Stronger Asian links need to be a class act

When Thai Transport Minister Dr Chadchart Sittipunt met a group of Australian journalists on a balmy Bangkok afternoon recently, he was quick to offer a share tip to visitors. "You should buy stocks in Cochlear," he told them.

When Thai Transport Minister Dr Chadchart Sittipunt met a group of Australian journalists on a balmy Bangkok afternoon recently, he was quick to offer a share tip to visitors. "You should buy stocks in Cochlear," he told them.

An MIT-educated engineering professor, Sittipunt spent 18 months in Australia 10 years ago as a researcher at the CSIRO.

The tip was as much personal as financial. Sittipunt's son had his hearing restored with the aid of a Cochlear implant. He is a believer in the Australian technology, which he says has "changed the lives of many people".

Sittipunt is overseeing one of the largest infrastructure projects in the country's history, worth $67 billion. He is also one of many south-east Asian political and business elites with ties to Australia.

These Australian alumni can be found in the corridors of power across the region, from the presidential palace in Singapore to executive suites in Bangkok. Even Maha Vajiralongkorn, the future king of Thailand, is a product of Sydney's King's School and the Royal Military College at Duntroon.

Brian Rogers, an Australian automotive executive based in Bangkok, says Thai alumni from Geelong Grammar School can be found in many top business positions in the country.

Together, these people form a crucial nexus linking Australia with the world's most economically dynamic region.

However, it is not clear whether the government or businesses are making best use of this valuable human asset, which is dwindling as the younger generation of Asian leaders turn to better known universities in the US and Europe for education.

For years, countries and educational institutions have cultivated their alumni for political and business advantages. Joseph Nye, the man who coined the term "soft power" - the ability to attract rather than coerce, use force or give money as a means of persuasion - says "most of China's leaders have a son or daughter educated in the States who can portray a realistic view of the US that is often at odds with the caricatures in official Chinese propaganda".

Ivy League universities such as Harvard and Yale have built vast fortunes through their active alumni fund-raising programs. Harvard alone has a $US31 billion ($29.6 billion)war chest at its disposal to lure the best talent to its campus.

Nearly $US70 million was raised from a single reunion gathering of the class of 1977, the university says.

Britain and the US are courting future political, business and academic leaders around the world through famous scholarship schemes such as Rhodes, Fulbright and Marshall.

It is said the special Anglo-American relationship is built through Oxonians from both countries reminiscing about the good old days spent rowing on the Isis or drinking sherry at Magdalen College. At home, Anglophile Tony Abbott is not shy about boosting his Rhodes connection.

Chinese returnees from American universities are increasingly taking up senior positions in the country. Americans see them as a great source of potential influence in the world's second most powerful economy.

Australia has a large network of alumni in the region that is crying out to be nurtured and developed. This is an area where private firms such as Baker & McKenzie and Boston Consulting Group can teach the country a few lessons.

Top-tier law firms, investment banks and management consultancies maintain extensive databases of their former staff and stay in touch with them regularly as they take up other positions in the business world.

Managing partner of Baker & McKenzie in Australia Chris Freeland says the country must take a more proactive approach in courting Asian leaders educated in Australia. "Why isn't there someone in the government tracking where these people end up?" he asks.

He says many private sector firms such as Baker & McKenzie keep tabs on their former staff and invite them back for functions regularly. "Some alumni are our most important clients and it is in our interest to treat them very well," he says.

Freeland says the government should fly the top 100 Asian alumni to Canberra or Sydney for a two-day roadshow very year, keeping them up to date on what is happening in Australia.

"If we bring in the Indonesian trade minister, Mongolian finance minister and some Malaysian cabinet ministers [all Australian alumni], what a great dialogue they would have between themselves and we can impose the Australian dimension. It could be incredible powerful," he says.

Freeland's recommendation is a simple and practical way of implementing one of the main objectives of the government's Asian Century white paper - building people-to-people links.

It is well known that cultivating "guanxi" or relationships is an important part of doing business in Asia, and tapping into alumni networks in the region is a great way of building rapport with Asian business and political leaders.

This point has been recognised in the government's white paper. "We will strengthen the extensive alumni networks of Australian-educated leaders in Asia by providing a focal point for co-ordinating the networks through an Australia Awards Office," the paper says.

Establishing a co-ordination office is a good starting point but diplomats, business people and educators must develop strong awareness of this important nexus. National Australia Bank chief executive for Asia Spiro Pappas says the bank plays to natural ties between wealthy Asians and Australia as part of its strategy.

He says his Singaporean doctor, dentist and chiropractor were all educated in Australia and had relatives living in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth. "There are a lot of wealthy Asians with a strong affinity to Australia," he says.

There are more than half a million international students studying in Australia, many of them from our most important trading partners such as China and India. Australian business should open its doors to them and offer them opportunities for work experience.

The business community as a whole needs to do more to develop relationships with our most important neighbours.

Ross Gittins is on leave