Interview: Tony Fernandes

Which roadblocks do entrepreneurs face in ASEAN economies, and where are there opportunities?

TONY FERNANDES: There are some countries where entrepreneurship is difficult because the government owns everything. The government should create and enable entrepreneurs instead of interfering with their businesses. For example, there is potential for a huge conflict of interest when you own an airline or an airport and private entrepreneurs are involved. All stakeholders have to understand their role in order to compete on a regional and international level.

The potential this region holds is immense in terms of opportunities for the emergence of burgeoning businesses, especially on the digital front, and is not only limited to the aviation, travel and tourism industries. If all 10 member countries combine to form a single market and production base, this will create a community of over 700m to tap into. ASEAN can provide a much bigger platform and a much larger stage on which businesses can be noticed and grow.

How can large corporations work to optimise human capital and the creativity of their employees?

FERNANDES: I always tell my employees to dream the impossible and to work hard. When hiring new employees I look for two key things: the hunger in their eyes and the passion in their hearts – the by-products of having a dream. It is not just about hiring the right people; it is about inspiring people to be creative and to pursue their passion. Thus, it is important to craft an environment that can transform raw diamonds into polished ones – a place where people can push themselves and try things they have never done before, and an environment in which people do not fear failure.

There is no point in hiring the best people only to limit them. Once people understand that they can try something new – even if it does not work out – and have the opportunity to be all that they can be, the whole motivation of the organisation is changed. That is the most critical element in innovation: having an environment in which people can dream big.

Is the dominance of legacy, family-run conglomerates in many ASEAN markets restricting space for start-ups and young entrepreneurs to flourish?

FERNANDES: The dominance of family-run conglomerates that monopolise the market signifies that there is competition – especially for start-ups to flourish. From my perspective, competition is what helps people, businesses, industries and, ultimately, economies grow.

I have been an advocate of fair competition, simply because it makes us better. There have been various examples where the monopoly of an industry has had a detrimental effect, simply because the leading corporation does not care about its customers, but the customers simply have no other option. I believe that healthy competition is the way forward for start-ups to grow into new national and regional champions as long as they respect their competitors.

What is the correlation between the expansion of the aviation industry and the growth of entrepreneurship in secondary and tertiary cities in ASEAN?

FERNANDES: The importance of aviation in a globalised world is beyond question, and macro-urban planning should prioritise the construction of airports. Job creation, increased tourism and economic development are all spill-over effects of a global aviation hub. With a city-state attached, this would also be a catalyst for the future economic competitiveness of any secondary and tertiary cities within ASEAN. Developments such as highways, tourist attractions and landmarks, rail links, and modern utilities will be required to meet increased demand, and this translates to widespread job creation.

The potential within ASEAN countries for new hubs is great. Standout examples are the Philippines, with international airports in Clark and Manila, and Thailand’s airports in Don Mueang, Suvarnabhumi and U-Tapao.