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Malaysia: An Alternative Eastern Option

I just finished delivering a workshop in Malaysia, and although I have not seen much of the country, the experience has been fascinating. I got a chance to spend the day working with 20 CEOs and their top management teams. You can watch my blogcast by clicking here.

To be honest, I did not know much about Malaysia before coming here. My mother has lived nearby in Thailand and Bangladesh, but beyond Malaysian satay, I had no idea what to expect. What I found was a confluence of subtle surprises.

This is a predominantly Muslim country but its run by a secular, open government. You see women in hijabs and head scarves, but I was surprised to see nearly half the CEOs in the program were women. That is a higher percentage then I usually see in the U.S.

Entrepreneurship seems to be a big driver of the economy despite the fact that the national oil company, Petronas, provides 32% of the federal budget in taxes, dividends, and royalties. And yes, the industrial sector is the largest contributor of GDP, but beyond these sectors there are not many options for people who want to pursue a traditional corporate career. Instead you must start or join a small business. Luckily, Malaysia makes that easy—it only takes a few days to incorporate a new company.

And the entrepreneurs that I met here ran the gamut from a three-person jewelry designer and a small landscaping company to a participant who owns the second-largest fixed line telecom company in the country. That person had attended an earlier workshop seven years ago and out of that decided to set a big hairy audacious goal (BHAG) of growing to $250M in revenue from just $5M. He made it in seven years.

With some clever financial strategies, he engineered a reverse merger in which they merged their company with a country-owned telecom company under the agreement they would get to operate the joint venture. Today his company, publically traded, is worth $800M. They have been expanding the business into datacenters and fiber optics. Now his goal is to turn his company into a $10B market cap company, and he is well on his path to achieve this.

I don't have time or space to cover all of what there is to discover here. But if you are thinking of expanding your business into Asia, I highly recommend that before you jump into the obvious markets of China, India, or Singapore, you take a look at Malaysia. Malaysia has 18 companies that rank in the Forbes Global 2000 ranking for 2009, and the country allows companies to be 100% foreign owned. English is commonly used and the country is a reasonably fast growing, diverse, stable, and business-friendly place with a large community of innovative entrepreneurs.