Knowledge – 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 Apr-Jun 2016 issue of Inspire Magazine. Download it here!

Donald Trump has reinvented himself from a remarkably successful real estate tycoon to a spectacular presidential candidate in the upcoming American elections. Win or not, he has made a name for himself through this campaign. What are your thoughts about Trump’s “innovative” career?
I think he’s a great marketer and a fantastic showbiz talent. I think he understands the media very well and that he has tapped into America’s anger and anxiety over how the economy has developed and the ground sentiment of the American people. But I am not convinced that he is innovative.

I do not think that Donald Trump has reinvented himself. He has always been like that. In fact, the reason that he appeals to the American public is because he’s stayed true to himself. He’s just as aggressive a person during the campaign as he is in his business office. His assertiveness and authoritative personality translates to the kind of leadership that resonates with his voters.

When Barack Obama ran for office, he raised most of his money from small donations on the internet. Donald Trump has not changed the model in which the campaign is funded (traditionally, campaigns are fought with funding from wealthy corporations), the only difference is that he funded his campaign all by himself. Innovation means doing something in a completely new way, and doing it successfully

So, what does innovation mean to you?
There are different ways of talking about innovation. There is the element of people coming up with a breakthrough, original idea such as Albert Einstein. And then, there are people coming up with breakthrough applications for other people’s ideas like the founder of Samsung, Lee Byung-chul – both are equally important. Most of the breakthrough ideas have come from Silicon Valley which has a relationship with Stanford University; an institution that has invested a tremendous amount of resources into research and development that may or may not lead to short-term returns.

Can you elaborate more about what you mean by breakthrough innovation and breakthrough application of ideas?
If you have been to London, you can attest to how pleasant the experience is when you take a cab. The reason is that there is a high standard set in order to become a London cab driver. He or she must pass a test, and obtain “The Knowledge” which involves the memorisation of every street in London. I know a chemist who studied at Oxford University, retired early at the age of 40 and then went on to become a London cabby. He confessed that getting “The Knowledge” was almost as tough, if not tougher than getting his Oxford University degree.

And then there’s the upstart from Silicon Valley called Uber. Uber rewrote the ground rules of the game. All of a sudden, you no longer require “The Knowledge” to be a cab driver, you can simply install a device called GPS. What is the difference? You get almost as good a service, but much cheaper. For our part of the world, the innovation seems to be related more to the application of ideas. Jack Ma is one of the richest men in China. He didn’t come up with the original ideas (for ecommerce) but he applied them in a unique way to help small businesses in China tap into online opportunities. We cannot all be scientists but the good news is, we can all innovate at many different levels.

Which small and innovative country should Brunei learn from?
My view is that, it is not about which country. It’s about what different countries can teach us. As far as I know, there is no country exactly like Brunei. In fact, each country is unique in its own way. For example, I know that Finland has an excellent mathematics and science program, it’s kind of innovative. Does it apply to us? I know that there are very interesting things happening in the small Gulf countries, in terms of reducing reliance on fossil fuels and going more towards renewable energy. But do any of these things apply to us? I also know that Singapore has a very aggressive program encouraging research and innovation…

I would prefer an approach which is not based on one country model, but on looking at what each country can teach us. It requires a certain mindset, an open mind. And it also requires the willingness to invest. In my view, it is difficult to have innovation if I want to see results in six months or one year. Innovation doesn’t happen like that. You create an environment and you need to have a certain long term perspective. And you also need to have a tolerance for mavericks and people who are different.