What does ‘Apprentice Asia’ tell us about Asian business styles?

Aya Lowe
Tactful confrontations, a tendency to quit, and reluctance to lay the blame have characterized the first few episodes

BUSINESS LEADERS. Does the Apprentice Asia reflect on the continents business community? Photo courtesy of AXN

MANILA, Philippines – This year sees the debut of “Apprentice Asia,” a reality TV show where 12 contestants, successful business(wo)men in their own industries are pitted against each other in what is being touted as the “world’s toughest job interview.”

What’s at stake is a 6-figure salaried position under Tony Fernandes, one of Asia’s most recognized entrepreneur.

This is the latest in more than 25 adaptations worldwide. The program became a hit following its US debut starring real estate billionaire Donald Trump. However, unlike “The Apprentice’s” British and American version, this format tries to represent the main business nations of Asia: two Filipinos, two Indonesians, two Indians, a bet each from Singapore and Thailand, a French expat based in China, and 3 Malaysians. (The one other Apprentice version with contestants hailing from several countries is “The Apprentice Africa.”)

All contestants must speak in the universal business language of English, which for most is not their first (subtitles are provided for the 19 different countries in which the show is aired in) and it is set in Malaysia, a foreign ground for all but 3 of the contestants.

The airing of the show is timely as the economic spotlight swivels toward Asia where burgeoning economies have been showing robust growth levels.

The program’s points of tension also follow a different path as it becomes a contest between nations and not just business personalities. Aside from the strategically positioned twists and turns, constant bickering and program-induced conflict that keeps viewers on their toes, what has this program shown the world about Asian business styles?

Tactful confrontations, a tendency to quit, and reluctance to lay the blame have characterized the first few episodes. Does this reflect how we are as a continent?

Fernandes, the ultimate Asian entrepreneur

Fernandes, a Malaysian entrepreneur, is Asia’s answer to Donald Trump and Alan Sugar.

Voted as Forbes Asia Businessman of the Year and positioned at number 21 on this year’s list of Malaysia’s richest, he is best known for bringing debt-ridden carrier AirAsia out of a financial slump and broadening its reach across the region.

His entrepreneurial projects span his varying passions from owning a Formula 1 racing team, a British football team, an air carrier, and a hotel brand. Sony Pictures Television Networks Asia, co-producers of the show along with FremantleMedia Asia, describe Fernandes as the perfect fit as “the ultimate dreamer and adventurer in business.”

Fernandes is flanked by his two poker-faced “advisors:” Tune Hotels Group CEO Mark Lankester and Expedia Asia CEO Kathleen Tan who are handling the roles held in the US edition by Carolyn Kepcher and George Ross, and later on by Trump children Ivanka and Donald Jr.

It took two years of courtship from the AXN producers before Fernandes finally agreed to become Asia’s “top CEO.” However, Sugar and Trump he is not. Contrary to his trigger happy counterparts for whom firing contestants weekly comes easy, Fernandes admits in an interview with Galaxie magazine that he’s “not very good at firing people.”

Different from Trump

Jonathan Yabut, a Filipino contestant of the show, said he differs from the hardline approach taken by Sugar and Trump. While he remains firm in the boardroom, he also takes time to try and push his contestants to be the best they can be, comparing them to “unpolished” diamonds.

“Fernandes can sympathize where we came from and wants us to be like him,” said Yabut.

Reflecting on the growth of his empire, Yabut finds Fernandes an atypical Asian businessman. “You rarely find an Asian CEO who has businesses all over the place. Most Asians would put all their eggs into one basket but he put his into different baskets because he loves these things and tries to break the stereotype of who a successful Asian business man is,” he said.

However despite this different business path, Celine le Neindre, the shows’ other Filipina contestant, sees him as the “ideal Asian businessman.”

“I see Tony [Fernandes] now as the ideal Asian Businessman. There was a time when they called America the land of dreams. I think Asia is now the land where you dream big…Tony did that and wasn’t afraid,” said le Neindre.

A nation of defeatists?

From the first half of the season, one trait that has stood out among contestants is their tendency to quit or give in before being fired. This is the first time the show has seen so many people give in so near the beginning.

The first episode saw Hendy Setiono, the Indonesian candidate refusing to lay the blame on anyone. The 3rd episode saw Dussadee aka Dee resigning before any boardroom decision was made as she felt the competitive team dynamics did not suit her. The 4th week saw Ningku asking to resign, which was refused, only so Fernandes could fire her.

“Dee was the most obvious quitter. In her defense the best way to explain it is the sabaidee attitude. If it doesn’t suit you then move on to other things because there are other things that suit you more. It doesn’t mean that you are not up to the challenge. It’s more why-break-the-system-when-the-only-thing-you-can-change-is-yourself,” said le Neindre.

“On Ninku’s, it was more of a disappointment in herself. I think Ninku is a fierce person, a strong fighter and the reason it didn’t come out was because she was disappointed as a project manager because her team failed,” she added.

This contrasted with the tough-as-nails approach of the business hopefuls in the show’s other versions.

“I felt there was a lack of oomph where they would try to fight — there is no fighting spirit. It would reflect on a lot of the Asian corporate people that they might give up if they were not up to it which is really a disappointment. I was reading this message forum and they were saying maybe this is the reason why a lot of Asian countries are not progressing as fast as we are expecting,” said Yabut.

“I have a sense of disappointment where the people watching the show think this is how Asians are reflected: that they are weak when it comes to the corporate world. For me it’s a very hasty generalization of how Asian are, especially Filipinos. I think the Filipino way is to fight until the end even if you lose your shame as long as you don’t quit your job,” he added.

However, both Yabut and Le Neindre said this desire to be non-confrontational has been reflected in the type of comments they received from their audience.

“In the boardroom, especially in the first episode, in the guys team, no one was really pointing fingers except me. Most Filipinos in the corporate world work that way. I tried reading through Twitter and the message boards and they always say that I’m the villain in the way that I throw people under the bus,” said Yabut.

The Asian business stereotypes

Unlike the other Apprentice versions, the “Apprentice Asia” sees a smorgasbord of Asian countries battling it out in the corporate world. Their different ways of selling, marketing, negotiating come into play with each task set.

“My prior concern was all the different cultures being together in one room and not understanding how different contestants conducted business or negotiations,” said Le Neindre.

“If I were to stereotype — Indians talk a lot, try to over-rationalize things. Singaporeans are very over-seeing, time-conscious, decisive and Andrea was like that. The Malaysians can be self conscious,” said Yabut.

This comes through in the different tasks set. Samuel Rufus Nallaral, the Indian contestant, appears fast-talking and hard-headed when put in charge of making a film. Nik Aisyah, the Malaysian contestant, shies away from making cold calls in their marketing task. And Andrea Loh, the Singaporean contestant, appears decisive and unemotional during their initial tasks. These clashes in business attitudes often lead to the downfall of the business team.

However, while these characters might reflect the differing business attitudes across Asia, both Yabut and le Neindre said these stereotypes are largely played up for entertainment.


“They cater to the Asian stereotype. They have to in the time they have, or they would have to spend hours explaining how each character has so much depth. I’m not the typical Pinoy. Neither is Jonathan. We’re a few of the people who can make it, but I don’t want it to be seen that this is how the Filipinos are,” said le Neindre.

“People have to understand that so many things are not shown. For example, the boardroom meeting goes on for 4 to 8 hours and that goes to show how the editors are so good at crafting a story out of rolls and rolls of film. A typical task spans to 3 to 4 days but you only see it all in 40 minutes. It’s not the tip of the iceberg but the tip of the tip of the iceberg,” Yabut added.

Yabut said that he found the Philippine contingent more tightly-knit than the other country pairings. “We were closer compared to the other countries. They were more individualistic. We wore an invisible flag. They would even crack jokes that we would always pick out the Filipino aspect of it,” he said.

Le Neindre said that while the stereotypes can’t be taken seriously as a reflection of the Asian business community, contestants do reflect Asia in some ways. “We are a developing country, it shows. In the show you see a lot of young individuals and we’re a young nation,” she said.

The audience 

Yabut and de la Neidre both say their critics have mostly commented on their “meanness” rather than the way they handled the task from a business perspective.

“It’s trying to help raise the social maturity of the audience when it comes to business shows. It’s the first time we’ve seen Asians [pitted against each other, using] their capabilities, and I noticed that a lot of the audience hasn’t seen it [in other reality TV shows] until ‘Apprentice Asia’ was here. So you’ll notice people react to their personal traits instead of strategy,” said Yabut.

Yabut said one of the reasons is the channel it’s aired on. In the UK, it is aired on BBC, which attracts in general a more educated audience, while in the Philippines, it is aired on AXN, an entertainment channel. “The way they see the show is the way it is fed to them,” said Yabut.

Yabut also pointed out that the Philippine version is 40 minutes while the UK version is one hour, “so the progression of the characters isn’t that fully developed,” said Yabut.

While it might, to some extent, represent a micro-climate of the Asian business world, as Yabut put it, “At the end of the day, it’s just entertainment.” –

“The Apprentice Asia” airs in the Philippines on AXN Asia every Wednesday at 9:05 pm. Replays are on Wednesdays, 11:50 pm; Thursdays, 2:30 pm and 8:10 pm; Saturdays, 9:15 am and 9 pm; and Sundays, 3:35 pm and 11:50 pm.


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