Thursday, July 17, 2008

Asia. France. America.

This posting is not much about INSEAD and may offend you if you are French. Please trust that it is not my intention to offend anyone.

I'm now one of perhaps 10 or so INSEADers to spend 2 months in the "third continent" over the summer (another 40 or 50 will do so later in the year by exercising the Wharton Alliance). Now Americans (and INSEAD's scarily large Canadian community) would rarely think of their continent as "third" in anything, but to me its the "third" part of my INSEAD experience. And its always fun to refer to them as third in anything.

Amazing as this may seem to many of my European brethren, this will not be a disparaging rant about the uncultured and unsophisticated louts in this continent, far from it. Before I start, I want to state that I am not American, Canadian, a EU citizen or Chinese or Singaporean. I also agree that America does have some problems with healthcare, insurance, gun laws and environmental action. But this blog is not about those things, it is about my experiences and my journey. And physically my journey started in Singapore and progressed to France and then to the USA and that is the journey I wish to try and articulate in today's blog.

I've lived in East Asia for many (discontinuous) years, and I know and understand Hong Kong, China, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia better than most foreigners (ie people not citizens of those nations). I love the work ethic, determination, can-do attitude, drive to improve their lot in life, their attention to detail, their desire to help, their service culture, their attitude of looking to find solutions and answers. This work culture, can-do attitude and determination has transformed these countries economically in 30 years into middle income countries. They are also extremely cultured (in a way Europeans do not easily relate to). Asia is also extremely competitive and yet self-effacing, polite and obliging. They are sometimes rich and sometimes poor but not in poverty, and they are generally happy. They are not always contented but they are content for the day. They strive for American standards of living but relish their centuries old mix of Confucianism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and British & Dutch influence with pride. And they never, ever seek to tell you their culture, way of life, cuisine or fashion is better than anyone else's. They are secure in this. This attitude and mentality of East Asia today, makes it for me, the most interesting part of the world to live in. Dynamic, pulsating, growing, opportunisitc and yet secure, comfortable, happy-go-lucky and self-effacing.

France is different. INSEAD aside, France welcomed me by telling me why it is better than me. It told how to eat and what to eat and why it is better than everyone else's cuisine. It told me that it could not help fix my heating, bathroom, bank account, mobile phone, burger... because its my fault that I didnt set it up/order/ask for information correctly. It told me it cannot help me change or expedite anything because things are the way they are - and that is the way they should stay. It told me that the 28th work hour in a week is tiring and that all work will get done, in good time, which is at the rate of 27 work hours per week. It looked for exactly 0 creative solutions to problems, exemplified the best of a "can't do" attitude and ensured that efficiency was always and everywhere foregone for cheese. Or sometimes ham.

My french friends say, "You cannot understand - we are sophisticated, we have 3900 kinds of cheese, 760 kinds of ham and 150 types of indigenous alcoholic drinks like Champagne, Calvados and Cidre. We have Joie de vive, savoir faire and a certain je ne sais quoi." Wrong. Every old nation (Im sorry but I will very temporary exclude North America, Australia and New Zealand), Great Britain, Spain, Netherlands, Russia, Persia, Arab nations, India, Thailand, China, Japan and Sub-Saharan ones have culture, a love of life and class that comes from thousands of years of civilization. Each has its gentlemen and its scholars, its military strategicians, painters and great chefs. Perhaps our French friends don't know them or havent heard of them, but that doesnt mean they don't (or didn't) exist. In the kitchens of rural Vietnam there are middle ages ladies who make the best fishcakes and steamed vegetables with local sauces in the world. Who cares if they don't have Michelin stars - has the Michelin committee ever even visited them? In the backalleys of Suzhou are collections of paintings valued much higher by the Chinese than they would value Gauguin. Ornate craftsmenship in Indian temples, forts, mosques and mausoleums is on-par or better than any architecture I have seen in France. Kings College Chapel and Ely Cathedral in Cambridge, the architecture of Antoni Gaudi in Barcelona, the Churches of Munich, the colours of Lisbon and the paintings of Van Gogh and Rembrandt as beautiful as anything in France. Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Sun Tsu, Plato, Gulzar and Gabriel Garcia Marquez all wrote as poetically as Victor Hugo. Each nation has its history, etiquette in clothing and food, refined cuisine, paintings, art and literature.

Argumentative, self-righteous and moralising, France tells you why you it is better. It is not - and I will tell you why. East Asians queue up to learn English (and have done so for 30 years), the French look at you with contempt if you misphrase sentences in French. But the problem is bigger - to me it represents a cultural attitude which restricts economic advancement, innovation and a creative approach to looking for solutions and new ways to answer old questions. Something that a certain people further west are in fact very good at...

Big. Bold. Beautiful. Brave. Coming to America was a true pleasure. My taxi driver from the airport used his personal cell phone to call my flatmate for directions (If I was in NY, they wouldnt have to as NY taxis now all have GPS fitted in), waiters have consistently adapted dishes to my specifications (no riccotta, can I get parmesan cheese and extra prosciutto instead), suits are sold Jacket and trouser size separately to make it easy for you (unlike France where they told me to get thinner but they couldn't sell me a different size trouser with a certain size jacket as they came together). Banks offer free checking (Ameritrade said I could open a trading account in 5 minutes and they would take care of all the work of transferring my existing securities from my old broker at no charge), Banana Republic offers opinion if you want it , but not otherwise (Europeans smirk at the mention of Banana Republic but in France, I hate that the salesman tells you how and why to dress to make yourself look fit for being taken out in public, incidentally the British sometimes are guilty too, I was once told by a butler at Cambridge to use a spoon instead of a fork to eat my Prawn Cocktail - I told him to f*^k off). These are trivial examples but the reality is Americans work hard, they don't worry about form and status quo, they look for creative solutions and they seek answers, they want progress and push the boundaries of achievement, they may be insecure about their jobs but that drives the whole society to do better at their jobs and innovate. Perhaps occasionally the goals and ends of actions are misplaced, but the "can-do attitude" is still what makes America beautiful. I've heard people say before that the world needs American optimism. Having been to France, I can say, France definately does.

Asia is rich in culture and traditions like France. And fortunately in terms of economic progress, innovation, "can-do attitude" and striving for a better tommorrow, it is learning from the best, America, while retaining its societal Confucian thinking. As populations grow, resources become more expensive and the relative competitiveness of France declines as compared with nations where people are working harder, France looks set for a rude economic awakening. Instead of telling us, repeatedly, about the superiority of their culture, tradition, cuisine and lifestyle, perhaps France should look West... or East ... otherwise as one non-French writer put it "Pride goes before the fall".

Saturday, July 5, 2008

The Summer Begins

P3 at INSEAD is over and we are 60% of the way through the course, although what I like about the January intake is that we are only 50% of the way through the INSEAD experience due to the 8 week summer break.

P3 was as much fun as the previous periods although it was decidedly different. We no longer had the same group for all courses so co-ordinating times for meetings and projects was difficult and cranky and due to the shuffling of people between campuses new faces were everywhere and new friendships were made.

The Chateau parties and balls were perhaps the most fun part of the period for someone coming from the Singapore campus. In Fonty, there are themed weekly chateau parties and /or balls such as the Midsummer Night's Dream ball at Montmelian, the Summer Ball, the Abercromie & Fitch meets Ghetto Fabulous Party, the Black and White party, the Shangri La party, the Two items of clothing only at Tavers party, the Latin Party at La Plage, the Italian Party at Chateau snooty McFrancais nom tres difficile and so on.

My favourite stories involve include at the Tavers Two party, a friend had a gorgeous female (student) bouncer reach deep into his trousers to ensure he was not wearing any underwear (as he was wearing both trousers and shirt and a 3rd item would not have been tolerated. Cheekily another gorgeous lady (student) was wearing a dress and a hat, as if to calmly reassure the world that as far as she was concerned, two items was one too many. Admiration. The other legendary stories of the period involve a certain gentleman who with some choice John Travolta moves managed to seduce a lady onto the dance floor, swivel her above his head, only to then drunkenly drop her on her nose. Very suave Sir. And then there was the Great INSEAD Cabaret. The Great INSEAD Cabaret along with the Great INSEAD Dash (discussed in an earlier blog) are among most unique traditions at INSEAD. Every 6 months, the leaving class (with help from the junior class) puts together a fantastic show featuring skits, videos, songs and performances and so on. I strongly urge everyone to go to YouTube and search for "Gone with the Ding + INSEAD", one of the best performances at the June 2008 Cabaret. While artistically brilliant though, it was nothing to the nuanced performances by the Rugby Boys and Girls and the Can Can Girls. Such intellectual rigour and wit, such imagination, such profound thought went into those performances, almost wholly inspired by the Full Monty (without the plot). I jest of course, in fact their nudity was extremely well coordinated, courageous and admirable - and a good advertisement for those of them still single.

Speaking of nudity and singleness, two states of being with a inverse correlation, this period also saw the unfolding of the curse of INSEAD, relationships fell apart thick and fast as the Great INSEAD Stress and the Great INSEAD Booze got the better of the Great INSEAD Stallions (and Stallionistas).

Then there were exams, perfectly coordinated with the first day of good weather in France. As exams ended, the central lawn outside the bar filled up with booze, music and beautiful people (as future business leaders of the world, looking good also comes first. And naturally.)

Tearful goodbyes, friends wept, men hugged each other like babies to their mothers, lovers sexed aggressively for the last time for two months and then departures from Air France's Terminal 2 in Charles de Gaulle happened. All of this avec frites.

Bon été.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Allo from Le Foret

Allo allo mes amis. Bon jour, bon soir or bon jovi depending on where in the world you are reading this. I am in the forest of Fontainebleau about 12 km from INSEAD's original Europe campus. As evident from this blog, I was part of the 153 strong cohort that begun the MBA in Singapore and has moved to Fontainebleau for P3.

There are big differences. The campus in France is bigger, but also older. Admittedly it has more character but is tainted also by 70's architecture while the smaller campus in Singapore has minimalist clean lines everywhere. Then there are the prices. You certainly pay more for poorer products in most cases. Whether its food and drink, transport, banking services, phones etc. The exceptions are housing, which is cheaper (but you are in a forest, not a metropolitan city) and the other exception is clothes because for clothes you pay a LOT MORE for a LOT BETTER. Then there is the weather, it is still 12-15 degrees and cloudy here in May. Which apparently is excellent weather by local standards.

Strangely though the biggest difference is in the human atmosphere around campus. This place is large (2x Singapore Campus) and people dont always know each other or have the same sense of camaraderie prevalent amongst those in Singapore. I think this is primarily a function of size and that people dont all live together.

In terms of teachers and courses there is no difference, the courses are taught equally well (or poorly, depending on who you ask and when). The parties here are at people's houses, not at clubs as in Singapore, and on balance seem marginally more rowdy. There seems to be as much weekend travelling (1-2 times a month to neighbouring countries and towns).

Alright Im boring even myself with these descriptives now, I think I too, like most of the people here am beginning to take myself more seriously (perhaps the French influence - non?).

Im tired now, so will sign out but promise to write something more interesting shortly.

Voila! Bon soir avec frites.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

I've been INSEAD wacced

Alright, so its been 2 months since my last post. That is admittedly unacceptable, even though someone had to take time out of their schedule to go tie up Bernanke and lock him in a Princeton shed. My more public excuse is that I was INSEAD wacced. Now those of you familiar with street talk know that normally "whacked" is what happens to you when a local warlord decides to get his revenge on you when you've done something stupid. At INSEAD, the local warlord (Prof. Pierre Hillion) "waccs" you instead. Using the power of complicated words and even more complicated graphs he slowly eeks living brain cells out of your head and forces you to go and drown them in Russian Standard vodka.

Until recently I was not familiar with this fine Russian export, but since I last communicated with you, I have been made familiar with the product by our marketing Prof. Apparently once a startup by an overenthusiastic INSEAD student who jointly launched a bank and a vodka by the same name (INSEADers have a reputation for creativity), it is now one of the Top 5 brands of vodka in the world. The bank, is admittedly marginally less successful, partly due to the incentive structure (US$2 and 2 bottles of Vodka per day).

So there you have it, I have summarised everything I have learnt since we last met. Oh yes and apparently there is a Blue Ocean out there somewhere. It's Blue and full of water, let that be a lesson to you.

I have however, has a discreet beverage or two in 4 countries since we last spoke, which is somewhat poor by the standards of my classmates. I've seen a few F1 cars fly by my face, I've seen Hanoi and beautiful Halong Bay, been on a private island with 29 friends and somehow managed to pass a few exams.

More INSEAD madness has ensued in the form of the Great INSEAD Dash - you MUST watch it on . I have to say that although Alex and Lili are podgy, lazy and bottom of the class, they are genuises with techie stuff, full respect to them for producing this video.

We've also had Canadian Week and Holland vs German Week. Both were awesome. Although the Canadians were funnier. The Germans had a nail hammering competition as the highlight of their contribution so the Dutch easily "won" their week, mainly by painting the face of everyone they could find orange. Our strategy prof. cleverly taught the Easyjet case while everyone was walking around in orange so that had maximum impact.

What else? Well, my brain is full, my stomach is fuller and I'm off to Paris in 10 days... Too much too quickly...

(btw I am doing an internship in North America so this MBA is genuinely spread over 3 continents for me !)...

Accipiter, 30-40, but I see this more as a game of Anna Kournikova (Worldly) vs. Amelie Mauresmo (Accipiter), you may win the point, but I'm adding much more to the world, its almost Blue Oceany.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Getting accepted to an INSEAD MBA

Now if there is one thing I've learned from the uninspiring and entirely useless person that is Accipiter Nisus, it is that I need to use the words "INSEAD" and "MBA" in my titles and not "Sex" to increase hits. Now its another matter that once one reaches Accipiter's page they realise that this person hasnt updated his/her blog since the last time the average INSEADer had sex. (See what I did there - very clever no?). Those of you familiar with this blog will probably already guess that I am not going to impart wisdom on how to be accepted at INSEAD. Mainly this is because if I knew the answer I would be writing books titled something loosely like "Getting accepted to an INSEAD MBA", I would then use the proceeds to buy yachts, mansions in Miami, St Tropez, Bali and a new wardrobe. However I can tell you that you need to be someone with an open mind, 2-8 years of work experience, and a complicated life story which involves 2 countries/languages and/or 6-8 parents, 3 mistresses - wait no - now Im thinking of The Bold and Beautiful.

As for the rest of Dragon Week at INSEAD - it was pretty decent to be fair. The amphi-storming was pretty awesome, I especially enjoyed the canto-pop and fast paced "China Rising type" presentation. The Dragon Dance was good and so was the Forbidden Party at the Forbidden City. Now I need to negotiate a way to include pictures that dont reveal identities but I promise soon I will get pictures on here too.

The week also saw 2 panel discussions on renewable energy with 4 Alum coming in to talk about their experiences in Renewable Energy in Asia. From PE/VC to Manufacturing photovoltaics, everything was covered, albeit a little superficially. The message is that this is a very early stage industry, come with passion but only if you have your downsides protected.

Alright since Ive now achieved my mission of (a) writing something today (b) Waging full scale war with Accipiter following his/her snide remarks on my page and (c) Increasing the number of hits on my blog, I leave with you with the news that BCG is going to be grilling 16 potential summer interns tommorrow; we now have legends in our midst as I-Banks have started making their first summer intern offers and I still dont know what a bond is. Good Night.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Of Eggs and Dragons

Its been 2 weeks and 1 day since my last blog. I apologise. As the utter, total and complete incompetence and sporadicity of my fellow bloggers Acipiter Nisus (is this an anagram?) and Phathu will also show, INSEAD draws you in and leaves no time for anything else in life. Iv'e been busily avoiding my wife, kids, pets, aunts, uncles, girlfriend's best friends ... so that they dont lay enormous guilt trips on me...(this is a cunning ploy to make you think I'm married with kids and a girlfriend.... Of course I might be...)

So where should I begin?

Week 4 zipped by with the 2 brutal quizzes destroying our spirits and leaving us weak. But no more of that because it reduces me to tears. The highlight of that week was the class on Leading People and Groups. Here our assignment in groups was to build a "vehicle" out of newspaper, string, plastic cups and sponge such that when a raw egg is placed in the vehicle and thrown off of the 3rd floor it lands safely and intact. Somehow our group didn't quite believe that 3rd floor meant 3rd floor, we thought it was a metaphor for "off the top of a table" and built an elaborate space buggy type device with several cushioning devices built in. These "cushions" worked a charm when dropped from the top of a table. However 3 floors was quite another story. Surprisingly our group was one of the thickest in coming up with the right idea. I wont ruin the result for future INSEADers but suffice to say, 60% of eggs landed in perfect condition. However our group still remains tight knit and friendly despite us victimising the engineer in the group and telling him/her how utterly lousy he/she was. He/she was though, seriously, totally crap, if only he/she were an economist/poet/poodle they would have been almost as useful as I was in the session.

Unfortunately this tight-knit, encouraging/safe space concept of a group that our group has created is not true for all groups - some are beginning to fray a little and cracks are emerging. The following week we were told by the Professor for Leading People and Groups that infighting and managing distress and conflict was what made teams strong and this was an expected result. Strangely our team has resorted to no infighting whatsoever and has been surprisingly accommodating and understanding of the objectives of each other. Perhaps we are lucky, or just extremely talented leaders and team players, or arguably just not functioning to our maximum potential as a team. Because apparently if we were, we would be fighting. This is an interesting theory and one that I largely agree with in work settings where not everyone is pursuing an MBA and where serious liabilities/monetary incentives are at stake.

The week 5 class in Leading People and Groups was even more interesting - it focused on a discussion of the 1950s movie 12 Angry Men where 1 juror convinces the other 11 to change their view through a series of strategic leadership ploys. This was excellent food for thought. It offered a model of a leader and certain traits/techniques through which one can influence and lead people. I have started to incorporate all these techniques and am probably manipulating most of you already without you knowing it. No, I'd be more subtle than just tell you about it. Maybe.

Week 5 was a really short week due to Chinese New Year holiday in Singapore - although there were some interesting guest speakers from McKinsey and an INSEAD professor who spoke about the Sub-Prime crisis. The slightly calm/holidayesque feel for this week gave us the opportunity to play a number of classroom games including Professor Bingo, where we distributed bingo sheets with words that the professor is famous for using. The first one to get a row or coloumn of words had to get up and say "Bingo". We also all wore ties to the class of a professor who had previously complained that students just didnt have the same respect for teachers that they did when he was teaching in 1980. We each took in a beer for the 5:30pm class in Economics and gave one to the professor and finally we incorporated a Beatles song title into every interaction with our Accounting Professor for a whole class.

We also did a lot of work and a lot of us went to a lot of interviews with Merrill Lynch, Deutsche Bank etc. BCG created real commotion by hijacking a full day in the consiousness of INSEAD and BP said something about Beyond Petroleum in a convoluted, long winded, entirely upright, British, sorry, Beyond way.

A lot of travelling happened in the last weekend, INSEADers invaded pockets of Bangkok (yes, Khao San Road and Chatuchak market), Malaysia (Langkawi, Tropical Forests and Tropical Islands), Bintan (losers), Singapore Night Safari, Zoo and Nature Reserve (uber losers) and Clarke Quay (there is nothing left to say). Some first timers in Asia went and admired the Chinese New Year fireworks. As an old China hand, I knew they would be beautiful but I also knew I was infinitely less likely to suffocate and suffer chlaustrophobia by sitting in my living room. Now this may seem like a cop out - but its actually just what locals do. They are wiser than tourists and leave the tourists to jump around in Chinatown. There is cosmic karma in this - because lets face it when I go to New York I go and click pictures in Chinatown and Central Park like a complete jack%$# too. So its all good.

We are now in week 6; Dragon Week. Now Im hoping for some intense food and flavours, themed days and an exploration of Xinjiang, Tibet, Sichuan, Shanghai vs Beijing face off, exploration of cultural nuances of Taiwan, HK, Singapore. However it seems none of this is planned. This would be a shame if true as China is a world in itself and needs to be done full justics in a national week. And of course Dim Sum would a pleasant change from the food in the restaurant at INSEAD.

I'll let you know how Dragon Week was on Sunday.

Zai Jian.

Sunday, January 27, 2008


Alright so the title is a blatant attempt at boosting the number of hits on my site. This blog has nothing to do with sex, primarily because INSEAD is a chaste institution of learning.

Week 3 has now come to an end and more and more people are falling off the wagon in terms of keeping up with pre-readings, HW, going to career events, meeting CV submission deadlines, going to the gym...... that isn't to say no one is doing anything, but rather that no one can do everything.

Week 3 was also Iberian Week at INSEAD with Spanish and Portuguese themed events the whole week. This included a comical lunchtime skit, a ridiculously tame Sangria party, a more treacherous Iberian White party on Thursday, Spanish movie showings in the evenings, and Spanish and Portuguese food in the restaurant. The Iberian White party on Thursday was the highlight. With a flat rate S$25 for a free flow of drinks all night, mayhem, carnage and bad hangovers were the only certainty. But the music was great and everyone looked great in white.

The party was a welcome break from the masses of work that is piling up. This is especially hazardous since in the coming week (week 4) we have 2 "quizzie-poos" which form 20% of the grade for Micro-Economics and Financial Markets. Most of us still havent figured out how to use the financial calculators (Excel not allowed in the Tests) and the remainder still don't know what bonds are.

Now if you are a potential INSEAD applicant/student who has also been considering/admitted to Wharton/HBS and are sitting there wondering how on earth they ever let people like INSEADers run companies/countries/their own lives and are about to sign on the dotted line in front of HBS - stop. INSEAD is a tough, intense, academically gruelling experience - I am just choosing not to write about the week 2 session on differentiating non linear demand and cost curves to find entry and exit decisions because that really does not make for riveting reading. However if you leave a comment on my page asking for my thoughts on real options or bond maths I will certainly oblige.

I said also last week that I would write about my conversations at INSEAD. This week I spoke with people about the waste of European Common Agricultural Policy, the future of Shanghai, received an email about "the Indian Revolution" (apparently this has something to do with IT and nothing to do with Britain), discussed the future of South Africa and/or Jacob Zuma, listened to an outside speaker talk about a "Vineyard Fund", heard the word "Fjord" mentioned in 3 entirely unrelated conversations by different people, learnt that the Spanish think the Portuguese are always late for everything, met 4 Americans who want to move to HK, heard 97% of our intake make fun of George Bush and saw 80% of those delight in Obama's successes in the primaries.

Ok - that's enough. Time for micro-economics. Same time, same place, next Sunday.

In keeping with Iberian week - Adios!