George Yeo: Those Who Are Able to Manage Differences, Will Add Value to Society

MBA 50th Anniversary Tour: Hong Kong


George Yeo

“Every time there are differences, there are possibilities to add value,” George Yeo, Chairman of Kerry Logistics / Photo: Pauta

On its third leg of the Asian tour in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the MBA, IESE alumni and friends met on March 24 in Hong Kong with guest speaker George Yeo.

Yeo is former Foreign Minister of Singapore, member of IESE’s International Advisory Board and currently Chairman of Kerry Logistics.

Cultural Sensibility: Feng Shui for All

Yeo’s session touched on global politics, business strategy and managing diversity. He began by discussing the importance of Feng Shui to the Chinese. This age-old practice aims to harmonize individuals with their surrounding environment and has been used historically to orient buildings and homes, taking into consideration the "invisible forces" that bind the universe, earth, and humanity together.

Strange as this practice may seem to a Westerner, he said, "if this meant having to keep the blinds down, you had to, even if the share price did not go up."

"By disregarding the views of others I would have created a negative spirit. While we cannot comply blindly, the point is that culture is important. Respect for others means respect for their cultural preferences."

A Harvard graduate, Yeo lauded IESE for being "highly sensitive to cultural diversity compared to other business schools."

"Harvard is still very much an American institution. London is still very British. But IESE is neither here nor there. It is betwixt and between. And while the lack of a dominant culture can somehow be a bit discomforting, this discomfort is in fact a source of energy. If you can make a small puncture in the boundaries, you can derive value. When cold and warm winds meet, you get tornadoes, hurricanes and typhoons," he said.

The world we are living is going through a profound shift. In the past it was dominated by the West and its ideas, but today’s world has become increasingly multi-polar and multicultural, and differences are a part of daily life, said Yeo. "Those who are able to manage these differences, will add value to society. Those who can't, who retreat into their own boundaries because it gives them more comfort, cannot add value."

Building Bridges Benefits Both Sides

The biggest and most important change happening in the region, said Yeo, is the re-emergence of Asian civilization in the global stage – principally China and India. "This is a huge phenomenon which will change our lives," he said. For the first time China's trade with its neighbours - Japan, Korea, Asean, India, Central Asia, Russia - has overtaken its trade with the US and EU combined. China has become the world's prime trading nation. And the trend is likely to persist.

"In five to ten years from now, China's trade with its neighbours, its economy integrating with other economies in Asia, will create the most important economic hole in the global economy; and change patterns throughout the region."

Yeo went on to talk about China’s infrastructure bank – "World Bank for Asia" – originally meant to improve connectivity between China and its Asian neighbours. "The U.S. were concerned about their position vis-à-vis the Breton Woods institutions – principally the IMF and World Bank – and attempted to dissuade several countries from supporting this endeavor."

"However, the Chinese worked on their friends and explained that this was not a contest for dominance. "We need the connections," he stressed, "every time there is a difference or boundary and you build a bridge, a road, a tunnel, an air connection, a fiber optic link, both sides benefit enormously. There is value creation and you improve the lives of millions of people."

Asked about the dangers of a predominant on the global stage, Yeo observed: "In Western mentality, power is constant jostling: if one rises, it is at the expense of someone else. If China behaved like a Western country, then the emergence of China would lead to war. If China had a ‘missionary’ mentality like the U.S. – then the whole world might be at peace. If China shared this mentality but felt that its rise had to be accompanied by its ability to make other people Chinese, then we would have a troubled world. But luckily the Chinese have no such ambition," he affirmed.

Learning to Manage Diversity

China's growing influence on the world stage also means it can no longer "keep a low profile." There are key issues to be negotiated, such as the extent to which China will internationalize its economy; and how to manage cyberspace. Is China likely to "homogenize" like other global players?

"I don't think so," says Yeo. "Its civilization has stood the test of time and has shown there is something tenacious in its internal design, which is also in the DNA of the Chinese people," he said.

The growth of China’s influence will create a lot of new boundaries with Japan, Central Asia, Russia, South East Asia; increasing beyond to India, South Asia to the Caspian, Africa and Central America. New Chinese communities are being seen in Africa, Central and South America. There are more inter-marriages creating a new culture of overseas Chinese.

"We should study these boundaries and remember that every time there is a boundary there is a pressure difference, and every time there is a difference, there are possibilities to add value," said Yeo.

"IESE teaches us how to manage this diversity. If you can accomodate differences, then you can become friends – not only is this wonderful, it is also morally right because everyone one of us is different. We are created different. The evil of communism was in trying to make all of us the same which is against our very deep nature. Each of us is individually accountable. So when we deal with one another, the respect for diversity, for individuality, for the uniqueness of every person is critical. In this regard, IESE provides one of the best environments in the world’s leading business schools."