The Colombo swap

The Colombo Swap

A new approach sees Australians immersing themselves in Asian cultures.

This article is from the April 2014 issue of INTHEBLACK magazine.

It was not that long ago that member nations of the dominant geopolitical force of its time, the British Commonwealth, took it upon themselves to guide the training of Asia’s future business and political elite.

The Colombo Plan, launched in 1951, sponsored thousands of Asian students to study or train in tertiary institutions in Australia, New Zealand, the UK and Canada. Now a New Colombo Plan has been launched, but this time Australians will be immersing themselves in Asian culture, politics, business and learning.

About 300 Australian undergraduates set off in March as part of a pilot scheme to universities in four locations – Japan, Indonesia, Singapore and Hong Kong. A joint project of Australia’s foreign affairs and education ministries, when the program kicks off for real next year, students will be offered a wide range of options.

First, the whole of the Indo-Pacific will be included and funding will vary depending on whether students are on short-term mobility programs of several weeks (A$1000 to A$3000) or one or two semesters ($A3000 to A$7000). There will also be 40 full-year scholarships.

The Australian Government has allocated A$4 million for the first-year pilot, but total funding will reach A$100 million over the full five years. What does this mean for students? They might undertake study ranging from semester-based and short-term study to teaching practicums, research, field studies and clinical placements. It could involve groups or individuals placed in the medical, legal or engineering fields or with NGOs and charitable foundations.

Each university is being asked to devise schemes which fit the spirit of the plan, rather than follow any strict educational or course guidelines. Greater cultural interchange is the mission.

Professor Richard Petty FCPA, chairman of the Australian Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong & Macau and a director of CPA Australia, is working on the program’s implementation in Hong Kong and says it could equip young Australians with the kinds of skills that will give them a significant career boost for the future.

“Deepening our business, political and cultural links with our nearest neighbours, trading partners and competitors is essential to ensuring our own global competitiveness,” he observes.

The business community in Hong Kong, too, is well aware of the opportunities New Colombo presents.

“Our experience is that those engaged in the logistics, construction, legal, finance, property and insurance industries in Hong Kong as well as the mining industries in Mainland China have a positive view on the value that opportunities like internships can provide,” says Petty.

Greg Whitwell, senior deputy dean at the Sydney-based Australian School of Business, says its first foray with New Colombo will involve a number of students doing a mix of course work and a hands-on business exercise in Jakarta this year. Integral to this will be the “consulting practicums”, where teams of students work on a business problem for either a local business or an Australian company based in Indonesia.

Professor Paul Kofman, dean of the Business and Economics faculty at the University of Melbourne, says he hopes the New Colombo Plan will eventually re-skew the faculty’s exchange program towards Asia. About 300 local students study overseas, but the vast bulk of them head for Europe or the US.

"Many feel a secondary international designation will give them more pull on their CV." – Jeff Hughes

“Many currently feel they simply don’t have the information on Asian universities to make a decision that way, but this will help facilitate a new wave of scholarships,” Kofman says.

Fiona Docherty, pro-vice-chancellor (international) at the University of New South Wales, says most student stints in Asia are short term, but she believes this will change. She expects that at first students will head for English-speaking Singapore or Hong Kong, and then later move to places like Shanghai, Beijing and the larger Chinese cities.

“I expect more mobility going into China, but also into places like Seoul and Kuala Lumpur,” Docherty says.

It is a hope that the former CPA Australia chief executive Alex Malley shares. “As it’s likely a child born today will spend their entire working life with China as the world’s biggest economy, we think that it’s important that this welcome initiative be broadened over time, to include China and India.”

But language barriers loom large. While several of the larger Chinese and Japanese universities are now bringing in some English language course work, this is hardly reliable. Kofman admits that training Australian students to be academically proficient in an Asian language will be very tough.

“Already some of our students are doing courses in basic Japanese, Mandarin and Bahasa. But once they go over there they really will have to immerse themselves in the language.”

The program may also come to rely on university alumni who are trading in Asian locations, says Docherty. This may play a growing part of the New Colombo Plan – that is, building links between current business practitioners and future ones.

Doug Ferguson, who heads KPMG’s Asia Business Group in Sydney, says he has met with Australia’s foreign ministry and has offered to arrange work opportunities for students throughout the Asian network of KPMG.

Ferguson, a strong advocate of the plan, sees a philosophical kinship between New Colombo and KPMG’s own strategic aims.

“We know at KPMG that unless we increase the level of interaction between current and future leaders across Asia, we will not achieve our strategic ambitions in the region,” he says.

Nobody knows how the New Colombo Plan will look in five years. What is certain is that Australia must stop thinking of education as a one-way street. If the country wants to achieve its own strategic ambitions in Asia, it will need plenty of new Asia hands to ensure traffic flows both ways.

CPA Australia in Asia

CPA Australia’s involvement in Asia has come a long way since the 1950s when the then Australian Society of Accountants appointed representatives in Singapore, Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur. This year, CPA Australia will have been in Singapore for 60 years.

The brand is now arguably as Asian as it is Australian – CPA Australia has had offices in those territories since the late 1980s, and has since spread its influence to mainland China, Vietnam and Indonesia.

Of the 30,000 students who take the CPA Australia course in any one year, about 10,000 study and achieve the degree outside Australia, says Jeff Hughes, the former organisation’s chief operating officer with oversight of the business’s professional programs and pathways.

The CPA Australia certification, equivalent to a post-graduate accountancy degree, now has worldwide cachet, Hughes says.

“We find that those doing our course may already have acquired their local degree to practise accounting, but many feel a secondary international designation will give them more pull on their CV,” he says.

Most of the tuition is done through distance education programs, but there are courses which can be taught face-to-face by selected third party providers.

Hughes says CPA Australia has very strong membership in Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaysia because many members have a connection, having studied in Australia’s higher education system. The offices there not only train prospective candidates but offer further business and professional development as well as member advisory and support services.

CPA Australia has worked hard in the past decade to forge mutual recognition agreements with local bodies.

“Essentially they now recognise that the entry requirement and standards are equivalent and bound by the same code of conduct and ethics as their home countries – there’s a confidence in that process,” Hughes says.

CPA Australia has mutual recognition agreements with the Hong Kong Institute of Certified Public Accountants, the Malaysian Institute of Accountants and the Institute of Certified Public Accountants of Singapore as well as equivalent professional bodies in India, Sri Lanka, Canada and Europe.

Doug Ferguson

Doug Ferguson

Blazing a trail

Sydney to Hong Kong and back

The idea of being a poster boy for Australians doing business in Asia hardly appeals to Doug Ferguson, but it’s an image that is difficult to discard. At just 40, he is KPMG’s Asia specialist. He has spent 12 years in the region including stints in Taipei, Beijing and Hong Kong.

He started honing his Mandarin way back in 1996 when he spent a year at the National Taiwan Normal University. He joined KPMG in 1998 as a graduate recruit, and has been in various senior Asian positions at the firm for most of the past 16 years.

He’s developed a kind of cultural neutrality. “I quickly became colour blind,” he laughs.

And yet he admits to thinking in Confucian terms. “In the West we tend to think of breaking a wall down to fix a problem. In China, it’s more about flowing water. It’s about getting through without offending.”

His fluent Mandarin is an icebreaker, but not a deal-maker.

“It’s a way of introducing myself and my story. But the point is never to overstep the mark and rush into detailed business negotiations. There is a time to listen. It’s all about forming relationships.

“People transfers are the secret source to breaking down barriers and stereotypes,” he adds.

“We’re constantly bringing people over from Japan and China or getting Australians sent to Beijing, Shanghai or Mumbai. It’s really what makes the business tick.”

This article is from the April 2014 issue of INTHEBLACK magazine.


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