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                                                                                                                           Asean Affairs October 12, 2013  

                                              Telling Asia’s story - Swarup Roy

By Sudeshna Sarkar in Kolkata for China Daily Asia Weekly
Interview with Swarup Roy published in China Daily Asia Weekly (11 Oct 2013) and released all over Asia and world in several leading print newspapers. Read..

Bangkok-based magazine publisher from India is a passionate advocate for ASEAN’s business potential

To most people, the acronym CIA refers to the Central Intelligence Agency, the US government’s intelligence-gathering arm. But Swarup Roy has coined a new, and Asia-focused, meaning.

To this 43-year-old entrepreneur from Kolkata, CIA stands for China-India-ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), a region of 3.1 billion people that accounts for two-thirds of world trade.

“It’s the new world order and the growth engine of the world economy,” he says.

“In 1990, the CIA countries accounted for just 4.64 percent of world GDP. In 2010 it became an amazing 22 percent. In the future, CIA’s economy will exceed that of the US, EU and Japan, becoming 40-45 percent of global GDP.”

Roy’s familiarity with these figures stems from his in-depth knowledge of the business sector across Asia. Formerly a player in India’s corporate world, after a motorcycle accident he moved to Thailand and into the English-language media industry. From 2002 to 2006, Roy was with Business Day, a daily publication started in Thailand by a number of former Bangkok Post journalists.

His stint there, first as marketing vice-president and then as president, brought him into close contact with embassies, corporate companies and investors. It also made him realize how interested the international community was in the 10-member ASEAN.

Yet when investors and foreign government officials tried to get more information about this golden goose, they were stumped.

“As local papers we tended to focus on local news,” Roy explains. “Regional news would be relegated to barely half a page or a quarter. I had assumed there would be lots of publications devoted to ASEAN. I was surprised to find there were none.”

This discovery was his eureka moment.

In 2005 he formed his own company, Time International Management Enterprises, and was looking for ideas for media products. He then realized what it would be — a publication devoted to ASEAN, and the voice of Southeast Asia.

“I was tired of watching CNN and Newsweek cover Barasat (a suburb in Kolkata) and Bangkok, trotting out stereotypes,” he says.

“Asia is the oldest civilization in the world. To do it justice, the Asian story should be told from the ground, without blinkers.”

That’s how the flagship ASEAN Affairs was born in 2006. It started out as an online platform, updated daily, as Roy took advantage of the inroads made by new media. Besides, print media was expensive, guzzling up resources, and finding resources — the right people and the right model — was a challenge.

He decided that he would not seek investment from outside as he wanted ASEAN Affairs to be “the Asian voice telling the Asian story in the Asian century”.

And he had clear intentions about the type of stories he intended to tell.

“I wanted it to be a resource and platform for people interested in doing business — companies, corporate, governments.”

Since the print media still signified “respectability”, in 2007 Roy launched ASEAN Affairs as a 44-page tabloid, published quarterly.

The debut edition was something of a coup, featuring on its cover Surin Pitsuwan, who was to become the next secretary-general of ASEAN in 2008, succeeding Singapore’s Ong Keng Yong.

Roy had his eye on the West, and the next step was to get ASEAN Affairs distributed in the US, Canada and Europe.

A break came when Bertelsmann, a German mass media corporation, signed up to distribute the magazine in Europe, which then became an 88-page bimonthly magazine.

Not content with this success, Roy decided to branch out further, and launched the ASEAN Affairs Business Council (AABC).

“I had investors and companies reading about one another,” says Roy. “Now I wanted to bring them together face-to-face and invest more in ASEAN. AABC was a platform to facilitate that.”

Partnered by regional organizations like Malaysia’s Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute, AABC has hosted various interactions like its ASEAN Leadership Forums held in Bangkok, Malaysia and Singapore.

The organization also has a presence at other conferences in the region, and Roy was invited to speak at the influential Global Outsourcing Summit in Ma’anshan city, Anhui province in China in 2011.

The next dream is to make CIA the “Davos of Asia”, he says, referring to the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Switzerland. But with one major difference: The Asia forum will have no political overtone.

“CIA is meant to make business deals happen in ASEAN, China and India, by bringing the West and East together in the most dynamic growing economies of the world,” Roy says.

Now he is looking at outside investment to set up two more secretariats, in Beijing and an Indian city, and he plans to revamp ASEAN Affairs to add a Chinese and Indian edition.

“Bilateral trade between China and India was over $66 billion in 2012 and is projected to reach $100 billion,” says Roy.

“It’s a ridiculous figure, given that there is a potential of $1 trillion. It’s not happening because Chinese and Indian companies are not engaging fully as they still carry some baggage.

“CIA seeks to make it happen by making Bangkok their meeting ground. Sometimes, an individual can do more than governments.”

With the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) coming up in 2015, Roy sees immense potential in the CIA region.

“Both China and India have free trade agreements with ASEAN, and AEC will open up the entire ASEAN to the two regional giants.”

When ASEAN began to grow, it developed first into ASEAN+1, adding China. Then it became ASEAN+3, with Japan and South Korea included. Now it is ASEAN+6, with India, New Zealand and Australia as well.

“It shows China has had a special status in ASEAN from the very beginning,” Roy says. “Today, there is an aggressive expansion of ties between ASEAN and India that was not there a year ago. Now with both China and India in the ASEAN-plus fold, the two giants will balance each other.”

AEC, he says, will be a boon for the entire region.

“At present ASEAN is like a football team with its Team A and Team B,” he says laughing. “There are the first five members it started out with: Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand, the developed economies in the bloc. Though Brunei joined later, it too is regarded as a developed member due to its oil-rich status.”

The developing economies — Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam — will get a leg-up from the other members as the bloc integrates into a single economic community, Roy believes.

“Then, collectively, ASEAN will have far greater bargaining power than its members had as individuals.”

Roy has a ready example to prove his point: Myanmar’s Dawei port, in which both Thai and Japanese investors are showing interest.

“It will see the construction of a road to Thailand, which means greater trade opportunities for Thai companies,” he says.

The project was conceived in 2008 by Italian-Thai Development, the Thai company that built Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport and the new terminal in Kolkata as part of a consortium.

“So Thai companies will be pitching for more foreign investment in Myanmar so that Thai companies can do more business.

“Then there are the Indian and Chinese companies showing an interest.”

This one example shows just the type of major cross-border project involving ASEAN, China and India that Roy expects to see much more of in the future. In short, business without borders; in Asia and beyond.


Founder, Chairman and CEO, ASEAN Affairs


2000: A drunk driver smashes into his motorcycle, leaving him bedridden for a year

2006: Launches ASEAN Affairs


What took you to Bangkok?

Destiny. I had a bad road accident in Kolkata that left my right leg shattered. It brought so much grief to my family that I felt I had to move away to spare them further pain. A business acquaintance in Bangkok asked me to come over and help out. “We need your brains, not your leg,” he said and I went. One thing led to another and I found myself becoming the vice-president, marketing, at Business Day.

What is the source of your strength?

Perfect Health, a book by Deepak Chopra that draws on the centuries-old Indian healing science of Ayurveda for physical and spiritual well-being. I have been reading it for one and a half years now; it’s the manual of my life.

What is your business philosophy?

Faith. Utter unshakable faith.

Can an Indian truly be the voice of ASEAN?

Once we were discussing the prospects of the ASEAN passport, a single document for the entire bloc. My friend and business associate Mirzan Mahathir, the son of former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, made a laughing suggestion: “If it ever comes through, Roy should be the first person to get it. He’s more passionate about ASEAN than people in ASEAN themselves.” I take that as acceptance.

Date of birth: Dec 16, 1969.

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