centuries in a country like India, he uttered cryptically.

Interestingly, in the whole Asia Summit, South Asia, particularly India and Pakistan, hardly figured except in two specific related sessions. This is something to ponder about for the politicians, policymakers and corporate honchos on this side of the world.


Lama, who teaches in Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, was a panellist in the session on “Accelerating Infrastructure: Leveraging Partnerships and Mitigating Risks” at the Asia Summit. He can be reached at mahendralama1961@gmail.com

Published: 21-09-2016 08:21

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