In Focus: Chaly Mah

In a recent e-mail interview, the CEO of Deloitte Asia Pacific shares with Vipanchi his opinions on the global economy, social media and the ethics of doing business.

By Vipanchi Dinavahi

Let’s begin with the global economy. What are key driving factors of the 2015 economy? How is the global economy affecting Asia?
The price of oil will be a key driving factor of the global economy in 2015. As it is, the sharp drop in the price of oil has boosted consumer purchasing power in oilconsuming countries, pushed up the value of the US dollar, and weakened several oil-producing economies.
In America, the shift in US monetary policy and the expected increase in short-term US interest rates have influenced currency values around the world. But a weaker growth and low inflation in the Eurozone, Japan, and China are offsetting the positive global impact of a rebound in the US economy. The introduction of quantitative easing measures by these economies will cause imbalance in the global economy and could result in ‘cheap’ capital flowing into emerging markets, hence causing more pressures and uncertainties in the emerging market currencies. 
Asia remains the strongest economic region of the global economy and this, together with the other emerging economies in Southeast Asia, speaks of the strength of Asia as a self-sustaining region of growth supported by a diversified economic structure. Despite the slow-down in China, GDP is expected to continue to grow at a modest rate of around 7%. The ASEAN economy, home to some 600 million people, is expected to grow at an average of 5–6% and will contribute to economic growth to the region, particularly Indonesia, Philippines and Myanmar.
What is the scene in emerging markets?
For the emerging markets in Asia, the outlook for 2015 remains strong, but unlike previous years, the smaller economies are expected to grow at a much faster pace.
For instance, Myanmar, a new economic frontier, is expected to continue its brisk pace of expansion and liberalisation. The country is already attracting the interest of several foreign businesses keen on capitalising on its growth opportunities and significant natural resources. In 2013, Deloitte established an Independent Correspondent Firm through leading local Myanmar professional services firm, Myanmar Vigour, to support many of the Deloitte network’s clients across all industries that are looking to expand their business in Myanmar. We are seeing significant FDI flows into Myanmar from China, Japan and Thailand. Deloitte also recently established a presence in Cambodia and Lao PDR.
Another area of interest in this region is the launch of the AEC by Dec 2015, which will include the 10 ASEAN countries of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. This will create a community of about 600 million people, which will be 100 million people larger than the EU or approximately half of the population of either China or India. Although, not everything may be in place by then, there should be at least some pieces of the economic community plan that will be ready for the launch. This will become a very powerful economic area that should benefit all member-states.
If you look at the last decade, 2004–2014, what are the significant opportunities and risks you think are
relevant for decision makers?
From geopolitical tensions to government changes and disease epidemics, there have been so many significant events over the last decade. Perhaps more interesting from a long-term perspective is the increasing role that social media is playing in shaping events, such as the Thai coup, the Hong Kong protests and the Indonesia elections. Moving forward, this will become the norm, and business and government alike will need to consider the impact of the social media-savvy population in cyberspace.
Furthermore, as the world becomes more cyber-connected, events concerning cybersecurity have also come to the forefront. Boards and business decision makers will need to dedicate more efforts to better understand their institutions’ vulnerabilities and be actively engaged in the oversight of cyberdefence infrastructure and protocols. We can also expect that there will be greater emphasis on collaboration within the industry and with government agencies so that information can flow seamlessly as cyber incidents happen. This also creates business opportunities for cyber defence mechanisms and systems. The cyber threat and the increasing importance of social media mean no organisation can afford not to be digital-savvy in 2015.
Organisations are facing several challenges with respect to skills gap, talent retention and engagement. Share some innovative trends that are emerging.
Some companies choose to focus on addressing problems, but the most successful companies focus instead on raising the bar. One of the ways to do this is to create a culture where innovation thrives; when magnified throughout the organisation, this can become a source of competitive advantage.
New business models leveraging on digital technology will cause disruption to traditional businesses. Boards of companies will need to put on their agenda innovations and risks associated with disruption.
Every company’s culture is inherently different, so when you are cultivating innovation, you have to be thoughtful about your approach. Your innovation programme should align with the values of the company and with the company’s goals.
It’s the values, norms and subtle behaviours of leaders and employees—the invisible forces—that are responsible for the success.
Sometimes we over-engineer the innovation process when the better option could be just to give enough support to help people navigate uncertainty and tap into the creative process without stifling it. You also have to make it rewarding for the people whose roles and responsibilities influence the very innovation culture you are trying to cultivate. Leaders play an important role in the process; they need to make sure everyone involved knows the strategic goals and intended outcomes of the organisation’s objectives. Innovation needs time to develop but few people ever feel like they have time to spare. People often get so consumed with putting out fires and chasing short-term targets that most feel that they can’t even think about the future.
By focusing on outcomes and results, these leaders can help free up energy for the creative process.
Share some of your personal insights and lessons relevant for business leaders and SME owners?
Throughout my career, I have used one guiding principle, which my late father taught me. He told me, “Son, you should do things right, and always do the right thing.”
We know that to be successful, one need to do things in the right way. Equally important, doing the right thing means maintaining high moral and ethical standards in the way we do business. It is important for leaders to continue to raise the standard and do the right thing, at the right time, for the right reasons.
Leaders should set the tone and leading by example is the best way to do this. It’s what you do, not what you say, that demonstrates to your team what you care about.
In a challenging and competitive environment for young professionals these days, what career advice would you give them?
I encourage the younger generation to make full use of your creative and inquisitive minds, ambition and energy to make an impact that matters. Despite all the hard work and the long hours that they will put in, they must ensure that they enjoy what they do and do it with a purpose that makes an impact that matters to all stakeholders and the community we live in.
Simply put, love what you are doing and pursue it with a passion.
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