Dato Timothy Ong


Interview about Courage

“It doesn’t require much courage if you are living today the same as you did yesterday or you live tomorrow as you did today. You’ll get exactly the same result!”

How would you define courage?
Courage is something that is not so easy to define as it is such a rare commodity. It’s an attribute that you recognise when you see it. For example, speaking the truth; resisting the temptation (to just go with the flow); sacrificing privileges for a higher calling. It is much easier to imagine people with courage rather than ourselves. Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi and the stories of other great historical figures can help us to understand this better.

But a lot of times, these are larger than life examples. We need to ask ourselves, in day to day life, how does it work?

Do we have the courage to: Take the path less traveled; adapt to change; leave a job that we don’t enjoy; get outside of our comfort zone; show forgiveness to someone who has hurt us; engage in a difficult conversation on important subjects? For instance, there are many families who have difficult issues that are never addressed. Do we turn a blind eye? Or do we face the issue?

Starting a new business is a brave thing to do, even though you have done all the hard work and due diligence, taking the final step involves courage.

So, courage is about overcoming one’s fear.
Someone once said “I am doing something right when I feel fear, because the human tendency is to stay in our comfort zone.” It doesn’t require much courage if you are living today the same as you did yesterday or you live tomorrow as you did today. You’ll get exactly the same result! However, in order to flourish, to enjoy the richness of life, it is important to do different things. I have a very good friend who is one of the richest men in his country. He decided at the age of 50 that he would climb Mount Everest. It almost killed him. But it was such a great experience for him that he has not stopped climbing mountains since. Every year he endeavours to climb a different one.

There’s a fine line between courage and foolishness. What’s your view on that?
Courage is not about lunatic behaviour. It’s not about jumping off a building even if the rope is unsafe. Having courage doesn’t mean you live dangerously. Reckless behavior is not courage. Walking along a dark street in NYC which is known for mugging and robbery is not courage.

What are some of your everyday fears?
Because I am introverted myself, if I go to a function or a dinner without knowing anyone, I find it rather daunting. Courage is about overcoming fear, it is also about the willingness to put yourself in a vulnerable position. For example, if I have anxiety about looking physically stupid, like climbing a horse and being thrown off, and my main concern is about what would happen if I look life a fool, I would never be able to learn to ride a horse. Being vulnerable is how we are as human beings; it’s a step towards flourishing in life. I have a very wise friend. He’d ask me; how are you? And I’d say – I’m O.K. He’d respond, O.K. is no good. You should aspire to be Great, that’s how you flourish.

Can you share with us any good example of courage?
There’s a British historian named Tony Judt who suffered from Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS) where your whole body dies, but your mind remains intact. Even though he was unable to move, he continued writing until he died. Judt died of ALS at his home in Manhattan in 2010. This was two weeks after a major interview and retrospective of his work in Prospect magazine and the day before an article about his illness was published indicating that he “won’t surrender any time soon”. Following his death TIME said he was “a historian of the very first order, a public intellectual of an old-fashioned kind and – in more ways than one – a very brave man”. And there’s a neurologist, physician and author from NYU, Oliver Sacks– who died a year ago from cancer. He was in his early eighties. Based on the last few essays he wrote called gratitude, Sacks spoke about confronting the fear of death with a positive outlook. To me, they are both inspirational figures. They demonstrated that the essence of courage is having the ability to rise above our fears when we encounter adversity. When we face adversity and we’re able to rise above our fear, that’s courage.

Interview about Extraordinary Career

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.

Interview about Leadership

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.

Interview about Happiness

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.

Less respectful?
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.

Interview about Views on Leadership

What are the characteristics of a good leader?
I believe that a good leader should possess a few common traits. As a leader you must have a vision; for your country, for your company or for your organisation. You must know what your end goal is. You must have courage. Leadership means you have to make decisions that may not please everyone. Go for it, explain it and debate it.

Let’s take a look at the Former Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew. Singapore is probably the only country in the world that has gone from third world to first world in one generation. This probably wouldn’t have happened without his vision and his culture. His vision and his courage as well as his ability to communicate it effectively made him a successful leader.

As humans we are limited in knowledge and wisdom, we can be great but far from perfect. Yet another example is, Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma. She is not yet number one in her country – she has a clear vision built around democracy. And has the courage to stand by that vision.

How important is charisma as a leadership trait?
Charisma helps, but should not be overrated because there are a lot of people making a powerful difference to the world who have little charisma, and some terrible people in the world who have a lot of charisma. Adolf Hitler, he had the whole nation entranced, but that charisma was used for bad purposes. If leaders possess charisma they tend to be more interesting to watch and listen to, but leadership is much more than that. Leadership is the about the quality of the vision. What kind of vision does a leader have – is it inclusive or exclusive, does it create opportunities for ordinary people or not, is it elitist or egalitarian?

Sometimes leaders preach openness but if you approach them with a new idea you get shouted down. A well-known leader projected an image that was very different from the person he was- in private he had temper and was closed.

As such, we need to be discerning we need to look beyond the razzmatazz.

It’s more interesting to look at business leaders because political leaders are more challenging.


A lot of top CEO’s are very good at what they do but are not charismatic. Steve Jobs was charismatic and a great innovator. I don’t know who the leader of Samsung is -but this is a very innovative company, so they must have a “change” leader there.

Interview about Importance of “Doing Good” in business

This issue focuses on Ordinary Heroes – people who do work that make a difference to the society. Could you give us your view on the word “significance” and how it is relevant to business.
Significance is important to all of us as human beings. But we need to remember that the main purpose of a business is to be successful, it’s not to create significance. The idea of significance is important to all of us. So if we view significance as something that makes people happier, that improves the quality of their lives, then any business that can connect to this idea will have a competitive advantage.

For instance, I have to tell you that the most rewarding part of my business, and I am in the business of creating events which bring people together- is the opportunity to bring young people together to meet people who they would have waited a very long time to meet. At every one of our events we invite a number of students and give them the chance to meet world leaders. This to me resonates with the idea of significance. But it’s up to each organisation has to interpret this in its own way.

For instance National Insurance, the company which I’m involved with has an active CSR program where they do work with underprivileged kids. But let’s get back to the fact that the key objective of a business is to be successful.

If you can create significance in the way that we’ve just discussed, that will certainly help your business. But regardless of whether it helps your business or not, as human beings our lives are made so much better when we make others feel good. As I’ve grown older I’ve learnt that the pleasure of giving is so much greater than that of receiving. When you help someone it always brightens your day! For example, if you’re driving and happen to see a car that has broken down on the side of the road the temptation to ignore it and drive past is great. But somehow if you mange to make the decision to stop and help the person, this instantly brightens your day. So I think that as human beings we can benefit so much from giving because when we give we are also being generous to ourselves.

The biggest giver in the world is Bill Gates. I once met him briefly in Shanghai, but people who know him well have said in their written accounts that he is like a new man since he’s become a philanthropist.

A lot of his wealth is now spent on helping causes that the rest of the world won’t touch, because these causes cannot attract money to solve them. Some problems you can commercialise, you can solve them and make money at the same time but there are some problems that world turns its back on but Bill Gates gives his money to these causes. I must say Bill Gates looks like he’s having the time of his life and he seems to be a very happy man. So I think that if the idea of significance is about contributing and making people happier, then every business should do it because it will be good for business. But regardless of this, we as humans should always try to do acts of kindness.

You once gave a talk on YouTube saying that “You can’t be generous if your business is not making money”. Can you comment on this?
In terms of that particular statement I wanted to make the point that for a business to do good it has to make money. This does not mean that as a human being you can’t do good deeds for others. Bill Gates is the world’s biggest philanthropist because he’s a successful businessman. Imagine if he’d gone bankrupt then no one would have benefited at all. So when you run a business you must not forget the fundamentals -: manage your costs; manage your cash flow; make sure there’s enough income coming into the business and then you must also try to do all that you can to make the world better.

Contribute to the community; instil passion in your employees; and create significance with your customers. But all that will come to very little if your business fails – then there will be very little that you can do. The more successful you are in business the more you are able to contribute to the community. Some people may have misunderstood the point that I was trying to make. They thought that I was just interested in money. But that’s not the point because in the end a business must be able to make a profit. If your business is not profitable then there’s very little that you can do.

Interview about Innovation, Franchises and Entrepreneurship

Why is innovation important to businesses?
First, let me share a bit about my personal background with you. My family used to be number one in the movie business in Brunei. At that time the model was the bigger the cinema the better, so our family cinema had one thousand seats. We are no longer in the cinema business. However, if we’d stuck to that model of having one thousand seats we would have gone out of business because today, the model is different, it focuses on small, very comfortable cineplexes.

The point is, if we’d wanted to stay in the cinema business we would have had to innovate and adapt, this is so critical to any business. Recently, there have been two examples of business innovation here in Brunei. Firstly, Times Square is a very successful new development. The developer has an interesting approach – he not only builds but also brings in the franchises, like Pastamania and All Seasons (his own brand). This shows that he’s not thinking just about the building, but also about how to fill it.

Mabohai Shopping Complex is another example of innovation. It was barren for a long time but it’s now been upgraded and is now a nice, small, family mall. The niche is different, there are no cinemas so therefore there are not many teenagers, and it’s more for families. Your own BHC magazine is yet another example. This magazine touches on something that Bruneians are very interested in, that is, homes and furnishings.

We have to keep thinking that there must be a better way of doing things. The day that we start thinking that we know everything, is the day that there will be no more innovation.

Franchises are big business worldwide. Are they threatening to take over and phase out the smaller retail shops in Brunei?
The market in Brunei is small, so this limits the amount of interest that franchises would have here. The franchises are definitely making a major impact on the bigger markets. But having said this, even for a country like Brunei, franchises are not necessarily bad news for small business.

For some small businesses getting a franchise may sometimes be the best way into business. Of course, you can always create your own brand like, Country Patch and All Seasons, these are locally developed brands and then you have franchises like Pizza Hut, McDonalds, Burger King and KFC.

As a small business person you need to decide which path to take, you can either be part of an established franchise or develop your own brand. In a small market like this franchises can be very expensive- the key is to make sure that the terms are right so that you can make money from the franchise. But we have to accept that franchises are now part of the world we live in.

Sometimes it may be better to take a franchise than to try to develop one yourself. For example, the Radisson Hotel is part of a franchise which means that there are more fees to be paid for the name, management and expertise, but in the long term this can be more profitable because of access to knowledge and expertise. In the case of The Brunei Hotel, this is smaller hotel and easier to self manage with lower costs.

What advice would you give to entrepreneurs?
Firstly, you must have a willingness to learn. Talk to people – don’t think that you have all of the answers. You must also be willing to fail. Some people think that failure is a terrible thing, they don’t want to risk it – those people should get a job in the corporate world, as the world not only needs entrepreneurs but also lots of different people with different skills and abilities.

At the end of the day, no matter how good you are the world is changing rapidly, something new is always around the corner that could put you out of business. My belief is that innovation and creativity are central to business success. 

Interview on the roles of Women in Brunei

Asia Inc Forum has organised some very successful panel discussions for women in Brunei. What was your inspiration, and why did you feel the need to recognise the role of women in the society?
It is not just in Brunei but everywhere else, women are a very important part of the society. Brunei’s record in this area is pretty good. Brunei provides equal opportunities in education for women. That is why when you go to any banks or government offices in Brunei, you see so many educated women. Some of them hold very senior positions.

In many societies, women are an underutilised resource. We at Asia Inc Forum recognise that if we are to be relevant to Brunei, we need to create a forum to hear the voices of women. Of course, at all our events, women are welcome.

As women play such a great role in the household as well as within the economy, a forum dedicated to women’s perspectives and interests will be beneficial to all of us.

UBD churn out more women graduates each year, than men.
Absolutely. And this is the trend all over the world. Increasingly, women do as well as, or are even outperforming men.

Are there any women who have inspired you at your Forums?
I do not want to single out anyone because there was so many women who I admire. I think one needs to be careful about focusing admiration on those who are most articulate on stage. Over the years we have had some very dynamic women attend our events. We had Dato Marina Mahathir, who has a famous father, but who has developed a voice of her own. We had another woman with a famous father as well, Yenny Wahid, the daughter of the former President of Indonesia. And we have also had entrepreneurs who have been very impressive.

I think the key is to appreciate the different roles which women are playing at different levels. That is why I am very taken up by CNN’s focus on unsung heroes -people who make a difference away from the limelight. At our forums, the stage is usually taken over by famous people. I think we must find ways of recognising those who are quieter but who are also making a very important contribution.

“Increasingly, women do as well as, or are even outperforming men…This is the trend all over the world.”

What are the main challenges faced by women in the workplace in Brunei? Are the patterns similar universally?
I think Brunei is pretty good in terms of opportunities for women. The main challenge women face in Brunei (and elsewhere) is that as well as having a career, women still bear most of the burden of looking after children and managing the household.

I think society still expects women to take on a much greater burden than men. The society has ways of being negative about women who are perceived as being neglectful of the family. So, when a woman is in the office working til late at night, earning money for the family, she is generally not given as much credit as the man.

When a woman does very well; if she does a lot better than a man, sometimes there is pressure of another kind taking place. I think societal pressure is greater for women, especially when they have to contribute to the family income.

Dato Timothy Ong

He 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