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  Home > Thailand

At Home In Asean

Photo: Apichart Jinakul


 February 5th, 2018  |  10:47 AM  |   1051 views



Japanese chief of Asian Development Bank in Thailand looks for ways to share the region's growing wealth more equally.


The first thing that impressed me about Hideaki Iwasaki, country director for the Thailand Resident Mission of the Asian Development Bank (ADB), was his fluent English. I assumed it was the result of his educational background.


But that is only partly the case for this Japanese executive in his 50s, who took up his post in Bangkok on June 15 last year. He seems to have a natural flair for languages. Besides English, he is able to communicate in French and Korean as well. He also understands Burmese and Hindi and is now studying Thai.


Without any influence from his family or the place he was born, Mr Iwasaki started to develop his interest in English when he was a teenager living in a small town of 10,000 people on Kyushu, the southwesternmost island in Japan.


"I tried listened to radio programmes, educational programmes teaching English, and western music. I just tried to learn what native speakers and teachers were saying," Mr Iwasaki recalls in a conversation with Asia Focus.


"I studied by myself and studied seriously in the classroom. From grade 7 onward, I started to study English when I was 12 or 13. That was my first exposure to a foreign language. It fascinated me because where I lived, everyone speaks Japanese with very strong accent.


"The first time I spoke to any native speaker outside classroom was when I was 20 years old. I sat next to an economist from Saudi Arabia on the shinkansen on the way home. I was able to communicate somehow in English. That was the first time. Until then, I never had any opportunity. I was very happy I was able to communicate well."


While he doesn't believe that early education in English is necessary for everyone, Mr Iwasaki says that in his case it was simply a matter of genuine interest. "I attempted to study many languages actually ... out of my own genuine interest. Learning languages is my hobby even today."


An ability to understand Burmese and Hindi is one by-product of his work with the Manila-based ADB for the past 15 years. He spent about three months a year in India, both in Delhi and in remote, underdeveloped areas such as Bihar, overseeing development projects. As well, he was posted to Myanmar from mid-2012 to the end of 2013, spending time in both Yangon and Nay Pyi Taw.


"When I was in Myanmar, I was able to read newspapers in Burmese with the help of a dictionary," he recalls. "Over about one and a half years there, I just taught myself. Basically just reading many books and listening to CDs."


"Hindi, Burmese, Thai, Lao and Cambodian languages, they all use the same writing system. The forms are different but the concept is the same. You invest your time in reading first to be able to understand what is written."


Indonesia, meanwhile, imports a number of words from South Asia, notes Mr Iwasaki. "If I lived (in Indonesia) for one week, I would be able to communicate reasonably well because I know the basics of the Indonesian language. It is so fascinating, this curiosity."


It is still rare for Japanese people to speak any language but their own unless they work for big companies where English is the language of business. For Mr Iwasaki, speaking English or other local languages is very valuable for his work. "Of course, that will break the ice because when you speak the local language, people will be nicer to you at least. Also, you understand the culture and the way people think," he says.


"In my view, acquiring the proper pronunciation is very important. That's very important because if you don't understand or pick up the right pronunciation, you won't be able to develop your capability to listen and speak, so you can't really develop your proficiency to the next level."




Holding bachelor's and master's degrees in urban planning, Mr Iwasaki worked for the Japanese government for 12 years in charge of transport sector analysis, strategy development and project formulation and implementation. During that time, he was sent to the US for a year, where he completed his second master's degree in transport engineering from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.


He joined the ADB in July 2002 and was with the bank's South Asia Department in transport sector operations in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Until his transfer to Bangkok, he was director of the ADB's Southeast Asia Transport and Communication Division.


After living and travelling extensively in the region for 15 years, Mr Iwasaki feels like Asean is his second home.


"My job brought my family to the Philippines and we've travelled a lot in the region," he says. "We have been to all the countries except Laos and Brunei. We've been to Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar … all these places.


"For us, of course, the Philippines has been a base and Asean is like a home. Now that I've spent the last 15 years working outside Japan, mostly living in Asean, I feel this is like a home. To me, these countries are all fascinating, partly because of my interest in culture and history of Southeast Asia, China and India."


Apart from work-related trips, Mr Iwasaki travels with his family in Southeast Asia for leisure and school activities of his twin children, now 20. They graduated from an international school in the Philippines and enrolled to Japanese universities.


"Their school activities required travelling to Asean countries. When they had sports competitions, they would go to their counterpart schools in countries like Singapore and Indonesia," he says.


"My son is quite serious about baseball. He represented the Philippine national team and went to the US as part of the national team. My daughter is into dancing and that brought her to several schools in the region."


Outside the Philippines, Bangkok is the family's favourite place, says Mr Iwasaki, citing the food and other practical reasons.


"You have lots of BTS service, shopping malls, access to Japanese things … food and also other things. The Philippines has improved in terms of access to Japanese things but can't really match Bangkok. Bangkok is really the centre in the region when it comes to Japanese food.


"We haven't been to the beaches very often, actually. We went to Krabi once; it's quite impressive. Also, the temples are nice but that's probably for me. For my children, the teenagers, probably, temples might not be so appealing.


"Culturally, the Philippines has been influenced by the US and Spain before that. Thailand and Myanmar have a similarity and the way people behave is somewhat similar.


"People in South Asia are very different. Compared to the Philippines and Japan, the differences between Thailand and Japan are fewer."


In the past, Mr Iwasaki used to fly as many as 150 times a year, mostly due to his work in India. Because there was no direct flight from Manila to India, he had to fly to Bangkok or Singapore first before travelling to Delhi, and then to other destinations in India.


"The maximum was 150 flights a year but I flew at least 100 times a year on average counting personal trips to my home country. Now it's less because I'm based in Bangkok," he says.


Apart from flying a lot, Mr Iwasaki likes walking around cities when he has free time on a Saturday or Sunday.


"My wife doesn't want to join me," he says with a smile. "I wake up quite early in the morning, like 5am, start walking in the city during the weekend. I did that in Bangkok actually when I first came here but nowadays I do it less.


"I'd walk to Hua Lamphong, Yaowarat all the way to the canal, then I'd cross the bridge to the other side. Mainly because I wanted to see how things are. If you just drive, you don't see, right? And there is a lot to see in Chinatown, bustling markets in the morning.


"When I stayed in Yangon, I went to pagodas, cathedrals and old secretariat buildings, to just to feel the sense of the city. It's my hobby, actually, to walk around."




Talking about the region's cities brought our conversation around to some of the serious challenges facing Asean. In Mr Iwasaki's view, disparity within countries tops the list. Due partly to increasing urbanisation, there is a growing divide between the capital or big cities and other parts of the country, as well as disparity between the rich and poor.


"These are the big challenges in many countries," he says, adding that failure to solve problems could lead to social instability and interrupt a country's development process.


"Bangkok does not represent Thailand, just like Tokyo does not represent Japan. It's a strange place for people outside Tokyo, and Bangkok is the same for people living in the provinces."


However, he feels disparity in Thailand, at least on the surface, is less than the gap between Manila and other parts of the Philippines, or between Ho Chi Minh City and other parts of Vietnam.


In Japan, the government has tried, but not very successfully, to distribute wealth from Tokyo and big cities to other parts of the country in order to reduce inequality.


"Japan is not coping with that well. Even now, the problem is still there. Because urbanisation has progressed so much, politicians have to listen to the voices from the cities," says Mr Iwasaki.


In fact, there are not many good role models when it comes to tackling disparity. In South Korea, for example, basically Seoul is everything.


"A quarter of the country's population lives in Seoul and everything is in the capital. In Thailand, the ratio is not as high which means there is room for migration of people from rural areas to Bangkok," he says.


"The largest city in the country is called the primate city and what is happening in the region is that these big cities -- Manila in the Philippines, Yangon in Myanmar, and Jakarta in Indonesia -- they suck up all the resources such as human, financial resources and talents. Some people think that is a good thing because a primate city is the engine of development.


"So Thailand is growing because Bangkok is growing. It's attracting a lot of foreign investment and talent. As long as Bangkok is growing, Thailand is okay. But that's the wrong way. You need to balance disparity. Fill the gap between Bangkok and other places in the country," he stresses.


In Thailand, disparity is quite wide, but luckily it's not widening. Disparity between men and women, for example, is less pronounced in most Asian countries than in Japan.


"In the corporate world [in Japan], you don't see many women or in government offices, you don't see many women in senior levels. That's an issue. In the Philippines and Thailand, government or businesses, there are many women. Of course, they may be from certain families."


When it comes to urbanisation, he believes the challenge is how to invest in big cities, which is necessary, without widening the gap with other parts of the country.


"But if you don't [invest] now, it will get more difficult and more expensive. I'm very happy that Bangkok is investing in urban transport now because if you do it 10 years later, it will be much more expensive."


The challenge for the government is that while it commits huge sums to the capital, it must also invest meaningfully in rural areas and other provinces.


"There is no choice because the city is growing and attracting so much investment. Thailand's strength in a way comes from the strength of Bangkok as a regional hub, and if Bangkok's position is weaker, then companies might go back to Singapore or go to Hong Kong or Kuala Lumpur, or they might go to Yangon.


"So Bangkok's strength is important but simultaneously you have to address the disparity issue. You need to strike a good balance between disparity and urbansisation. That's a challenge. If you just invest in provincial cities, it means you don't strengthen your strengths."


Urbanisation is a challenge in most Asean countries. "They should continue to invest in urban public transport," says Mr Iwasaki. "If you don't have enough public transport, everyone will drive, then roads will be congested and everyone won't want to open businesses here and if you want to hire people, they will say, 'That place is so congested, I don't want to go and work there.'


"So they have to invest in public transport so the city can function. At least in this regard, Tokyo and Osaka are good examples. These are big cities but they can function. Most big cities in Japan, they manage public transport fairly well, but of course it costs a lot of money."


And because Asean governments have limited budgets, they should try to invite the private sector to invest in public transport, possibly combining transport development and property development, which is more lucrative for them.


"There are good examples in the region. Hong Kong and Singapore are two good examples. Hong Kong MTR is gaining more from property and that in a way subsidises subway operations. The subway is very expensive but if you sell properties or lease them, it will make a lot of money," he says.


Mr Iwasaki is enthusiastic about Thailand's Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC), saying it represents a good platform to focus investments in a limited area.


"If you want to just address disparity you need to invest in the South, the North or Northeast. You won't be able to invest in a meaningful way if you want to take care of everything," he says.


"So at least for the purpose of transforming Thailand's economy, the government is focusing on those three provinces (Cachoengsao, Chon Buri and Rayong) and on a limited number of industrial sectors which is very good in my view.


"The Eastern Seaboard is attracting so much investment. Those companies in the manufacturing sector came to Thailand and they are basing themselves in the area close to Laem Chabang (deep-sea port)."


As the interview draws to a close, I ask Mr Iwasaki about his hobbies and what he does when he gets stressed from work.


"I read a lot actually and when I get stressed," he says. "I read about history, languages and culture. I read most books in English now."


His favourite book is The Remains of the Day, the 1989 novel by the Nobel Prize-winning British writer Kazuo Ishiguro.


"His style is quite reserved. You know from the way he wrote that story and the adjectives he uses to describe things. It has so much detail. I can tell this person was raised as a Japanese even though he is a UK author. British but born to Japanese parents.


"The first time I read this book was probably when I was in my twenties. It was made into a movie. I've read some other books of his but I think it's the best."



courtesy of BANGKOK POST



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