By SGN | 9 March 2021
Kng Hwee Tin
China is a huge, fast-growing and constantly evolving market, providing new perspectives of the world; this is perhaps the most important reason why Hwee Tin chose to come to China. In addition, with a southern China ancestry and bilingual education where Mandarin was mainstream, relocating to China was a very natural choice. Therefore, when the opportunity came for her to be the Executive Director and CEO of OCBC Wing Hang Bank China in 2013, Hwee Tin accepted it without second thoughts. In 2019, she joined CapitaLand as CEO of Finance and Corporate Services, CapitaLand China. In Sept 2020, she was elected Chairperson of SingCham Shanghai.
“China is such a complex, multi-dimensional and interesting country. It has a deep historical heritage, a rich and splendid culture, and at the same time full of innovative energy with rapid technological development. This is where tradition and modernity, heritage and innovation fully collide and blend. Hwee Tin believes she has gained “a new pair of lenses” to appreciate cross cultural nuances in China, seeing things from different perspectives and solutioning more holistically. These skills have helped her lead with more passion and success. Given the vast learning opportunities, “I always encourage youths to raise their hands for an exposure in China.”
Huiyi has always been interested in China’s cultural and socio-economic development. From a background in economics and public policy, she moved to China in 2008 and enrolled in the Tsinghua-MIT Global MBA Programme. The Beijing Olympic Games were held at that time, and she observed the opportunities emerging and chose to remain in China to engage with the changing market. After her MBA, Huiyi entered market research and consulting, and became the China Director of US firm Grail Research, and then Senior Director of UK firm Kynetec. Last year, she started Asymmetrics Research to provide customized market research services for enterprises on China and APAC.
After her stint with the Economic Development Board , Peiyi chose to join the e-commerce industry starting with Lazada, the top e-commerce platform in Southeast Asia, where she was in charge of brand acquisition and management. In 2017, due to her husband’s job deployment, she bid farewell to her relatives and friends to come to China. She first joined VIPSHOP, an online discount sales platform, before becoming the Country Head (China) of Ninja Van, Singapore’s logistics company, to help expand its business in the China market.
With a limited understanding of the China market then, coupled with differences in corporate cultures and working styles, Peiyi started from ground zero. However, through sheer grit, continuous adaptation, and learning, and with strong support Ninja Van HQ, she grew Ninja Van presence in China from nothing to three offices, one logistics warehouse and 40 staff in China within just one year. It also established dedicated cross-border delivery networks via sea, land and air from south and east China to six Southeast Asian countries.
With a breadth of experience under their wing, these women share their unique insights and views on the China market. Women’s position in the workplace has always been a hot social topic, and as Singaporean women leaders, they share their honest observations and insights of the workplace.
What are current market trends in China that you feel will be opportunistic for Singapore enterprises?
Several strategic pronouncements and thrusts are important, dual circulation (双循环), internationalization and digitalization.
The need for Chinese companies to deepen local markets and broaden overseas market provide Singapore enterprises with the opportunity to expand locally in China, and to collaborate with the Chinese companies in international markets. Especially given Singapore’s position and experience in the international arena, the ability to be a bridge for some of the Chinese companies to expand abroad is more pronounced.
Digitalization further provides Singapore enterprises with the opportunity to leverage on China’s technology, market dynamics and most importantly, experience.
On behalf of SingCham-Shanghai, I signed a memorandum of cooperation with the Shanghai Federation of Industry and Commerce (SFIC) at the Singapore-Shanghai Comprehensive Cooperation Council meeting in Dec 2020, to deepen bilateral exchanges and cooperation as well as share resources. SFIC has 80,000 members, some of whom are operating in Singapore. If Singapore enterprises in China and Singapore can effectively use this channel, the business opportunities may be extended.
The current macro-level approach in China is to establish a stable domestic demand, which gives Singapore companies the opportunity to provide high-quality solutions in sectors such as sustainable urban development, healthcare and education to meet the needs of the huge market of urban, middle-income consumers. Personally, I am optimistic about the food industry because food safety and diversity of choice are the key as the society progresses.
Of course, competition is keen amongst the many innovative and resource-rich local and multinational enterprises in the China market. Therefore, it is important for Singapore enterprises to find the appropriate local resources and partners, understand the needs of different market segments, discover their competitive edge, and establish a long-term vision for developing local networks and capabilities.
China is a huge market with a population of 1.4 billion, of which about 400 million are middle-class consumers. As wealth and spending power increases, the rise of consumerism is undoubtedly a great opportunity for Singapore’s consumer enterprises, especially for the F&B, healthcare and education industries. China leads the world in logistics, including packaging, transportation and application programmes and there are many areas from which Singapore enterprises can learn from them.
The challenge stems from our lack of understanding of the China market. Singapore’s way of thinking and doing things are not entirely relevant here. Enterprise leaders need to keep an open mind to re-learn how to drive a business, integrate local market practices, and even identify suitable partners to catalyse localization efforts.
What do you need to be successful business leaders in China?
Keep your core values of integrity sacrosanct, and at the same time, your styles flexible to adapt business approaches to local rules and needs. Also, remain humble and learn always because China is forever changing.
Trustworthiness, management with integrity, and the ability to establish good relations with different stakeholders.
An open attitude towards observing and learning the demands of the local market to better position your product; a collaborative approach with partners with proven executional experience; building an effective team.
As a woman, do you face any challenges in your work?
Although I am in the real estate industry which is regarded to be male-dominated, I do not feel that there is gender bias. Therefore, instead of arguing if being a woman was an advantage, I think being a woman is a fact. The balance in yin and yang is important; being soft when we need to be and being tough when the situation calls for it.
For many women, especially those with young children, it is a challenge to balance family and career. Of course, I sometimes feel the pressure. I try to give priority to family and personal health and it is important to achieve a balance. Fortunately, my work environment is very encouraging, and my husband has provided great support for my career development.
Women in Singapore and China face workplace obstacles in varying degrees, especially in the logistics sector. Fortunately, Ninja Van is a company that emphasizes equality. I find that the new economy today recognizes the importance of innovation through diverse thinking, which gives women more opportunities. In fact, studies have concluded that mixed-gender teams generate better performance. From the perspective of e-commerce, I realized that colleagues with more online shopping experience are able to put forth more ideas, which is one of women’s advantages!
What professional advice would you have given yourself 10 years ago?
Nothing else except: “I am very happy that you came to China”.
It is difficult to imagine because 10 years ago, neither the DiDi vehicle hire platform nor mobile payment existed, and Taobao was still in its infancy. Change is constant – and with our ever-changing society and rapid economic development, you need to keep an open attitude to embrace changes and create opportunities.
Pick up a variety of skills because you’ll land in a place outside of your comfort zone.