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
What are the little things that make you happy?
Sometimes all it takes is a good book, a good coffee, someone smiling unexpectedly, or a funny joke. You know sometimes you meet someone and they say something really funny and even though you never intended to laugh out loud, you do.
Is it important to have a funny side?
I would argue that it is very important to have a funny side. If you have seen some of Barrack Obama’s performances at the press club he is so funny. I think it’s important for everyone, big or small, to have a funny side.
But the places you hang around work are very serious like APEC. Is there a funny side? Which leaders have a good sense of humour?
Obama in APEC is dead serious. I think president Putin is quite amusing, you don’t think of him as being funny. This last APEC I was struck by Jokowi who was so down to earth. He showed us a slide presentation of how he resolved this major blockage to building a highway in Indonesia. It was as if he was showing us his personal slide collection and then there was a picture of him talking to the people blocking the construction of the road, and he said “that’s me that’s me over there” it went from serious to being very warm.
Unpresidential is right but we warmed up to him. Maybe this is the new style of politics. The old style where there is a huge distance between ruler and ruled is changing.
Is this good or bad?
I think it just reflects the changing times. Like the way you talk to your daughter.
I think its much more on a friendly basis. In my generation and previous generations we talked to our parents much more formally. Like my late father, when he met his father it was very formal, there was no hugging; nowadays children disagree with their parents, and they debate with their parents.
I’ve known you for fifteen years, as a friend I would say that you are a lot happier now.
I think you are right. There are things that we learn…hopefully we get wiser as well as older.
So it’s a fair assessment?
It is a fair assessment, I am happier. I have learnt to distinguish between the things I should be bothered with and those that I shouldn’t be. So you know I have also learnt not to sweat the small stuff, not to be too bothered by things I cannot control and to focus on things that matter. Sometimes we get all flustered about things that don’t really matter. Someone said in the last moments of your life on earth you are rarely thinking about how much money you have or how many cars you have. You think about the people that matter to you. When I was younger I tended not to have this perspective I have now and this new perspective makes me happy.
You mentioned about not sweating the small stuff, but one of the most important lessons that I learnt from working with you is to sweat the small stuff, to be detail oriented and to strive for excellence. You were very particular about those things, how do you explain that?
Let me be clear, in your work you should be detailed, you should set yourself high standards, you should not settle for second best and you should not put up with sloppiness.
Which can make you rather miserable…?
At work you must do that. But, when I say you shouldn’t sweat the small stuff, I mean, after work you shouldn’t go “why was the camera like that, why wasn’t he dressed properly” you deal with that in your work. Don’t mistake ‘don’t sweat the small stuff’ with being slack. A lot of people say ‘ahh never mind’ that is bad because if you have that approach you are never going to achieve your full potential in life. You need to set high standards, the best example of this is Steve Jobs who was a real pain for the people who worked for him because he was so detailed, he was so obsessed with getting it right and he would never, never settle for something that he didn’t believe was the absolute best.
And that hasn’t changed for you?
I don’t have his standards. If you want to think of high standards it would be that. But also he became more philosophical as he was diagnosed with cancer at a young age. You can see in his interviews, towards the end of his life, there’s a great discernment between the things that are really important and the things that are not, but it never changed his high standards at work.