Strong Arm Tactics Don't Work Well in Asia

First posted on August 25, 1997

By David James

David JamesOn the international scene, politicians enjoy an advantage over businesspeople. They can play to their constituencies back home or elsewhere, offend those with whom they are meeting, and ignore the business at hand.

All this was in ample evidence in 1997 at the meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. As host of the meetings, Malaysia's then Prime Minister, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, led off with some of the anti-Western sentiments that sustained his popularity at home and with other developing nations. He criticized the Western superpowers once again for seeking to impose their value systems on others. He also attributed turmoil in Southeast Asian currencies to the acts of U.S. financier and philanthropist George Soros, who promotes human rights and democratization around the world. He claimed that Soros and other speculators attacked ASEAN currencies in order to block Myanmar's admission to ASEAN.

U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, a guest of the meetings, was no less forthright. Albright, who promised to "tell it like it is" during her tenure, admonished the ASEAN ministers to promote human rights and democratic change in Myanmar, Cambodia and North Korea, and to support nuclear nonproliferation. One ASEAN diplomat commented after her talk, "We expected something of a lecture, and that's what we heard."

Albright then headed off to the Middle East to help bring the Israelis and the Palestinians back to the peace table. More lecturing by Madeleine, much falling on deaf ears.

In Asia-Pacific business dealings, few Asians are as confrontational as the durable, strong-willed "Dr. M," but many Westerners are as direct and candid as Secretary Albright. The result is that Westerners often jeopardize or bungle promising deals and relationships with their Asian counterparts.

Asian cultures are steeped in collectivist values. Ranking high among these values are the obligations to show respect for another person, to show humility, to suppress one's individual interests in favor of others, and to avoid offending others. Indirectness and subtlety are the result. In some cultures, especially the Japanese, mere body language can convey volumes. Intentions and meanings are often difficult to discern, especially for people from another culture.

Western cultures, on the other hand, hold to individualist values: candor and directness, the importance of the role of the individual in society, and the rights and freedoms of individuals (and thus the strong emphasis on human rights and democracy).

Western businesspeople are the most at risk in an Asian/Western business relationship because they often misinterpret or fail to understand what their counterparts are communicating. An Asian will certainly get the message from the Westerner, but the opposite may not be true.

No doubt this sort of East-West dysfunction is abating as global trade and international sophistication grows. People throughout the world are gaining understanding of each other, and international businesspeople are learning (sometimes from their own mistakes) how to get things done.

Also, goodwill and good humor will often carry the day. In 1997, during the skits that traditionally close ASEAN meetings, Secretary Albright, dressed as Evita and performing a variation of "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina," sang:

Don't cry for me ASEANies
The truth is I always loved you
All through the SLORC days
and the Hun Sen days . . .
I came here to talk to your leaders,
But they were all on the golf course
So I went back to Sunway Laguna
and called George Soros,
Talked market forces.
Hatched a conspiracy.
The rest is history.

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