Though we had the date of the trip nearly a year in advance, the destination wasn’t announced until about 5 months in advance. So the anticipation for this year’s International trip location was high. The initial reaction to the announcement that we would be traveling to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia was met with some reservations, however, and the announcement spawned a number of discussions about physical safety, health concerns, and other topics.
We would spend a fair amount of time researching the country and KL itself, but as a class we had many unanswered questions: How developed is Malaysia? What form of government exists there? What role does religion play in business and society at large? After a little research and a case study centered on Malaysia, the discussion began to focus on the regional business environment and what we could learn from this experience. After nearly a year of case studies, response papers, and discussions, traveling half-way around the world to directly see how business operates in another culture, without relying on case studies and biased news stories, opened up lots of possibilities and the opportunity to enrich our courses, our careers, and the way we think about ourselves.The opportunity would further be enhanced as we learn we will be taking this trip with two other cohorts, another online eMBA cohort and an on-campus cohort who are both six months ahead of us in the program. The opportunity to expand our business networks and interact with fellow RIT eMBA students should prove valuable. The ten-day trip with 20 - 30 fellow students with various backgrounds and experiences will enhance the trip and provide unique perspectives and opportunities. This along with the faculty and staff of RIT and the International businesses and organizations should prove a worthy experience.
Getting to Malaysia
The trip itself is not for the faint of heart. The journey begins at 6:30 am for the first flight to Chicago where I will meet up with other members of the RIT program. From Chicago we fly to Tokyo. This 13-hour flight provides the opportunity to think about what to expect and to catch up on movies and shows on the in-flight entertainment, as the last 10 months have provided little time for such things. The brief stop in Tokyo allows for some conversation between the cohorts and an opportunity to hear about recent experiences with courses and projects. Everyone has similar stories and challenges with time management and the rigors of the program. Another 7-hour flight and we arrive in Kuala Lumpur. We know we’re not in Kansas anymore as Passport control and Customs are a breeze, with no lines and no inquiries at customs. We arrive at the Hotel around 2:30 am local time and crash for the night.
Day 1 - Rest and Scavenger Hunt
The trip organizers were kind to us, giving us a fairly easy transition day after nearly 30 hours in planes and airports. After a few hours of sleep around 5:30 am I awake and decide it is best to just get up and start the day. Taking a walk outside to find an ATM (there are many nearby) I realize it is going to be a hot and humid experience with the early morning temperatures ~28 C (~82 F). I also explore our hotel and find the gym and pool area and decide to pick up on the exercise routine while I have the time. We experienced a little excitement on the first morning as the building next to the hotel has caught on fire and there is a great view of this from my room. After watching the local fire department extinguish the blaze it is time for breakfast. The breakfast buffet has a variety of cuisines including Indian, Chinese, American, European, and others.
The first official task is the afternoon scavenger hunt. We are given a list of things to do, including finding certain foods and seeing things around the city. We take a taxi to get around and discuss with our driver some of the local customs as well as talk about local car companies (We have just read a case about Perodua, Malaysia’s largest auto manufacturer). The driver indicates that the Malaysian manufactured autos are much more expensive to maintain as parts are expensive, though they are less expensive to buy due to low tariffs on auto imports. I find this interesting, as we have learned there was a time when these companies were well protected by the government. The scavenger hunt is a good opportunity to learn about Kuala Lumpur and get acquainted with some of the area.
After the hunt we relax for a bit before dinner. Dinner is at a Thai restaurant where we arrive eventually. We ended up at the right restaurant, but wrong location, an area outside the city. The driver’s error allows us to see a bit of the jungle, including some monkeys—not something you are likely to see on a telephone pole back in the States. The actual restaurant is back in the city and offers a variety of Thai dishes for our enjoyment.
Day 2 - Introduction to business in Malaysia
The day starts with a workout in the gym 6:10 am, then breakfast buffet. Our first business meeting after breakfast is a presentation from the U.S. Consulate and their take on doing business in Malaysia. We had presentations both from the Deputy Economic Counselor at the US Embassy and from Deputy Chief of Mission. Net net, the opportunities are good and the Consulate is working with the local government and US businesses to help ensure success for ventures in Malaysia. We also learn more about Malaysian culture and demographics from Dato’ Azmi Mohd Ali, a local businessman / lawyer. Among his relevant experiences was his seven years as in-house counsel for Petronas, the Malaysian multinational oil and gas company. Malaysia is an interesting mix of a country and you can still see vestiges and the legacy of its colonization by the Dutch, Portuguese and British. The legal system is based on the British system and to this day Malaysian law still refers to British law for a number of aspects. As Malaysia is overwhelmingly Muslim, there are Sharia courts as well. In acknowledgment of the ethnic and religious diversity of the country, however, Sharia courts and laws only apply to the Muslim population and not to others. Sharia law also applies to personal and social behavior. For example, I observed signs in stores clearly indicating that it is illegal to sell alcohol to Muslims.
The afternoon was spent visiting Leo Burnett a global marketing and advertising agency who showed us a variety of campaigns they have worked on and who talked about the current trends in marketing to various audiences. Much of the marketing was focused on telling a story and pulling in the local culture and beliefs. This was a clear illustration of the kinds of localization strategies that multinational firms engage in, and which was covered in both our strategy and international business courses. We were on our own for dinner and a group of us ventured out to a local nearby street market trying a variety of foods including chili frog, chicken feet, stingray and some Dim Sum.
Day 3 - Pewter Factory / Batu Caves / New Village A day of culture
Other than the weekend for optional cultural visits, Monday through Friday were scheduled entirely for business visits. Day 3 was the one exception. This mixed a little business and culture. Our first stop was The Royal Selangor Pewter factory tour (and shopping). Royal Selangor has a long history in Malaysia, and we learned about the history of pewter production, a mixture of tin, copper and antimony. Tin was one of the major exports of Malaysia and now is used by Royal Selangor to make pewter products for distribution across the globe. A number of us got to try our hand at hammering patterns into various pewter products—this is harder than it looks!
Our next stop is the Batu Caves, one of the most popular Hindu shrines outside of India. There are 274 steps up to reach the shrine with many people trekking up to see the caves and visit the Hindu shrine. The caves are limestone and are an impressive geological sight. We got to experience a bit of excitement with the local monkey population who are well fed and will actually steal food and other items from patrons who are not careful. On our way up the final climb to the shrine itself, several of our group were on the receiving end of these assertive and apparently hungry monkeys.
Our next stop was New Village to sample fried street food and rami tam fruit, which is plentiful in local stalls in the area. New Village is a 4sq km area inside the city of Kuala Lumpur that has intentionally worked to maintain a traditional Malaysian street ambience and has resisted the development of high rise buildings. The denizens of New Village live much like Malaysians have in the past. Small houses, some up on stilts; though there is no water nearby, the local villagers are out and about with street vendors serving deep fried food items and local fruits. Seeing the locals and trying some local fare is an interesting experience.
Following our new village visit, our host Peter decides we need to try a local “fruit” called Durian. He says it is an acquired taste and describes it as smelling like bleu cheese. This is inaccurate, though the smell is certainly strong and reminds me of garlic and onions. The taste is not terrible and has a hint of the garlic and onion. The smell, however, lingers with us the rest of the day, even during my exercise routine and after several showers. Once exposed to it, many of us claimed we were smelling Durian for the remainder of the trip.
Dinner at the Petroleum club - Petronas Towers
One unscripted part of our itinerary was an invitation from Dato’ Azmi Mohd Ali of Azim Associates, one of our speakers on Day 2. Dato’ Azmi invited us to dinner at the Petroleum Club, located on the 44th floor of the Petronas Tower 1. The Petronas Towers are an architectural wonder, and the view from a private dining room on the 44th floor is quite impressive. The evening is spent talking with Azim about Malaysia, and the discussion ranged from education, and doing business in-country and between countries, to the cultural differences among the Malay, Chinese and Indian Malaysian ethnic groups. We get more information on how involved the government is with some industries and the control they maintain. This dinner was probably one of the highlights of the trip.
Day 4 - Sime Darby and SapuraKencana
Sime Darby Palm Oil Plantation Visit
We have the opportunity to visit a palm oil plantation run by one of the world's leading producers. This was especially interesting in that the production of palm oil is a hot button topic given the air pollution issues around normal production, which involves burning waste products. Sime Darby produces sustainable palm oil in both Malaysia and Indonesia for export throughout the world. We learn about the process of producing palm oil from the field to the mill. We visit a field and get to discuss the sustainability and see the natural pest control in action. We also see harvesting in action and learn how to tell if a fresh fruit bunch (FFB) is ripe and ready to be harvested. At the mill we learn how they use a majority of what would be waste to help power the plant and fertilize the fields. The process is presented as environmentally friendly with little waste. They also take time to discuss the workers and how they are treated—for example, they have benefits of housing with water, cheap electricity, and they also have schools for their children and onsite medical care. The trip to Sime Darby also helps our team as we will be working on a project in the next few weeks for Sime Darby. (This was an opportune visit for us, since of our team members is looking for a source of sustainable palm oil for their own company’s products.)
SapuraKencana Oil and Gas Company
SapuraKencana is a leading global integrated oil and gas services and solutions provider. They are involved in the upstream value chain, from oil exploration to well drilling and commissioning, and they are also involved in the decommissioning. If we hadn’t gotten the message before this visit, this visit disabused us of the notion that KL is some sort of underdeveloped backwater. With 13,000 global employees and operations in Asia, South America, Europe and Australia, this firm illustrates that competitive advantages can emerge anywhere, and that talent is a highly sought commodity in both East and West. This firm specializes in deep water wells and rigs. The assets they have include ships to assemble platforms as well as the ROVs for deep water operations, specialized assets that only a few major global firms can claim.
Too much food! We start the evening at a back alley Chinese restaurant with a popular local lime juice drink, and a complete meal with various dishes. From there we move to an Indian restaurant for our fill of different types of breads (Roti Cani). The breads keep coming and everyone fills up as they are quite good. After filling up on bread, we go to a local night market with vendors selling food and other goods. Given that people can hardly move from all the food on this outing, the night market is not as exciting as it may have been earlier in the evening.
Day 5 - Westports and Malaysia Kini
Westports, along with its sister Northports in the Straits of Malacca, is now the 18th busiest seaport in the world. Our visit consisted of a presentation by the Port’s marketing manager and an engaging discussion on world shipping dynamics with the de facto resident Port economist. This was followed by a tour of the port itself and then capped off with a private lunch at the Port’s observation deck—yes, more food! We learn that the port is doing well and shipping companies are using the facility more and more as demand for transfers from the feeders to the major shipping carriers is on the rise. This success is all the more impressive given that Singapore, the world’s second busiest port, is just a few hundred kilometers south. At the same time, we learn a bit about the shipping industry and the fact that it has a surplus of ships and carriers competing for the business. This has caused prices to plummet, at times even going to zero. While the impact to Westports is not direct, they are impacted when companies default on debt and have to stop operations, such as happened with Hanjin in the summer of 2016.
In the afternoon we visited MalaysiaKini, considered to be one of the leading non-government owned paid-news agencies in Malaysia, and well known for their strong positions against the government. (One of the reasons we visited this agency is it is somewhat of a kindred spirit to DVB, a Burmese media company that we wrote a case analysis on for our Int’l Business course.) This visit was a bit more interactive than most, in that we broke out into teams to work on a real-time business case challenge for them related to their business model: i.e., how can they continue to make money in the age of Google ads and competition from sources providing the media for free? Each of the teams took a different part of the problem and presented strategic options to the company at the end of the session.
Day 6 - Mini Case meeting with Sime Darby
After a long night of bonding with the team we were able to sleep in on Friday morning as our company visit has been pushed to the afternoon. (Note: as part of the International Seminar course, each team has to negotiate and then complete a project for a company doing business in-country. So in addition to the many class visits to companies throughout the week, we had to meet our specific client company to define the scope of the project that we would complete back in the states.) We decide to get an Uber or two to get the 5 of us to Sime Darby Plantation Tower about 30 minutes away. The trip in traffic took about an hour and we arrived right on time. Sime Darby have a conference room and a presentation setup and plenty of time to ask questions and to narrow the scope of our project. We have been tasked with assisting Sime Darby to enter the United States. Demand for palm oil has risen in recent years due to the US ban on trans-fat. Because of this, Sime Darby believes they have an opportunity to enter the market and would like our team to help them determine what the market outlook is and to better understand what their Unique Selling Proposition (USP) is and how to leverage that in the US market. The hosts provided coffee and water as well as a light snack for the visit. We spent 2 ½ hours at Sime Darby learning all we can about their needs.
Day 7 - Malacca / farewell dinner
After a jam-packed week of company visits, we got to unwind a bit with a long bus ride to Malacca, a historical city on the coast of Malaysia. Upon arrival we had some time to explore the city and learn more about the city’s Dutch and Portuguese heritage. Everyone else seemed to have the same idea, as there were quite a few tourists. Despite that, the local people appear to welcome us—a few locals even ask for a photo; I’m not sure they are used to seeing many Americans. The heat and humidity has not let up at all, and though there are interesting things to see, it is good to get inside for lunch—yes, even more food. The lunch is a traditional Malayan meal with a variety of dishes. Chicken, beef and seafood are common amongst all the meals we have sampled, but due to the Muslim nature of the country, pork is rarely served, even in Chinese restaurants, where it is a staple in other countries.
After lunch we have more time to spend in Malacca shopping on a local street geared to the tourist market, selling trinkets and items from the local market and made in and around Asia. I found a coffee shop and enjoy an ice cream coffee in the AC before doing a bit of gift shopping.
The farewell dinner was at a fine restaurant where we had our best meal of the trip. I finally had a steak in Malaysia and it was excellent.
Day 8 - Rest and reflection
Evenings and free time were spent exploring the local area, including the local restaurants and bar scene. If one did not know any better, you would think you were in NY on a Friday or Saturday night as the night scene was filled with western music and people enjoying the cooler temperatures. The Mall next to the hotel was a high-end mall with top of the line brand names and a good selection of foods from around the world. Many American names can be found here, including McDonalds, KFC, Subway, Starbucks, Johnny Rockets, TGI Friday’s, amongst others. It was like being back home except Americans were the minority here.
The prices were relatively cheap, except in the hotel where the cost of a Coke was 22 RM or $5.25, much like in the U.S. where the hotels inflate prices. Outside of hotels catering to westerners, prices were much lower as a coke from the 7-eleven was a far more reasonable 3 RM or about $0.75. On average, meals cost about half of what you might pay in the U.S. For 20 RM ($5.00) you could have a nice meal from the local street market with a bottle of water.
Transportation was accessible. In addition to Uber and taxis, there was a Monorail to get you some places in the city, though it did not go far. We were told there was an underground rail system, though we did not experience it. Taxis and Uber were always available when needed. One of our Uber drivers took us through the SMART tunnels which saved us 20 minutes on our return from Sime Darby. These tunnels allow for cars who pay a toll and during times of heavy rain they are used as water storage to help from overwhelming the system. Peter our host also mentioned other efforts they have made to help with flood waters, including building a cistern underneath some soccer fields. It seems Malaysia is taking their infrastructure seriously and spending resources to protect it. For example, the major highways, complete with toll booths, were not unlike what you’d find in the States.
The other thing we noticed around the city was a lot of construction: many office and residential buildings were being built, as well as many remodel projects. The city of Kuala Lumpur is poised for growth and appears to be a great place to do business. Of course there are always caveats to this and the concept of talent drain exists in Malaysia as well. Singapore has higher wages and programs in place to attract the best talent from around the region, including their northern neighbor Malaysia. We were told that there are efforts to slow the flow. One major project is a high speed rail from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore. The hope is that some of the money and talent from Singapore will move north and bring additional opportunities.
All in all, the trip to Kuala Lumpur was a valuable experience, not only for the exposure to the dynamic southeast Asian region, but also for the opportunity to bond with fellow RIT EMBA classmates. I recommend the trip to everyone who has the opportunity.
Want to hear more from another student? Read another student blog: Miriam's Trip to Malaysia