30 October 2006

Wednesday October 18, 2006

Learning from differences


SOMETIMES we just don’t know when we’ve got something good going. There I was at the Women’s Forum in Deauville, France, with some 800 of the most dynamic women in the world listening to a man talk about the need for diversity in the workplace and in our lives.

Carlos Ghosn is the President and CEO of Renault in France, as well as the President and CEO of Nissan in Japan. By those designations alone, he is a unique individual. But given his background, it isn’t surprising. Born of Lebanese parents in Brazil, Ghosn was educated and worked in Brazil, Lebanon, France, the United States and then Japan. He is diversity incarnate.

Goshn came to the Women’s Forum with an interesting take on globalisation. For globalisation to work, he said, it must recognise the diversity of identities. It’s not about making everyone uniform, it’s about understanding and making diversity an asset. He asserts that when people are denied their identities, whether ethnically, culturally, religiously or in terms of gender, then that’s when clashes occur.

Therefore when companies go to other countries and try to replicate the whole work environment that they are used to at home, they will be unlikely to succeed. They have to recognise what the country and the society they are in looks like, and reflect that in the work environment. He claims that companies that mix expat and local management do better in their foreign investments than those that rely only on expats.

Diversity also means looking at gender balance in the workplace at all levels. Goshn told the story of his experience in the completely male-dominated Japanese auto industry where women make up only 1.9% of management positions. Yet, of the six million cars sold in Japan annually, women buy one-third and another one-third is bought by couples where the woman’s opinion matters a lot. So it made sense to bring more women into the auto industry or risk agitating two-thirds of their customers. Putting his money where his mouth is, Nissan started putting women into their showrooms, resulting in better sales from those outlets.

Goshn also said one thing that was so obvious but so profound: we mostly learn from people who are different from us. How true is that? It is only when we sit down to talk with people from different backgrounds to us, who have been educated differently, who have different experiences and opinions, that we learn something new. At the same time, they also learn something from us. If we spend all our time with people who are exactly the same as us, then we never grow as individuals and as people.

When I listened to him, I thought how lucky we are in Malaysia to already have all the ready-made ingredients for incredible progress and development! We only have to step out the door to meet diversity in all its manisfestations: different ethnic groups, different cultures, different religions, different outlooks and ways of life.

Of course, we have a lot in common too, bound together by this land we call home. Yet we should recognise how rich we are to have that mix and what we can do with it.

In a globalised world that is making diversity a buzzword, we should by right have the least trouble adapting.

And if what Carlos Ghosn says about globalisation working when identities are respected is true, then who has better experience in that than Malaysians?

Yet look at how we throw these opportunities away. Every day we protect our ethnic and cultural turfs as if these exclusive pens are going to make us better, when in fact they will make us worse. We build walls around our identities to supposedly protect them, when in fact we are dooming them to extinction because we close ourselves off to the new ideas that will ensure our survival.

We forget that in our small-minded need to supposedly protect ourselves, we are also losing the opportunity to enrich others with our knowledge and experience. Unless we have such an inferiority complex that we think we have nothing to offer the world.

I feel ashamed and embarrassed when I listen to politicians arguing about their racial turfs as if this inherently demonstrates their superiority. I feel insulted when my fellow religious brethren claim that to simply wish people of other faiths well would amount to losing their own. I want my world to be diverse but not peopled by small minds.

I want to tell my fellow citizens of every race and religion that it is because I live among them and know them, that my life has been so enriched and enlivened. And I would not want it any other way. Happy Deepavali and Selamat Hari Raya to all.