Business Success in ASEAN – Why Cultural Awareness is Crucial

Written by Jonathan Rice, Senior Consultant at Farnham Castle Intercultural Training

The ten nations of ASEAN are growing in economic power, and their markets represent a major opportunity for UK businesses, especially in our uncertain post-Brexit world. However, whilst it is a routine – if not necessarily easy – process, to work out the value of your products or services to the people of South East Asia, getting that message across is a far more complicated matter.

ASEAN countries may be close to each other on the map (although flying from, say, Manila to Jakarta is hardly a quick hop), but culturally they are very different, and there is a great deal of potential for unwary foreign business people to trip up. For a start, there are three major religions which shape the cultures of the region – Islam in Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei and the Southern Philippines; Buddhism in Thailand and Myanmar; and Christianity in the former French areas of influence of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, as well as in the majority of the Philippines. Singapore stands slightly apart in terms of the importance of religion in the daily lives of its people, but all religions are represented on the island, including Sikhism and Hinduism. It is vital to ensure that you are aware of the impact that these different faiths will have on your business dealings within the region.

Politics is another matter. In many parts of the region, religion and politics are closely linked, but in others they are carefully separated. The best advice is to steer clear of political discussions as much as possible.

Throughout the ASEAN region, you will find that people are less individualistic, and more likely to think in group terms, than we are in Western Europe and North America. Never talk up your own skills at the expense of others, and always be proud of your Company.

Alongside this tendency to identify with a group, comes a strong sense of hierarchy. Respect is given to people of a higher rank in a Company, and in wider aspects of society, simply because of their position. People are often referred to by title, rather than by name, so the title on your business card sends a powerful message. This respect for rank is something that visiting Westerners need to take note of, even though it is not the same across the whole region, being much more marked in Malaysia than in the Philippines, for example.

In general, you will find that family takes a very important place in the daily lives of the people you will be working with. Whilst we, in the West, try to battle with the work/life balance, with work winning out rather more often than it should, in Southeast Asia you will find that family events take precedence over work requirements, in a way that will seem surprising to the visitor. This sense of family is very strong, and the word itself does not just define the immediate nuclear family of husband, wife and children, but takes in cousins, uncles, aunts and so on. The ‘head of the family’ might be somebody’s great-uncle, an old man who many members of the family hardly know, but his role and influence in their lives can still be powerful.

Hierarchy, group identity, and respect for age and rank are common themes throughout the region, and these traits tend to create tight knit societies which can be hard to break into. Networking and getting to make friends of the individuals in the Companies you deal with, is important. This all takes time, of course, so patience and persistence are other qualities that are extremely useful in creating business opportunities in the region.

A final thought – practically all of the countries of ASEAN were for several hundred years, until only about 60 years ago, colonies of European powers, mainly British, French, Spanish or Dutch. This experience means firstly that there is an intense pride in their independence as nations, but also that there is a degree of shared cultural experience with Europeans that is very useful in building bridges of understanding. The superior Westerner is not appreciated. The person who adapts their business to the local cultural needs and habits, will prosper.

Celebrating the Festival Of Lights

Yesterday, Hindus celebrated the first day of Diwali: “Dhanteras” (Day of fortune). Observed over five days, Diwali, the Festival Of Lights, is one of the biggest festivals in the Hindu calendar, celebrated by over 1 billion Hindus in and outside of India. The festival, meaning 'row of lights' in Sanskrit, brings together friends and families as Hindus celebrate the removal of negative forces from their homes and lives. Throughout Diwali, houses, shops and public places are decorated with lights, symbolising the triumph of good over evil. The small lamps, called diyas, are used to expel darkness and welcome prosperity, health and happiness.

ThinkstockPhotos-607753164 - Diwali lights.jpg

The high point of the festival is the third day, Diwali (Day of Light). The day of Diwali varies as it is calculated primarily based on the moon, and falls between the 17th October and 15th November. This year, Diwali is celebrated on Thursday, 19th October. It is marked by fireworks and is also the last day of the Hindu year in many regions. It is said that on this day, Lord Rama vanquished the demon Ravana in an epic battle. Upon his return, his people lit lamps throughout the country to guide him home in the dark and mark a new era of peace.

If you would like to learn more about Indian culture and business etiquette, please get in touch or keep an eye on our events section for the next open webinar.


Nine Australians in Malaysia - when ignorance is NOT bliss!

A week ago, on Sunday 2nd October, the Australian Formula 1 driver Daniel Ricciardo won the Grand Prix in Malaysia. One week, four nights in prison, a court hearing and a job resignation later, nine Australian men are back in their home country, doubtlessly wishing they had done their research and celebrated more in line with their host country’s cultural values.

Apparently they stood handcuffed in front of a judge, apologising for their foolish behaviour (of publicly wearing swimmers emblazoned with the Malaysian flag) that could have resulted in a two year prison sentence.

Why am I mentioning this? Because all this happened, while we were holding a “Business Etiquette & Culture in Malaysia” workshop here at Farnham Castle. The ten people attending it will certainly not make this, or any of the many other, less obvious mistakes, while working with their Malaysian clients and business partners. 

Lack of cultural awareness doesn’t seem to be a big thing – until it is. Not often are the consequences arrest and detention but, as one Malaysian national commented, it can often result in humiliation and a negative impression, not only of that particular group of people, but a whole country or a company. A high price to pay!