Career – Dato Timothy Ong

Dato Timothy Ong


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 article was published in the Oct-Dec 2015 issue of Inspire Magazine. Download it here!

Dato Tim Ong shares his thoughts on the meaning of “extraordinary career” and gives his views and advice on the current economic situation with the regards to the falling oil prices.

How do you define “Extraordinary Career”?
The easiest way to think about an extraordinary career is to look at one’s success against the odds. There’s the worldly definition – if it’s business it would be the size of the business. For others, it may be how you combine worldly success and success as a human being.

I think we need to think about what our values are, in answering this question. To have an interesting conversation about an extraordinary career, the starting point is really, what matters to us? Conventionally, if you look at Forbes or Fortune magazines, extraordinary is about the breakthrough business model, making a lot of money or building a rapidly growing business. As I have grown older, I now think of success in a different way; you may have built a very large business but if your family is dysfunctional – Is that success?

Who do you think has an extraordinary career?
I’d say Bill Gates, who was enormously successful as a businessman and now enormously successful as a philanthropist. I think that’s extraordinary. Having made a lot of money and now being very successful at giving it away. Some would argue that Donald Trump has an extraordinary career. However, one could also argue as to whether or not he is successful as a human being?

Businesswise, he has built a very successful business despite four bankruptcies, and as he reminds us – bankruptcy is part of business. Now he’s the Republican Party frontrunner and he’s also been very successful on television. For me, I think Bill Gates’ success lies closer to my values.

It would be more interesting to talk about people with an extraordinary career within our region. For example, Narayana Murthy from India, the founder of Infosys whom I sit together with on the board of Asian Institute of Management is one of them. Like Donald Trump, he has achieved tremendous wealth. His achievements speaks for themselves, but you feel a great sense of humility when you are around him. He is a philanthropist who sees himself as merely a custodian of his wealth.

We admire sometimes, a range of people for different reasons. In Australia, there is Andrew Forrest, one of the top 5 richest men in Australia. He is a mining tycoon from Western Australia who has pledged to give away most of his fortune during his lifetime. Such is the embodiment of an extraordinarily successful person in business and as a human being as well.

Brunei’s economy is facing a slowdown due to the sharp decrease in oil prices. As a business person, and as a previous Chairman of BEDB, how would you respond to the current situation?
Let me respond in general terms. I don’t want to respond as if I am making any judgement or know better. I think that the team in the office are trying their best and I must be supportive. As an oil dependent country- when oil prices are down. It is actually a great opportunity for economic reform; for changing things – so that it’s easier for people to do business and easier for people (outside) to invest and easier to succeed in business.

When oil prices are high, the incentives for doing these is less – for obvious reasons. When oil revenue declines, you will find that in many oil & gas economy- suddenly entrepreneurship flourishes, economic reforms kick into action. When oil prices drop, it is a reminder to us how vulnerable we are to forces beyond our control. It is very easy to forget this when oil prices are good. Suddenly we realise how fickle this kind of fortune can be. Therefore, in my view, it is a great opportunity for us to address issues like the ease of doing business; What are the things we can do to make it easier for businesses to succeed? What kind of red tape can we start to eliminate or streamline to make doing business more effective? And question ourselves about how competitive we are in the global market place.

This (oil price fluctuation) is of course not a permanent thing. The economics of oil and gas are such that the demand and supply of the oil and gas changes, there will be a new equation for the oil price when the economy adjusts itself.

As a business person, should I be concerned?
Of course you should be. Because in an economy like this, when oil prices drop, spending will decline in the economy. The oil and gas companies will cut expenditure; government spending will be more constraint, it has to be. Big projects will be under much closer scrutiny. It’s harder to spend money. I think all businesses in Brunei in this environment will need to be careful about how they spend money, they will need to scrutinize their costs more carefully. It’s a time for some belt tightening just to be on the safe side. There are, of course opportunities in every situation.