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
Who do you think of when I mention the words “grit and resilience”?
The first person that comes to mind, of course is Nelson Mandela. Nelson Mandela is such an obvious person because he went to prison for so many years, and then emerged with no apparent bitterness, and still had the capacity to look at life positively. That is an amazing quality. Stephen Hawkins is another good example of resilience – to have this kind of physical disability and to still be able to lead a rich life of engagement with the world and inspire others is amazing. Mohammad Ali, who recently passed away, his life is a case study in resilience. A heavyweight boxing champion stripped of everything for taking a stand against the Vietnam War, then coming back against all odds to win twice, leading a life of dignity even after being diagnosed with Parkinson disease. That is resilience.
But we don’t need to look at such high profile figures or dramatic circumstances. We can look at ordinary people closer to our own lives. For example, my late father, was a person of great resilience. From his 40s he suffered with poor health, and was often bedridden because of kidney failure. However, this didn’t prevent him from having a positive outlook on life. Was everyday a great day for him? No. There were days of great difficulties, but he didn’t turn inwards, he continued to be a blessing to his family, his friends and the community. He enjoyed travelling, he enjoyed the company of people and he continued to look at life positively. In the life of every great person, you will find a resilient person. If you look at the lives of people who have made a positive impact on the world, you will find that one thing stands out: when things don’t go well – how do they respond? When they fall, they pick themselves up. If they fall again, they pick themselves up again. Every person of significance I can think of, has had this quality.
How can we use the examples of these people’s lives to our advantage?
In our own life, sometimes the unexpected can happen. If you are aware of this quality called resilience, you can take a step back and ask yourself where do you go from here? Do I give up? Do I change course? Do I regroup and do something else? Resilience means you always say to yourself, the journey goes on, this is not the end.
One of the most difficult questions in life is knowing when to persevere and when to quit. What are your thoughts on this?
Resilience doesn’t mean you keep on doing something regardless of your ability to sustain it. When I was struggling to keep Asia Inc magazine going, I made a judgment call to quit because I believed that the business model and the business environment didn’t support it anymore. Resilience means you don’t come to that conclusion at the first roadblock that you encounter. You come to that conclusion when you have exhausted all possibilities. There are plenty of stories of people who persevered and made a breakthrough. But there are also stories of the people who persevered and failed. They should have called it a day earlier and moved on. Everyone must know where to draw the line. And I will never suggest putting your child’s school fees in front of the line.
Why is resilience an important virtue for Bruneians to consider?
If Brunei wants to diversify and develop entrepreneurs who can be successful in the broader Asean region, qualities such as perseverance, grit and resilience are crucial. One of the challenges with an affluent society like Brunei, when a whole generation of people grow up in a comfortable background, in a society that’s not very demanding – is that these qualities are much less developed. Many of the top achievers in life are not necessarily those who are the most gifted, but those who developed the most resilience.
How do you develop resilience?
Part of developing resilience depends on how you are brought up. I think sometimes modern parenting tends to be softer compared to my generation. In this regard, sometimes the old school way of stricter parenting may be useful. What exactly is the balance? I don’t know. I’m a firm believer that we can bring up our children with learned optimism. That means, when you have a setback you feel it, but you say to yourself, if I work at it, tomorrow will be better. Similarly with the economy, we need to create an environment that encourages competition and discourages coddling. I am skeptical of the whole notion of creating entrepreneurs through external intervention, however, the idea of creating an enabling environment that helps entrepreneurs to thrive makes more sense to me. To succeed in business, you need to have some level of intelligence, but you don’t need to be a genius. You need to be well organised. But most importantly, you need to be willing to grind it out.