Close up on Asia: expectations, opportunities and challenges of a transforming region

Bridget Welsh, Associate Professor in political science at Singapore Management University, gives us some interesting insights on Asia, a region which has now become a key driver of the global economy.


In her interview, Professor Welsh illustrates the main challenges and opportunities for communication professionals who want to establish a dialogue with Asia and achieve an effective engagement with the region. She also provides useful advice on corporate communications for companies planning to expand in this key region. 

The profound changes Asia has undergone during the past years made it possible for this region to gain the status of key driver of the global economy. Could you give us an overview of the key elements of Asia’s ongoing transformation?
This is a complex and dynamic process. Part of the explanation lies with what has happened outside of Asia – in the US and Europe. The US’s economic 2008-2009 in particular forced Asian countries not to rely on this market for its exports and fueled greater regional integration and economic restructuring. The other part of the story rests within Asia, especially in China. The country’s pace of growth, trade and investment, size of the market and state interventions have moved China from a regional to a global powerhouse. We see increasing integration of the economies, expanding middle classes, moves away from export-led to consumer driven growth and increasing incomes. This growth however has not been even within countries and in the region as a whole. China has outperformed India, although this is likely to shift in the next few decades. Many of the Southeast Asian economies such as Indonesia and Malaysia have moved away from manufacturing to services and even greater dependence on its natural resources. There are serious inequalities across regions and in society as a whole. These place strains on the system, along with environmental challenges and rising inflation. This is to say that the dynamic has not necessarily been shared across the region in the same way. As we look ahead, it is necessary to recognize this diversity, to unpack the experiences of the ongoing economic transformation for different countries and peoples.

Yet, despite Asia’s influence is growing, we still lack a clear and comprehensive understanding of the region. With this respect, what are the main gaps and the key assumptions we need to unpack to ensure an effective communication with Asia?
An important starting point to appreciate the reality of diversity. Not all of the region is the same and the communication strategies need to adapt to these diverse local contexts. Another ingredient is the need to understand that the transformation has occurred very differently from that of the US or Europe. The government-business nexus operates in a very different way, with close personal ties and links that are often obscure to the untrained eye. The nature of communication is also different. Much of what is being communicated in Asia is not spoken, and often what is spoken is not the meaning of what is being said. “Yes” may mean “no”. One must avoid imposing the mode of communication in Europe with that in Asia in recognition of cultural differences. From diversity and difference in experience to the mode of communication and meaning, there are gaps that need to be addressed. It is best to begin with leaving many of the assumptions you have behind before you arrive.

In this particular context, communication professionals should change their perspective and adopt Asia’s terms if they want to reach an effective engagement with the region. What does this mean in practical terms?
They need to spend time in Asia. The only way to substantively learn is through exposure. An important element of this dynamic is building trust with people in the region, and if possible learning the language, especially if the relationship is expected to be long-term. The challenge for communication professionals is to understand trends, to appreciate the macro shifts ongoing in the region, as well as to understand what will be important potential trouble spots for cross-cultural communication. Often communication professionals are overwhelmed by micro everyday management responsibilities and take inadequate time to reflect more broadly. A more strategic approach is needed as this provides a map for effective engagement.

In their relationship and dialogue with Asia, what are the main learning opportunities for corporate communication professionals coming from outside the region?
Beyond educational programs such as the collaboration with USI and SMU, a main avenue involves internships with region-based companies. A simple visit to the region can also enhance understanding. Case studies offer particular insights. One example is to study the communication strategies (or lack thereof) of the MH370 tragedy. This event reveals underlying differences toward transparency, information sharing and cross-cultural obstacles. Even if communication professionals are unable to visit, they can learn from studying how government and private sector actors are responding in the global environment.

Any particular advice for companies that expand in parts of Asia with regard to corporate communications?
Do it soon. This is where the future of the world’s economy will be. You are already behind. Don’t do it alone. Partner with Asians in their engagement. Expect to make mistakes. It is not the mistakes that matter as much as what you will learn from the mistakes. Be humble when in error as this will build trust.

What are the most common pitfalls when mingling the European management style with the Asian management?
There are often too high expectations of each other from the get-go. This results in misunderstandings. It is better to build trust slowly than to have it break down as a result of too high of expectations. Different protocols in engagement and audiences are priorities differently. It is important to recognize these differences. It is also important to remember that what is not being said is as important as what is not said – in some cases more so.

Do you think that Asia is keen on liaising with the European management?
Absolutely. Asia is keen on learning from Europe and visa versa. The opportunities for exchange are robust and growing.