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Tips on doing business in South East Asia

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Preparing for Connected Cities entrepreneur mission

Singapore city skyline
Singapore city skyline

The 2016 Innovate UK/UKTI Connected Cities Mission got underway properly on Tuesday 23rd February with the International Readiness Workshop. We learned a lot of general tips about how to do business in South East Asia that are interesting to pass on here.

We finally got face-to-face with the 10 sparky UK companies chosen for the mission to Singapore and Malaysia.

Great British businesses keen to expand to terra incognita

They're a great advert for how young British businesses are taking advantage of the growing smart cities sector. Even better is their curiosity about Malaysia and Singapore and their keenness to find new business opportunities in terra incognita for them.

They had a range of questions like:

  • "Will Islamic finance rules be a problem?"
  • "What do women in business wear?"
  • "How do you address people?"

The mission has attracted a diverse spread of UK companies and business maturities - from Design for Social Change's crowdsourcing platform for humanising cities to Aralia, founded in 1995 and now embracing the security threats and opportunities of the connected city. So the answers to their questions should be widely applicable.

ASEAN business culture and practices

Here are some highlights from JFDI's presentation on ASEAN business culture and practice:

  • Before you arrive, prepare exactly how and when you will follow through. Many businesses come to visit but few commit to staying. You will be asked when you arrived and when you're going
  • ASEAN markets are in transition to a service economy. You may find Asian partners having a hard time seeing the value in intangibles like consultancy or branding
  • Diversity defines Asia. Its landscape is fragmented by geography, language, currency, regulation and culture
  • Get expert advice, for example on taxation
  • Listen before you speak and even then plan for misunderstanding
  • Dress tidily and give out business cards first with both hands. Take the trouble to read them

Business etiquette in Malaysia

  • Men: Don't touch Muslim women. Shake hands only if she initiates it
  • Give 'face'. This is fundamental to relationships so don't correct, challenge or contradict an authority figure in public and expect ‘theatre’ in group settings
  • Watch out for subtly different psychology. What do you see in this picture? Westerners will itemise or describe the objects - fish, weeds, frog etc. Easterners tend to describe the whole - an aquarium

Tips on Doing Business in South East Asia, fish tank

  • Not everyone has a ‘family’ name as is common in Judeo-Christian traditions. For example JFDI has an investor called “Uday” and that is his complete name. It’s helpful to capitalise family names where they exist: Hugh Peter MASON
  • Islam makes no division between the spiritual and the secular. Hence in countries and companies that adhere to Sharia (Islamic law) then only certain forms of socially responsible investment are permitted. Financiers share risk and reward with the business they are financing, rather than just make money from money.

Useful tools for business collaboration

In spite of all these differences, there is much on which to build long-lasting business relationships in South-East Asia.

In the workshop, the group of SMEs attending the mission found some of 100%Open's tools useful to prepare for business collaboration. For example, you can:

  • practice forming joint ventures, in 3 minutes!
  • explore a whole range of open business models and collaboration agreements for potential deployment in Malaysia and Singapore.
  • take the Co-Lab test in order to understand your collaboration style and how you interact with others.

Good luck with your business collaborations!

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