New evangelical, deal-making networks are tiptoeing to the edges of power in south-east Asia.
HOW to penetrate and plunder the supposed mysteries of corporate Asia? Many words, seminars and hectares of print space have been devoted in Australia to this apparently vexed question over the years.
Leader after leader – though, pointedly, not so much the current duo wooing independents for power – has exhorted corporate Australia to get set in a region throbbing along at an average 8 per cent growth and secure a future in the most economically dynamic part of the world.
With so much of the region’s business community being ethnic Chinese, either mainlanders or long-lost diaspora cousins in south-east Asia, for a time there it became fashionable to follow the clans to the promised land of endless riches. Get tight in business among the Chaozhou peoples emanating from eastern Guangdong could mean hooking up to Hong Kong (its richest man Li Ka-Shing) and particularly in Bangkok (the Bangkok Bank dynasty, and the agribusiness giant Charoen Pokphand). Chumming up in Fujian could lead to deals in Manila, perhaps with Xiamen emigres Lucio Tan – Philippines Airlines, Fortune Tobacco – or retail titan Henry Sy. Many Hokkien-speaking Singaporeans, Chinese-Indonesians and Malaysians trace their roots to Fujian province. And so on: the Cantonese, the Hainanese, the nomadic Hakkas, et al.
But a powerful new business network has emerged in Asia, just as it has in Australia among organisations such as the Hillsong Church, one that doesn’t require particular penetration or understanding of Chinese subcultures. Like Hillsong, these networks are based on religion, and its most virulent, the born-again Evangelical Christian version.
Swan through the major hotels and office buildings of Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and Jakarta on any given day and chances are there’ll be a not-so-discreet lobby placard directing passers-by to a prayer meeting. But these gatherings are no ordinary lunchtime reading of the Good Book among a discreet few in the shadow of the region’s predominant Islam. Rather, they are noisy, bumptious affairs running the full Bible-thumping evangelical gamut; conversions, full immersions and, if several attendees are to be believed, being catapulted in exultation across a decidedly well-dressed middle-class flock, apparently by the power of faith.
And then the deals get done. Indeed, what’s interesting is how centred on money and business this new Asian evangelism is. These new – and cross-cultural – evangelical business networks are usurping school and clan societies as corporate entrees. In Malaysia, these activities revolve around the many chapters of organisations like the Full Gospel Businessmen’s Fellowship, a kind of revivalist Rotary club where the daily gatherings are not for ”businessmen only but for all men in all occupations … the business of these men is the Full Gospel of Jesus Christ”.
What’s interesting – and increasingly alarming to regional governments – is how brazen these gatherings have become in countries whose politicians frown on an organised and prosletysing Christianity that doesn’t fit into conventional boxes, such as notionally secular but mostly Muslim Indonesia and Malaysia. Or in Singapore, where authorities have a history of moving on organised movements perceived to challenge the political and business establishment revolving around the long-ruling Lee family. Also interestingly, many have emerged since 9/11 and the Bali bombings and what many analysts posit is a more aggressive Islam across the region.
Singapore has a historical wariness of such activities. In 1987, prime minister Lee Kuan Yew launched the notorious Operation Spectrum, a blitz on political opponents meeting under religious auspices, detaining 22 activists and sending a message to Singaporeans that such activities would not be tolerated.
But, two decades on, such has been the emergence of religious groups in Singapore, the region’s premier business centre, that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong chose a recent National Day speech to warn against aggressive preaching and prosletysing that could disrupt societal harmony in secular Singapore. Lee was careful not to identify any religion but Singaporeans were in no doubt he was pointing the finger at the Christian evangelical groups. The local media promptly identified more than 50 that had sprung up on the island, boasting prominent businessmen with a war chest of more than $100 million.
These days, these new religious business networks have some high-profile adherents. The most prominent born-again in Malaysia is the YTL Corporation’s Francis Yeoh. YTL subsidiary Electranet has a 200-year deal to operate South Australia’s electricity transmission grid.
A frequent special guest at Christian business gatherings in the region, Yeoh opens business lunches by saying grace and closes deals with prayers, regardless of the beliefs of those attending. When I interviewed him, he spent much of our first meeting imploring me to prayer and urging I embrace his faith. He says he credits being born again as preventing ”third-generation syndrome” in his family – the fear that the third heir born into a hard-built family fortune will squander it.
In Jakarta, the Melbourne-educated billionaire James Riady (right) – he of the Clinton funding scandal infamy – is similarly disposed, the most ubiquitous of Indonesia’s business born-agains.
He became a born-again in 1990 and now, controversially, he finances the construction of mega-churches across Java. When he told Fortune he wanted to lift Indonesia’s spiritual and moral standards, one of Indonesia’s biggest mainstream Islamic organisations, Muhammadiyah, rallied protests against his many businesses.
Members of Riady’s family have followed his conversion, as have many of his business executives. Former staff of his mainstream media group – Riady controls newspapers and one of Indonesia’s biggest broadband and cable TV providers – believe these outlets are slowly morphing into vehicles for Riady’s strident faith