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
It has been said that, “A leader’s job is to define reality and give hope.” We spoke to Dato Tim Ong about his view on leadership in today’s world. Here is an excerpt taken from our discussion with him.
There has been very little literature about leadership in Asia. Humility, for example, is a virtue that is commonly identified with Asian leaders. In your opinion, are there differences in leadership styles between Eastern and Western leaders?
I would not generalise in terms of Eastern and Western leaders because there are some Asian leaders that are frankly not humble. I think each leader has his or her own style, but authenticity is important. There is nothing worse than fake humility, and we sometimes see that. We want authenticity. When we meet someone, we want them to be themselves because when you are not authentic, people catch on. For example, Aung San Suu Kyi; very, very brave, but does she come across as very, very humble? Not really. She has an authority to her. She is not arrogant, but is extremely confident. Aung San Suu Kyi walks into a room and she is in charge. She has no hesitation about giving her views and telling you that she doesn’t agree with yours. It works for her.
I think in today’s democratic context, humility is important. But it has to be authentic. President Jokowi’s style works very well for him and for that reason, he is loved in Indonesia. Now, he will face challenges because when you rule you have to do things that people don’t like. There’s a controversy now about capital punishment. This issue has subjected him to attacks particularly from the West. When you have to make certain types of decisions, this may affect your popularity. But his style, the way he walks with the crowd, the way he smiles, the way he seems like the man in the street, while people value the humility in him, the key is it has to be authentic. In his case, it comes across as authentic, and that makes it powerful.
Why is it important for leaders to be able to learn from mistakes?
One is learning all the time in life. One does not just learn from older people, you can also learn from younger people and children. It is important to have an outlook that is open to new ideas and always to be willing to be challenged. Easier said than done because we all have egos, we all have vanity, so sometimes we like people to simply accept what we say. But a certain openness of mind is important to learning and personal development. I think it’s very important to have the realisation that you can learn so much from mistakes. A mistake is not the end of the story. So I am not at all shy about talking about the mistakes I have made with my Asia Inc experience because I find that every great person has made mistakes. The only difference between people who are very successful and those who are not so successful is their ability to learn from their mistakes and to regroup and to bounce back. I think that a leader can do so much for other people by having an open discussion about this and by saying to people, “Look at me. I made a mistake, I learned from it, I bounced back, and so can you.”
What key traits enable leaders to be successful?
There is this saying, that “Success is not from never failing, but in rising every time you fail, or fall.” So that’s the key – resilience. Resilience is the ability to become stronger even when things are not going well. Whatever you are going through in life, you say to yourself, “This too will pass.” I think the bottom line is never give up. No matter how bad things are, never give up. It is easier said than done, you need to have people who you can share the burden with. Having a strong supportive family makes a difference. Having good friends makes a difference. Having faith, some spiritual sustenance, makes a difference.
Are there any leaders that you admire?
Yes there are many with outstanding qualities but in terms of impact on their societies I think of three: of course, Lee Kuan Yew. I mean, Lee Kuan Yew’s place in history, in my view is assured. This is a man who transformed his society and demonstrated powerful leadership qualities. And one of the most powerful was the ability to persist with things that are unpopular; and to resist playing up to popular sentiments. Aung San Suu Kyi – her career is still evolving and I don’t know what the last word on her career will be, but her courage is very admirable. Also Washington Sycip, the way his mind works, the clarity of his thinking, the way he communicates is inspiring. I must also say that I greatly admire my former boss in the BEDB, HRH Prince Mohamed.
Can you tell us more about HRH Prince Mohamed?
He has a unique style of motivating people. I think that once the objectives are clear, he empowers his people to do their best. He is supportive but he is very demanding in terms of making sure the goals are clearly understood. He’s a highly intelligent person, but the approach is not intellectual in the conventional sense. It doesn’t come from having read scholarly books and so on, but it comes from a certain insight into how human beings function. And he will push you to ensure that your ideas are clear by asking very basic questions and asking them repeatedly. So I would cite him as an example of someone who has helped to shape me.