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ASEAN: 8 Tips for Doing Business

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, commonly abbreviated ASEAN, is a geo-political and economic organization of 10 countries (Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Myanmar-formerly Burma, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam) in a vibrant, emerging region (see economic information below).

Culturally, however, with approximately 600 million people and 8.8% of the world's population, ASEAN is very diverse. An ASEAN citizen's home country, ethnic group, socio-economic background, religion, and professional experiences determine his or her values. Work habits and views regarding business-family priorities, time management and life opportunities vary from country to country. Working in ASEAN gives one the ideal opportunity to immerse oneself in the diverse cultures underpinned by the four major religions of the world: Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam, providing rich experience that will serve you throughout the world.

What this Means to You

Given the vast cultural diversity, after you formulate your ASEAN region business strategy and plan of advance, the tips below will keep you at the table once you"ve secured a meeting on the ground.

  • Be aware of Deep Cultural Influences. Confucian values are dominant among Singaporeans and Vietnamese, whereas Islamic values govern much of social practices in Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia. Latin influences are prevalent in the Philippines, but Buddhist and Hindu values are deeply rooted in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand.
  • Be sensitive to Religious Factors. Indonesia, for example, is the largest Muslim country in the world, and there are many Muslims residing in other ASEAN countries. Even though many are considered moderate, it is best to respect and take note of religious customs - items such as pork and alcohol will be prohibited in those areas.
  • Honor the Hierarchy. There is a great respect for hierarchy both at home and in the workplace. There is appropriate protocol depending on your position and deviation from such norms could be disastrous. Be mindful of who you are speaking with and act accordingly.
  • Respect Formality. In social and business interactions, people tend to be formal, unless among close friends. Starting and developing relationships by assuming a formal posture until permission is given for more casual familiarity in interaction, shows respect and business-culture savvy.
  • Lighten up on the Handshakes and Eye Contact. Shaking hands is common for initial introductions and meetings, however, it should not be too firm. Eye contact is also much less direct in this part of the world, and people will feel more comfortable if strong or extended direct eye contact is avoided.
  • Pay attention to Business Cards. Relationships are very important in business so it is imperative that you carry business cards, which serve as mini-resume about you and your company. In addition, many people are not familiar with Western names, so a business card is also useful in assisting in this regard. Upon exchange, it is customary to absorb all the details of the card you receive, and avoid putting it away until the very end of the meeting.
  • Consider the need for Consensus. Generally, people work more from a sense of collective rather than individual responsibility. As a result, collective responsibility entails consensus decision-making and you may expect longer-than-normal wait times for decisions to be made.
  • Look for Subtle Aspects of Communication. People communicate in subtler, indirect ways that can be sometimes difficult for Westerners to understand. In business interactions, one must be sure to pay more attention to the context and subtle nonverbal gestures rather than just the words being spoken. In addition, since English is a second language for most people in ASEAN countries, you may need to speak more slowly and use simpler words to help ensure that you are understood. (Be sure to review 5 Critical Cross-Cultural Communication Tips and 5 More Critical Cross-Cultural Communication Tips.)

For many of our readers, these may not be new concepts. However, given their immense importance for relationship-building and ultimately business success, it's worth taking stock of your activities in the ASEAN region. Make sure you are not just applying the concepts, but implementing them in ways that are appropriate to the specific culture, or cultures, in which you are working.

Author: Gary Lim is a seasoned consultant and trainer focusing on marketing and distribution management in Asia. Located in Singapore, he has 25 years of experience working in and with multinational companies that represent a wide range of industries. With a Bachelor's Degree in Engineering and a Master's in Business Administration, he brings unique expertise and value to our clients.

Co-Contributor: Marc-Anthony Isaacs is currently a graduate student of Pacific International Affairs at the University of California, San Diego's school of International Relations and Pacific Studies (IR/PS) studying international management. Having worked in both Japan and China for a number of years, he now lends his skills and experience to the Rowland & Associates team as an intern.

ECONOMIC INFORMATION: With a combined nominal GDP of $1.8 trillion in 2010, the ASEAN countries would rank as the 9th largest economy in the world if they made up a single country. The simple average of economic growth within the last two decades between Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand has been around five percent and analysts purport that these ASEAN-5 countries are on-par with China in their "importance" to the world economy. Additionally, it is forecast that the Asia Pacific region, including ASEAN, will surpass the US and EU as the biggest economic bloc in the near future.

The area is rich in resources, such as oil, gas, coal, tin, bauxite, copper, nickel, iron, and gold. It has strong manufacturing capabilities, especially in electronics, automotive, petrochemical, pharmaceutical, and other consumer products. Singapore, with its service orientation and English-speaking business-friendly environment, serves as the regional hub. Politically very stable, the ASEAN countries have an open economy and a plethora of multinationals taking advantage of the opportunities this region presents.

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Rowland & Associates is a premier cross-cultural consulting firm, providing essential international business skills since 1985. Our passion is bringing intercultural business success through heightened insight and agility. We believe that bold steps with exceptional preparation can create dynamic solutions.

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