Nov 2, 2009

About Leading in the 21st century


I returned yesterday after spending the weekend in Jakarta attending the Generation 21 Asia-Pacific New Leaders’ Dialogue. This inaugural dialogue was a collaboration of 3 dynamic organizations - Modernisator, a not-for-profit organization started in 2008 by several young Indonesian leaders focused on bringing younger Indonesians together to work towards advancing the country’s development; Asialink (University of Melbourne), a centre for promoting public understanding of Asian countries and Australia’s role in the region; and McKinsey & Company, a well-established global partnership specializing in talent management and development.

There were 56 delegates invited from 16 countries, including Australia, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Myanmar and the Philippines. From Singapore, the 2 delegates were a private sector economist and myself. There were 4 Malaysians including Khairy Jamaluddin, MP and Chairman of UMNO Youth. The vast majority of delegates were not politicians but leaders in diverse areas such as climate change, entrepreneurship, finance, humanitarian efforts, the arts and education. The joint chairmen of the project – Presidential spokesman Dr Dino Patti Djalal (Modernisator) and Mr Sid Myer (Asialink), were with us throughout.

Our motley crew was cooped up all of Saturday in the SCTV studio in downtown Jakarta, being put through a punishing schedule of discussions in a variety of formats and being constantly recorded by TV cameras. Topics centred on the major changes and challenges expected in the 21st century and how Generation 21 leaders could work collaboratively to meet them. Recurrent themes included climate change, Asia as an engine of economic growth and raising education standards and access. The raw footage will apparently be distributed to many regional networks (including Channel News Asia) for their use.

It was largely a platform for knowledge sharing and establishing networks, but there were two particularly memorable encounters.

The first was to see and hear Air Asia’s CEO Tony Fernandes in person, sharing the Air Asia success story in a one-laugh-a-minute style. His concept of leadership which involved him regularly checking in as a passenger, doing bag handling etc to thoroughly understand his staff’s and passengers’ experiences.

The second highlight was a session with the Indonesian Vice-President Boediono. I managed to ask him whether the outcome of the recent Indonesian elections (which consolidated the position of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) in Parliament) meant that this Parliament was more likely to ratify the ASEAN Haze Agreement which the previous Parliament refused to do. He did not answer the question directly, and upon reflection I assume that he did not want to be seen to pre-empt Parliament’s deliberations on the subject. However, he assured all that reducing haze emissions was one of the top priorities of the government and that they were determined to produce tangible results within the next 5 years, ending with an unequivocal “You can count on us”.

A visit to Indonesia would not be complete without its cultural elements, including its vast array of different regional dances. One of the most fascinating is Saman, a dance from Aceh which requires several dancers to sit shoulder to shoulder and perform complicated hand and body movements which get faster and faster till it becomes what seems to be a co-ordination nightmare!

Throughout my visit, I was struck by how a new breed of Indonesian leaders appeared to be coming out of the woodwork, coming back from abroad or simply stepping up to the plate. Well-educated, articulate and progressive, they were dead serious about working with SBY to bring Indonesia to new heights, adopting best practices and improving the welfare of Indonesians. At the welcome dinner, Finance Minister Dr Sri Mulyani (a former Director at the International Monetary Fund) spoke of her challenges in changing the mindset of certain staff who felt that her expectations were too high, but that she had to push on. Her guiding principle was a “very simple” one – “just to make (her country) better and more respectable in the eyes of the world”.

Now, that "very simple" statement - is awesome.