The tigers that lost their roar

March 3, 2008 - 0:0

Other emerging economies are producing world-class companies by the dozen. Why aren’t the countries of South-East Asia?

It is easy to forget, now that China and India are all the rage, that until ten years ago South-East Asia was the world’s fastest-developing region, winning the sort of investor attention and breathless column inches that the two new giants now enjoy. The region has, slowly, recovered from the blight of 1997-98. It has recently had several years of strong growth and its governments’ finances have been greatly improved. Even so, after all this time the region’s five main economies — Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand — are still notable for the near-absence of companies that could truly be called world-class.
The region has 570m people and had a head start in economic development over much of the rest of Asia. So why does it still have no global consumer brands of the stature of South Korea’s Samsung and LG? Where are its rising technology leaders, like Taiwan’s AU Optronics and Taiwan Semiconductor? Where are its equivalents of India’s world-conquering Tata Steel, Ranbaxy and Wipro? Or China’s market-devouring Huawei and Lenovo? Ask an investor in London or New York to name globally respected South-East Asian firms and the answer is unlikely to consist of much more than Singapore Airlines.
In a recent book, “Asian Godfathers”, Joe Studwell, a journalist, examines this failure in stark terms. The region’s business scene, he says, remains dominated by old-fashioned, mediocre, sprawling conglomerates, run at the whims of ageing patriarchal owners. These firms’ core competence, such as it is, is exploiting their cozy connections with governing elites. Their profits come from rent-seeking: being handed generous state contracts and concessions, or using their sway with officialdom to keep potential competitors out. If they need technology, they buy it from abroad. As a result, Studwell says, the region has “no indigenous, large-scale companies producing world-class products and services.”
Similar things were once said of much of the rest of Asia—and sometimes still are. But somehow other countries’ top businesses, even in India, the home of the license Raj, have escaped this mediocrity trap. Whereas the export-led growth of South Korea and Taiwan comes mainly from indigenous firms making globally competitive goods with their own technology, much of South-East Asia’s high-value exports are made by foreign companies. Thailand has built a successful motor industry by attracting multinationals. But it will constantly suffer the risk that these will move to somewhere like China, with lower costs and a bigger home market.
Look under the bonnet of what seems to be a well managed, local industrial firm in South-East Asia, such as Astra, an Indonesian carmaker, and you find that it is assembling Japanese cars under license and is controlled by a Hong Kong group. Not many have got far beyond serving the home market. A recent study by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) of the 100 largest multinationals from emerging economies (a category that excludes Singapore) contained only five from the whole region. By contrast there were 13 just from Brazil, which has only a third of South-East Asia’s population and which until about a decade ago had no genuinely global firms to speak of.
---------------------------Class distinctions
To be counted as world-class, a firm needs to be more than just well run and large. It should have a globally valued brand, or its own leading-edge technology, or a genuinely innovative and admired business method. These are demanding standards: even some of those in BCG’s top 100 are really just plain big. In South-East Asia few companies meet them. Some come close, especially in Singapore, the region’s most advanced country. Singapore Airlines is the world’s fourth-largest international carrier and is perhaps the region’s best-known brand around the world. Keppel and SembCorp., the world’s two largest makers of offshore oil drilling-rigs, dominate their industry.
However, some of Singapore’s tech stars are showing signs of fading, worries Garry Evans, an equity strategist at HSBC. Chartered Semiconductor and Creative, for example, are slipping behind rivals in places like Taiwan, which now has “a critical mass in technology and a very entrepreneurial culture,” he says.
In banking, the region has some impressive contenders, like Singapore’s OCBC and Malaysia’s Public Bank, which are expanding beyond their borders. But now these must contend with China’s huge and increasingly muscle-flexing banks as well as Western ones with deep roots in the region, such as HSBC and Standard Chartered. As in other types of business, the region’s local champions lack scale in a world where critical mass seems to matter ever more.
Admittedly, the region has some natural handicaps. The ten members of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) have a huge variety of languages, religions, political systems and histories. Even the most populous member, Indonesia, with 230m people, is itself enormously diverse, being made up of 17,000 islands and a rainbow assortment of cultural and religious traditions.
That said, ASEAN’s leaders could do much more to keep their lofty promises of European-style economic integration, to give local companies a sizeable home market from which to build world-beating businesses. Their failure to construct a genuine single market is shown up by the fact that ASEAN’s members still do three times as much trade with non-members as they do among themselves. Internal tariffs have been cut, but as McKinsey, a management consultancy, noted in a report in 2004, product standards and other non-tariff barriers often differ among ASEAN countries, forcing manufacturers to make small production runs for each country.
All this lowers the competitiveness of local firms, as well as multinational companies operating in the region. Corruption is another great burden on business. That is true elsewhere in Asia too, but several South-East Asian countries — notably Indonesia — are afflicted by corrupt and unreliable judicial systems, making it difficult to enforce contracts.
-------------------------Dicing with relegation
Although it is hard to generalize across Asia, another obstacle to developing world-class businesses is that the five main South-East Asian economies do worse than might be expected — that is, relative to their national incomes — in promoting technology and higher education.
Malaysia has spent heavily on universities and the promotion of technology but its efforts have been stymied by the country’s messy racial politics (including preferential university places for the Malay majority) and by the handing of state contracts and concessions to undeserving government cronies. Both the lack of fair competition between businesses and the failure to widen access to education may have a common underlying cause: that South-East Asian countries remain in the grip of narrow elites.
The problem betrays itself not just in the region’s relative lack of memorable business names but in its basic economic statistics — in particular, labor productivity, the key to long-term growth.
Productivity in China and India is growing much faster than South-East Asia’s is. East Asia overtook the region in output per worker by 2000 and has continued to power ahead. Now South Asia is closing the gap. Not even hosting the factories of so many sophisticated multinationals seems to have made much difference to South-East Asia. With all those Indian and Chinese pairs of hands joining the global workforce, the region has no option but to seek to move beyond simply offering low wage costs and produce better-educated workers and more innovation.
It is not all the fault of governments. The region’s unwieldy conglomerates could do more to help themselves achieve global scale by concentrating on fewer businesses. Some are doing so, but others still seem unable to resist poking their fingers into another pie. The food arm of Charoen Pokphand, a Thai conglomerate, is in BCG’s top 100; but the group is an unspectacular contender in industries from telecoms to convenience stores and is now moving into carmaking. San Miguel of the Philippines, a big food conglomerate, recently talked of trying its hand at generating electricity. Synergy Drive, the absurdly named merger of three underperforming plantation firms controlled by the Malaysian government, is taking a stake in the giant Bakun hydro-dam in Borneo.
(Source: The Economist)