Dato Timothy Ong is a leading Brunei businessman and the Chairman of Asia Inc Forum, he is also an acclaimed facilitator of business and public policy dialogue in ASEAN and beyond. He served as the Acting Chairman of the Brunei Economic Development Board (BEDB), Brunei’s leading economic agency from 2005 to 2010
This issue focuses on Ordinary Heroes – people who do work that make a difference to the society. Could you give us your view on the word “significance” and how it is relevant to business.
Significance is important to all of us as human beings. But we need to remember that the main purpose of a business is to be successful, it’s not to create significance. The idea of significance is important to all of us. So if we view significance as something that makes people happier, that improves the quality of their lives, then any business that can connect to this idea will have a competitive advantage.
For instance, I have to tell you that the most rewarding part of my business, and I am in the business of creating events which bring people together- is the opportunity to bring young people together to meet people who they would have waited a very long time to meet. At every one of our events we invite a number of students and give them the chance to meet world leaders. This to me resonates with the idea of significance. But it’s up to each organisation has to interpret this in its own way.
For instance National Insurance, the company which I’m involved with has an active CSR program where they do work with underprivileged kids. But let’s get back to the fact that the key objective of a business is to be successful.
If you can create significance in the way that we’ve just discussed, that will certainly help your business. But regardless of whether it helps your business or not, as human beings our lives are made so much better when we make others feel good. As I’ve grown older I’ve learnt that the pleasure of giving is so much greater than that of receiving. When you help someone it always brightens your day! For example, if you’re driving and happen to see a car that has broken down on the side of the road the temptation to ignore it and drive past is great. But somehow if you mange to make the decision to stop and help the person, this instantly brightens your day. So I think that as human beings we can benefit so much from giving because when we give we are also being generous to ourselves.
The biggest giver in the world is Bill Gates. I once met him briefly in Shanghai, but people who know him well have said in their written accounts that he is like a new man since he’s become a philanthropist.
A lot of his wealth is now spent on helping causes that the rest of the world won’t touch, because these causes cannot attract money to solve them. Some problems you can commercialise, you can solve them and make money at the same time but there are some problems that world turns its back on but Bill Gates gives his money to these causes. I must say Bill Gates looks like he’s having the time of his life and he seems to be a very happy man. So I think that if the idea of significance is about contributing and making people happier, then every business should do it because it will be good for business. But regardless of this, we as humans should always try to do acts of kindness.
You once gave a talk on YouTube saying that “You can’t be generous if your business is not making money”. Can you comment on this?
In terms of that particular statement I wanted to make the point that for a business to do good it has to make money. This does not mean that as a human being you can’t do good deeds for others. Bill Gates is the world’s biggest philanthropist because he’s a successful businessman. Imagine if he’d gone bankrupt then no one would have benefited at all. So when you run a business you must not forget the fundamentals -: manage your costs; manage your cash flow; make sure there’s enough income coming into the business and then you must also try to do all that you can to make the world better.
Contribute to the community; instil passion in your employees; and create significance with your customers. But all that will come to very little if your business fails – then there will be very little that you can do. The more successful you are in business the more you are able to contribute to the community. Some people may have misunderstood the point that I was trying to make. They thought that I was just interested in money. But that’s not the point because in the end a business must be able to make a profit. If your business is not profitable then there’s very little that you can do.