Asia Inc Forum seeks town hall vibe for Asean 100Dato Paduka Timothy Ong, Asia Inc Forum

Posted on  03/09/2011  |  Media Centre

Saturday, September 3, 2011

DATO Paduka Timothy Ong (pic), chairman of Asia Inc Forum, wants to provoke debate and analysis in the Asean 100 Leadership Forum on September 28-29 in Manila.

An annual event that invites some of the brightest minds across Asean to discuss current issues and enhance relationships, this year’s forum will tackle whether Asean is close to becoming “One Asean”. One of the highlights this year is an address from Philippine President Benigno ‘Noynoy’ Aquino III whether the Philippines can be the next “Asian Tiger”.

Dato Ong talks to The Brunei Times about what participants can expect from this year’s forum.

Dato Ong, let’s start off firstly, by asking what can we expect from this year’s Asean 100 Forum?

Firstly, I hope it is going to be a great experience. The Asia Inc Forum team is focusing on delivering a very high-quality event, and what I mean by “great experience” is a conference which will encourage people to share views, to disagree if they disagree, so that we can learn from each other more effectively. Some meetings are not conducive to that, so we want to create a setting where people are comfortable enough to speak and there is engagement.

The kind of atmosphere that we try to create is sometimes referred to as a “town hall” discussion, so it is not like ‘spectators and role players’, but more like we are all together.

Whether we succeed or not, it is a different story, but that is what we want to achieve.

Since the Asean 100 started in 2003, how has it changed and progressed year-on-year?

Year-on-year we get better, because the Asia Inc Forum approach is that there is always room for improvement. Over the years, we have learnt a lot about what works and what doesn’t.

I am hoping that we will come up with some interesting ideas for the two key questions that we have set for ourselves: the first is how close are we to ‘One Asean’, some people will say we are close, and some will say we are not close, but no one will say we are already there.

Secondly, we are looking at the Philippines, and we have deliberately made this rather provocative, and we asked if the Philippines can be the next Asian Tiger. Now, very briefly, the Philippines 50 years ago, was probably the most advanced economy in Asean, and 50 years ago, clever Southeast Asians would go to the Philippines to study dentistry, medicine, business and so on, but in the last 50 years, the country has gone into a steady decline, and today it is considered a laggard. If you look at the country, it has potential. It has high-quality people, great companies, Jollibee, ICTSI, Ayala, and these are all great companies, so we think that it is a very useful question to ask at this time.

First, our expectation is to deliver a very good experience, meaning, a very well-organised event where people are comfortable to talk to each other; and secondly, we hope to come up with useful and interesting ideas to answer the two questions.

What sessions can we expect this year and what will be some of the highlights that you think participants will be interested in?

You will see from the programme that we are having a masterclass on social media, and branding, a masterclass on education and a masterclass on black swans (the unpredictable). The debate will be fascinating where it will touch on nationalism and regionalism, and we have confirmed one of Asean’s great debaters Khairy Jamaluddin Abu Bakar (a member of Parliament for Rembau and Chief of UMNO Youth), who is really good on his feet, and the whole thing will be very punchy, very informative and very few long speeches.

President Aquino won his last election with the promise of change, in particular he promised good governance, and he has taken a very strong stance against corruption, which has been a problem in the last few decades. His mother, during her presidency, was well known for her honesty, and I think he intends to follow in his mother’s footsteps, but we need to know him better. I think that this Asean 100 is an opportunity for us to hear first-hand what his views are, and for him to have some exposure to a cross-section of people in Asean. The uniqueness of the Asean 100 is that it is not just government or business, it is government, business and civil society, where you have intellectuals, journalists, you have younger business leaders, politicians and it’s that mixture that is useful.

Just going back earlier, we mustn’t forget the luncheon address, on the Arab Spring, about the events in the Middle East, why they happen and what’s next. That will be very stimulating.

How are the events in the Middle East related to the current issues in Asean?

We live in a world where everything is connected, and that is what globalisation is about, so while our focus is Asean and the Philippines, it is important to remind ourselves that we are part of a bigger world and the development in the Middle East has an impact on our lives. HRH Raja Nazrin Shah, Crown Prince of the State of Perak, will cover this in his talk. For example, the resolution to the crisis in Libya has a bearing on the price of oil. In fact, political instability in the Middle East, has a bearing on the price of oil. I’m just using this as an example. The role of social media, there is no doubt that social media was a new dimension in the uprisings in the Middle East, but how?… Exactly what is that role of social media and what are the implications for government control of their societies. We know that social media is an empowering force, but we also know that it has a dark side, because you could spread false rumours if you are skilled at social media. This is a relevant part of the programme and in the Asean 100, we always try to have one of these ‘big picture’ sessions, just to remind ourselves that we are part of a bigger world.

Having three groups of people, businessmen, politicians and intellectuals, what common ground do these people have that will encourage discussion?

One of the ideas about the Asean 100 is that in life we sometimes tend to operate within our own circles, so politicians tend to interact mainly with politicians, business people with business people, intellectuals with intellectuals, and there is some intersection but not much. We believe that there is something very useful about mixing people up. On a day-to-day basis it is not easy, because we have to conduct our everyday business, but we think that once a year, we will bring these people together and mix them up and we think that it is always useful for people to learn and we have to depend on. Modern life is all about interdependence whether we like it or not, business people require politicians who understand business, politicians require business people who are beyond just making money, and intellectuals, in order to be practical, have to understand how the real world works. We believe that everyone has something for each one to learn from. There are conferences just for business people, just for intellectuals and so on, but ours is not that kind, and mixing people up, we have found that it works very well … This is what I think is the uniqueness of the Asean 100. I find that people express their views quite openly at the Asean 100, and part of it is that we don’t have resolutions, we don’t negotiate with each other and we don’t have closings/conclusions, because once you do that, people become very careful and suddenly we all become nationalists. We invite them as individuals because we are Asean, and we try to have a cross-section. Obviously, we don’t want to have an Asean 100 that is 90 per cent people from the Philippines and 10 per cent from the rest, we try to have some from each country and try to give it that diversity and we have found that we have created an environment that people are comfortable to talk openly.

The debate is the final part of the Asean 100 Forum that is quite interesting, especially its topic about regionalism versus nationalism. Could you elaborate more on the debate?

Most of us have mixed views, and the thing about a debate is that you actually create two opposite oppositions and very few people are one end or the other. Asean is about regionalism, and what it means is that Asean is about thinking of the interest of the whole, rather than just thinking about your own little bit. However, Asean’s big challenge is that most of us, if given a choice between regionalism or nationalism, would put nationalism first. For example, if you wanted to present the view that any car manufactured in Asean could be sold in any Asean country, free of tariffs, you may have opposition from an Asean country that is making its own car and creating a car industry.

You have to remember that these Asean countries are not just members of the same club, they are also competitors. They are both comrades and competitors, and this kind of tension will never go away because you can be members of the same family and still have rivals within the family.

It is useful to have this debate as a way to educate ourselves. We tell our debaters that they don’t have to necessarily believe one or the other, however if you are on this side, you have to argue strongly for that side regardless of what you believe in. The audience joins in and we take a vote at the beginning and a vote at the end, and the winner is the most persuasive side. If at the beginning 55 per cent believe that about nationalism, and 45 about regionalism. At the end, 51 per cent believes that Asean is about nationalism, and although 51 per cent is the majority, the other side has won because they have managed to swing it by four percentage points. So it is not about which side has the majority it is about which side is more persuasive, and we see which side has been able to capture the hearts and minds of people more.

The Brunei Times

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