Mr. Karim Raslan is the CEO and founder of the KRA Group (http://www.kra-group.com), a public affairs firm with a Southeast Asia-wide focus. A graduate of the University of Cambridge, he has developed a deep understanding of business and politics across Southeast Asia, especially of Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar and the Philippines. He is also an acclaimed commentator and columnist. His columns from his multimedia initiative, Ceritalah ASEAN, which discusses current issues in the region, are syndicated in Indonesia (Kompas.com), Malaysia [Astro Awani (in English and Malay) and Sin Chew], the Philippines (ABS-CBN), Vietnam (Vietnamnet), Thailand (Post Today), Myanmar (Irrawaddy) and Hong Kong (South China Morning Post).
He is the author of five books, Ceritalah: Malaysia in Transition, Heroes and Other Stories, Ceritalah 2: Journeys through Southeast Asia and Ceritalah 3: Malaysia the Dream Deferred as well as his first Bahasa Indonesia-language book, Ceritalah Indonesia. Karim also helmed two well-received documentaries: Ceritalah Malaysia (2013) and Ceritalah Indonesia (2014).
(Photo source: internasional.kompas.com)
The Warwick ASEAN Conference Team had the opportunity to interview Mr. Karim Raslan to share more about KRA Group, a public affairs consulting firm with a unique ASEAN focus, as well as his opinions on the future potential of ASEAN and the challenges that continue to lie ahead for the region.
1. What inspired you to establish KRA Group and Ceritalah ASEAN? How has Ceritalah ASEAN been received by the ASEAN community in general?
After many years of writing and travelling in Southeast Asia, I found that I had built up a network of media, business, civil society and political connections across the region.
It also struck me that inter-ASEAN knowledge and people-to-people ties were still weak. For instance, Indonesians know very little about the Vietnamese and so on. Relying on the governments to strengthen these things will probably take too long. The KRA Group and Ceritalah ASEAN are my attempts to bridge this gap. I want Southeast Asians to know each other better and talk to each other more.
Ceritalah ASEAN is also about getting a better grasp of popular culture. Analysis should be ground-up. We need to ask: “What really matters to people?”. This is why there’s such a strong pop culture and social media component to Ceritalah ASEAN.
2. As the Chief Executive Officer of a public affairs consulting firm with a focus on ASEAN, how do you differentiate KRA’s approach from other firms that likewise specialise in the region?
I like to think that our X-factor is in the regions and secondary cities. Yes, you have to be in the capitals, but the “soul” of a country is in the regions, the provinces, or the “daerah” as Indonesians would say.
So yes, we’re in Jakarta, Manila and Yangon. But we’ve also pushed ourselves to go to places like Balikpapan, Cebu and Pathein. This by itself gives us an edge over our competitors who are crowded around the metropoles.
Often, it’s in these seemingly peripheral areas that major political, business and social movements emerge. It’s no accident that the current Presidents of Indonesia and the Philippines were once Mayors of Solo and Davao respectively.
3. What were some challenges that you encountered since establishing KRA Group?
An outfit like ours can only succeed if you have good people behind it. Our team has always been young: most are under thirty and on their first job.
My team is constantly challenged: not only to deliver on work but also think and function outside the box. There is no such thing as a “safe” cultural comfort zone. Believe it or not, it’s not very easy to deal with people from other countries, especially in the ASEAN context. But if you can make this leap, the sky is the limit to where you can go.
4. In your article ‘OPINION: The Story of Hlaing Min and How ASEAN Failed Him’, you wrote about the adverse effects of increased economic integration in ASEAN, particularly due to the policies of ASEAN Economic Community. Do you agree with the view that globalisation and the creation of the bloc have disproportionately benefitted a few member states and groups at the expense of others? How should ASEAN address this issue?
ASEAN has benefitted from globalisation, in the sense that it has brought us trade, investment and ideas. But the risk is that—like in the West—those who feel disaffected by this will turn to populist or extreme movements in reaction to these inequities.
I don’t think protectionism is the way to go to address globalisation. I think rather, governments in the region need a more people-centred and localised in terms of their approach to development. Development—whether economic or social—must be rooted in local realities rather than one-size-fits-all. I think this is more attuned to the realities of our region.
Hlaing Min fell victim to exploitation because there was no legal framework for unskilled or low-skilled workers like him to seek work legally across the region. Addressing these shortcomings will be crucial if ASEAN is to remain relevant.
Read ‘The Story of Hlang Min and How ASEAN Failed Him’ here: http://english.astroawani.com/ceritalah-asean/The-story-Of-Hlaing-Min-and-how-ASEAN-failed-him
5. The ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) seeks to increase labour mobility among ASEAN member states in the near future. With reference to your article ‘Ceritalah ASEAN – A Hakka Odyssey’, do you think that migration within Southeast Asia represents an opportunity for all ASEAN members?
Absolutely. There has always been a free movement of people, ideas and capital both within and into our region. It has been the source of our region’s great diversity and I would argue, it’s strength. It allows us to interact and do business with most markets around the globe: that in and of itself is a good thing.
6. The ‘ASEAN way’ is a unique set of diplomatic principles emphasising on national sovereignty and non-interference into the affairs of member countries. However, in recent years, this diplomatic approach has been viewed by some as to be an obstacle to greater regional integration. Therefore, do you think ASEAN should learn from the EU’s multiple dimensions of integration, or maintain its core principle of non-interference within its own member states?
ASEAN and the EU are two very different bodies which arose from very different traditions as well as historical contexts. ASEAN was originally an anti-Communist grouping but eventually embraced its neighbours who were once part of the Iron Curtain. It is now seen primarily through a mercantilist context, the AEC.
I think moving away from the principle of non-interference and political integration is difficult because our member states are very different politically, culturally and economically. It’s not like Europe where there were greater commonalities.
However, challenges—like boat people—are much more multi-lateral now than ever before. How do we meet this under the current framework? It remains to be seen if we can still continue without drastic change.
7. Given the increasing disenchantment and even resentment over the EU as an institution, do you think a similar form of scepticism over ASEAN will arise?
ASEAN is rarely a subject of debate on the streets because it has fairly minimal impact on the ordinary people of the region, unlike the EU. But this isn’t a good thing either because this ignorance means that we often forgo the great benefits—geopolitical, economic and social—that closer integration will bring.
8. ‘Ceritalah ASEAN – Donald Trump: The new oriental despot’ discusses President Trump’s increasingly hostile foreign policy towards China, which will usher in new political uncertainties for the region. How has KRA Group anticipated and prepared for changing needs and emerging challenges in the public affairs consultancy space in the era of the Trump administration?
Our approach to our work has always been people-centred and ground-up. You cannot adopt a helicopter view for consultancy or research, especially in terms of public affairs and political risk. Our ears are constantly on the ground. We believe clients will appreciate and demand this more and more as time goes on. Moreover, we are increasingly paying attention to developments in social media and technology as we believe that it will impact on the media world, which is a crucial component of our work.
Also, we never put all our eggs in one basket. We believe there will be a greater focus on ASEAN’s frontier markets, particularly Vietnam and Myanmar—so we are forging ahead to get to know these countries better as well.
Read ‘Ceritalah ASEAN – Donald Trump: The new oriental despot’ here: http://english.astroawani.com/world-news/ceritalah-asean-donald-trump-new-oriental-despot-129583
9. Looking ahead, what should ASEAN do to increase its chances of survival amidst increasing geopolitical uncertainty and a shifting global landscape? How would you see its identity evolve over the next 50 years?
ASEAN has to cease to exist as an elitist talking-shop and work towards creating real benefits for the people of its region. It should act as a force for freedom of movement as well as against exploitation and unreasonable protectionism.
How to bring this about? I think greater people-to-people and business-to-business ties across the region can create the critical mass that will compel governments to act. I see informal actors like the KRA Group having a role.
10. Do you have any advice for youths looking to pursue a career in public affairs consulting in the Southeast Asia?
You absolutely must have a working knowledge of more than one market. Go out and travel across the regions, especially to the larger or emerging markets like Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Myanmar.
Learn the language and familiarise yourself with the local media as well as civil society. These are investments that will pay off later in life—they did for me vis-à-vis Indonesia and the Philippines.