Case for Diversity in the Asian Workplace


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The closeness of Perdana Putra, the Prime Minister’s Department Complex (left), to the Islamic Putra Mosque (right) in Putrajaya demonstrates Malaysian diversity. Perdana Putra incorporates European, Islamic, and traditional Malay architectural influences. (Tourism Malaysia)

Author: Vijay Eswaran

Diversity is good for business. Study after study finds that diversity is valuable to any team. It is a key driver of innovation and is increasingly critical for creating competitive advantage in companies. Many American companies are incorporating diversity and inclusion initiatives as part of their growth strategy.

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Vijay Eswaran

However, Asian companies have some catching up to do. It is interesting to see how so many multinational companies have strong diversity initiatives worldwide, yet currently in Asia little is practiced or implemented. Considering the cultural and economic diversity of the Asia Pacific region, this is quite surprising.

To understand this, it is important to understand that diversity means different things in different Asian countries. According to Mercer’s Diversity and Inclusion: an Asia Pacific Perspective report, the very understanding of diversity differs from market to market and is also interpreted very differently than it is in the West.

According to the report, Singaporean companies tend to focus more on minority ethnic groups (64 percent), gender (59 percent), and age (44 percent). In Indonesia, gender (55 percent) is the priority, followed by religion (38 percent), and minority ethnic groups (30%). For Malaysians, gender (47 percent), age (40 percent), and minority ethnic groups (25 percent) are the order of priority. Finally, gender (47 percent), minority ethnic groups (23 percent), and sexual orientation (19 percent) are the focus of companies in Hong Kong.

In this era of globalisation, diversity in the business environment is about more than gender, race, and ethnicity. It now includes employees with diverse religious and political beliefs, education, age, socioeconomic backgrounds, sexual orientation, cultures, and even disabilities.

Thomson Reuters Global Diversity & Inclusion Index 2018 showed that Asian companies are far less open, inclusive, and diverse than their global peers. Of the 7,000 publicly listed organisations evaluated, only 15 of the top 100 most diverse and inclusive organizations in the world are based in Asia.

The Michael Page 2017 Asia Salary and Employment Report found that only 44 percent of domestic companies surveyed in China are making a conscious effort to diversify their workforce and build an international corporate culture. But, thankfully, the trends are encouraging in Hong Kong and in countries such as Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia.

Putting aside research and surveys, if one was to logically consider the market in which organisations are now increasingly operating in, it just makes sense to take an inclusive approach. Changing demographics, emerging markets, and new buying trends all point to the need for a more diverse workforce. To sustain a culture of success, companies need to incorporate the concept of diversity into every operation, system, and process.

Having built and scaled a multinational enterprise with headquarters in Asia over the last two decades, I have been a very strong proponent of diversity in my companies. I’ve learned that diversity in the workplace is an asset for both businesses and their employees, in its capacity to foster innovation, creativity, and empathy in ways that homogeneous environments seldom do. The composition of our managing board with 13 directors includes seven different nationalities, our employees include citizens of 46 countries, and I am particularly proud of our gender ratio which is almost 50:50. I have always considered this diversity to be at the core of our success.

In my home country of Malaysia, ethnic, cultural, and religious diversity always have been promoted. By the time I was 18, I could speak five languages and had friends from the Chinese, Indian, Malay, and Eurasian communities, who between them hailed from several religious backgrounds.

Malaysia has one of the world’s most diverse cultural and ethnic mixes and has outperformed most of its regional partners. The multilingual workforce has given us Malaysians an edge in the workplace. With so many ethnic groups in Malaysia, it is imperative that businesses include everyone when hiring.

While diversity and inclusion may be approached differently in different parts of the world, we can all agree that the benefits of greater progress in these areas will be felt by individuals as well as companies.

Vijay Eswaran is an entrepreneur, speaker, and philanthropist. He is the founder and executive chairman of the QI Group of Companies, a multi-business conglomerate with headquarters in Hong Kong and offices in more than 25 countries.