October 13, 2015
thoughts on

Asia House’s Asian Business Leaders Award Dinner

October 13, 2015
Organized by:
Asia House
Featured on:
Westminster’s Banqueting House, London
featured on
Westminster’s Banqueting House, London
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This award, first and foremost, recognises the achievements of my many colleagues at CIMB who have been with me since our days as a small merchant bank, to what we are today.

Good evening. 

I am honoured and humbled to stand before you, underneath Rubens and in this historic and magnificent setting, to receive such a prestigious award and join the list of distinguished past recipients who include many friends who I admire and respect. 

(Tony Fernandes is not a past recipient, so I am not applying the terms of admiration, respect and friendship for him). 

Thank you to the Board of Asia House for selecting ME (instead of Tony). 

This award, first and foremost, recognises the achievements of my many colleagues at CIMB who have been with me since our days as a small merchant bank with about 70 staff all in Kuala Lumpur in the late-1980s, to what we are today - an ASEAN financial powerhouse with over 40,000 employees in 17 countries. My career has also been about bringing together ASEAN businesses in support of economic integration, so this award is also a tribute to the team at the CIMB ASEAN Research Institute, or CARI, and my colleagues at the ASEAN Business Club, or ABC, some of whom are here tonight. 

Thank you to everyone for being here this evening – sponsors, friends and clients. To those of you from Malaysia - when we first invited you, the pound and London was about 25% cheaper so I am touched that you have kept to your commitment to be here, even if it's actually mainly because of the rugby or half term. 

Ladies and gentlemen


CIMB has aligned itself with ASEAN since 2007 when our governments launched the ASEAN Charter. Our corporate tagline became "ASEAN For You" and we expanded aggressively across the region to create a banking platform that would best serve the needs of multinationals, companies and individuals that operate or just move around the region. 

We fully embraced the ASEAN Economic Community, or AEC, as described in the Charter - the promised land of a single production base with free movement of goods and services and skilled labour by 2015 and we designed our business model to benefit from the expected greater flows of businesses across borders and the promised ease of operating in multiple markets. 

In future, we may need to be a little more careful with what the label says. It's been real- ly hard trying to be an integrated ASEAN company while economic integrators battled legacies, bureaucracies and domestic priorities. If that wasn’t enough, post-2008, regu- lators turned much more cautious about cross-border banking. 

Operating in multiple markets, especially in incredibly diverse ASEAN, is already very challenging as it means managing and navigating different cultures, languages, eco- nomic structures and political systems. For instance, when I give instructions to staff in Singapore and they say yes; it means they will get it done. When my Indonesian staff answer yes; it just means yes, they heard me; it may not necessarily get done. When I ask my Indonesian staff for an out-rider to help navigate the traffic to the airport, he ar- ranges a police escort. When I asked my Thai staff for an out-rider to navigate Bangkok traffic, he gave me my own helmet and a motorcycle. Trying to overcome similar traffic challenges in Manila, I was introduced to the Filipino solution known as "counter traffic" and lived out the scariest 30 minutes of my life; driving on the wrong side of the highway at full speed with flood lights on. 

But knowing all that I know today and having experienced everything that I have across ASEAN, I am happy to say that if transported back in time to 2005 when we first decid- ed to evolve CIMB into a regional universal bank, I would still do the same, with little tweaks in tactics and pace only. 

AEC is a beautiful idea; it is also a necessity for our ten nations to come together to re- alise the economies of scale of a market of 650 million and all the cross-border syner- gies that diverse ASEAN promises. 

At CIMB, we see ASEAN’s potential every day and we love it. 

We saw an Indonesian scarf maker who was earning $400 per month. She discovered e-commerce and ASEAN, and is now earning $10,000 per month. CIMB Group's cash management system came from a local Indonesian vendor, which we have turned into a thriving ASEAN company. Last year, we advised two Thai banks to borrow capital funds from the ringgit bond market simply because they now can and it was cheaper. New companies like GrabTaxi and HappyFresh have expanded rapidly across ASEAN when unconstrained by old economy non-tariff barriers. Even in the face of lots of non-tariff barriers, there has been a proliferaton of successful ASEAN multinationals – AirAsia, Ayala, Axiata to name just a few of the “A’s”. And many of us are working together in third countries, including here in the UK. Battersea, for instance, is supported by Malay- sian and Singaporean banks. 

Ladies and gentlemen 


When I was informed by Michael Spence of this award late last year, I remember think- ing: “Yet another reason to look forward to 2015”. Indeed, 2015 was set to be THE year for the region, and for Malaysia, as the chairman of ASEAN in the year it becomes a community. And for companies like CIMB, 2015 was supposed to be all about position- ing for the AEC and all the new opportunities it would bring for those who have prepared themselves. 

But alas, as they say, man can only plan, The Lord determines. 

2015 is set to be an "annus horribilis" for emerging markets – of a scale not seen since the Asian Financial Crisis. Our governments have been distracted, and ASEAN some- what neglected. Most ASEAN economies have been hit hard, but Malaysia has been probably the hardest hit because of its heavy reliance on oil and other commodities, lack of government fiscal space, and the most bizarre developments on the political front. 

I would just make three points about the present: 

  1. The ASEAN project should not be judged by what happens in 2015. ASEAN has been crucial to enabling our region weather many political and economic storms since it was formed in 1967. As for the AEC, it should be judged not by falling short of high ambitions but by the multitude of achievements, including the almost- complete reduction in tariffs, the proliferation of ASEAN multinationals and the now irreversible momentum of economic integration that has built up. Going forward, I hope ASEAN finds a way of more effectively coopting private sector drive and disci- pline to implementing economic integration initiatives. ABC stands ready.
  2. CIMB and all banks in the region will be challenged by the economic headwinds im- pacting markets and borrowers. However, all major ASEAN banks have bulked up and enhanced operations and business practices tremendously since the Asian Fi- nancial Crisis. We will all prove resilient.
  3. To quote Winston Churchill, “Never let a good crisis go to waste”. Last week at the annual Khazanah Megatrends Forum in Kuala Lumpur, I called for the establishment of a National Consultative Council in response not just to the current political and socio-economic situation in Malaysia, but also because of the realities of the new world economic order. Our political-economy that is substantially based on a 1970s design – affirmative action, heavy government presence in business, superior ver- nacular vs national schools etc - will simply not cope with demands of the new economy that requires us to attract and retain the most talented individuals, enable and encourage creative disruption versus vested interest, and spur innovation by un- leashing creativity and entrepreneurship, especially of the young. Malaysia has been a great success story amongst emerging countries for many years and it has great potential not least as the best gateway to ASEAN. But, it is time for us to acknowledge that “what got us here, won’t get us there”. 

Ladies and gentlemen 

While I am being recognised tonight for my past achievements at CIMB and contributing to ASEAN, I intend to view this award as further motivation for my future, as an agent for the changes that I have talked about – 1) AEC needs ABC and other private sector to volunteer to help accelerate the pace of integration. 2) Malaysia needs national - so- cial, political and economic - recalibration. 

Let me end with two thank you’s - 1) To Asia House once again. 2) The most important thank you of all: To my dearest wife, Azlina, my not-so-silent partner in everything that I have done, achieved, and intend to do. 


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