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Why business leaders must have a future ASEAN strategy

The future of Australian business lies in leveraging the unique opportunities offered by the greater ASEAN region to stay globally relevant.


The 2012 Asian Century White Paper by the Gillard Government sparked what is now regular dialogue in the Australian business community about the benefits of having a greater engagement with Asia. However, despite the discussions, there has been little action taken by Australian businesses towards implementing an Asian business strategy (outside of China).

Meanwhile, Asia has a growing appetite for the innovative products and services that Australia is so highly regarded for and, in return, offers a fast growth and largely untapped market opportunity for Australian businesses. According to ANZ’s 2018 Asia Opportunity Report, Australian businesses could earn close to A$400 billion additional revenue with strategic Asian expansion.

The ASEAN region presents even greater prospects, with a combined population of approximately 660 million and a GDP of A$2.4 trillion. As the third fastest growing Asian economy after China and India and the fifth largest globally, it significantly outpaces Australia and boasts rapidly developing middle classes and a burgeoning young population. This is a game-changing investment opportunity for Australia.

Yet, the average Asia-readiness of the top 200 ASX listed companies (measured on six key capabilities such as market, cultural and language knowledge according to PwC) is pitiful. Although Australia is perfectly poised to seize the ASEAN opportunity with its regional proximity, it has been slow to act.

Australian businesses still have outdated views of the region despite ASEAN’s dynamic and vibrant development, with growing sophistication and international appeal. Other economic powerhouses are now taking notice of the region, giving the region more trade and investment partners to choose from.

So, how can Australian business leaders seize the ASEAN opportunity?

Here are 5 critical considerations for leaders in order to create long-term and sustainable success in the region:

  1. Think long-term from the start.

    This is crucial for traction in any ASEAN or Asian country – short-term strategies simply fizzle out and won’t deliver the results that you want. If you go in and then quickly exit because you don’t see the desired results immediately, the damage to a brand can impact re-entry. It is important to have all senior management executives and the Board buy into the strategy so that there is consensus at the highest level about what it takes to have a successful ASEAN strategy.

  2. Be persistent and patient.

    ASEAN requires time, commitment, energy and financial resources. It is important to understand this from the start so you can plan accordingly from both a financial and human resources perspective. Even with resources and talent, you will still experience barriers at times that might not be so visible from the beginning. The key is to be open-minded and know that you will learn along the way, tweaking the business and operating model at times to find your niche.

  3. Be relationship driven and people focused.

    Doing business in Asia is vastly different to how it’s done in Australia, and while the opportunity is regional, the nuances differ depending on the country. Generally, business is not done and dusted in a mere three meetings – it is about peer-to-peer relationships and commitment to the local market and its people. Relationships take time to build and need to be built on sincerity and respect. You need to be visible and seen to develop key relationships – whether that is with customers, suppliers, partners or other influencers.

  4. Give and take.

    A lot of businesses are very excited about the growth prospects for their business, yet they miss the point that it is a two-way street. It is important to create value in the region. Leaders must do their due diligence and commit to doing business in a way that respects local business practices and customs in order to create a collaborative and inclusive business environment that generates value for all involved.

  5. Cultural literacy and awareness.

    According to research conducted by Beasley Intercultural, Australians often view Asia as “a traditional and poverty-stricken region which needs Australian ‘help’, rather than a business destination”. With these outdated views comes lack of culture awareness, which is something that needs to be addressed when building operations in Asia. Leaders need to develop their people in interpersonal skills, empathy, self-awareness and an ability to respect diverse perspectives in order to negotiate the differences that a region like ASEAN presents.

It’s clear that Australian businesses needs ASEAN for their future survival. However, leaders must step-up and change their mindset. They must prioritise ASEAN in their future strategies and the time to act is now.

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