Shakespeare, Kipling, Confucius & Jesus on the Family Business: East & West (Part I)



SINGAPORE –  Singapore is a very modern, Western-looking city-state—but with an Asian soul, rooted in a unique history and particular cultural values.  This context with dual—and sometimes competing East and West influences—impacts the business environment, including how family enterprises are operated. 

The family business as a concept and in its implementation has many similarities around the world, yet it’s manifestation can be very different depending upon the cultural context.  In broad strokes, there are significant differences between Western and Asian contexts.  

Running a family business can be challenging—and that seems to be acknowledged in all cultures!  There is a Chinese saying that “wealth does not pass three generations.”  This is, of course, very similar to the restated Western version of “rags to riches to rages in three generations.”  

Family dynamics can be exacerbated when there is a transition from one generation to the next.  An added layer of complication involves not just generational dynamics, but different cultural contexts, such as “Western influences” and “Asian values.”  The end result is often a process of trying to balance western business practices and the preservation of Asian values, in particular the desire for harmony. 

The dynamics of West and East increasingly exist within family enterprises throughout Asia.  Some of the challenges to family business come when the business and its founders are rooted in one culture and then the next generation has been influenced by a Western mindset.  The complication is when you have members of one culture whose children then grow up in another, often Western, culture.  A common case is when the children of parents in Asia go to the West to study and then become “westernized”—the idea was that the children would learn technical skills but not pick up the culture. 

At its most basic unit, the West is an individualist culture, glorifying the lone ranger, the person going against the odds, fighting convention and being vindicated in the end.  The person forsakes family and other trappings.  The culture is based on individual rights.  

The notion of going against family wishes is embedded in Western culture.  A famous example goes back to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, first published in 1597.  The star-crossed lovers defy their families—the Montagues and Capulets—to pursue the greater value of true love!  The individuals’ self-actualization trumps family obligations. 

In an Asian context, the family is much more important, being part of a greater whole.  The person is part of a family unit with their set of mutual obligations.  The family supports the younger generation materially but then expects loyalty and obedience.  So, a child might be sent overseas to study, and everything is paid for, but then the child is expected to return to the family business fold when so summoned. 

Due to the prevalence of family businesses in Asia they are not as often viewed with the same cynical view as in the West.  In a Western context there is the glory of making it on one’s own—"I didn’t need no help from nobody!”  Including, my family.  We hear the expression a “self-made millionaire.”  In other words, there is no respect accorded to someone who received millions—from family or elsewhere—and is a millionaire. 

In an Asian context the notion of a family business is different.  The concept of “blood is thicker than water” could have been coined in the East.  The family prizes loyalty above many other qualities.  Societal norms do provide underlying glue.  For example, Confucian values are embedded deep within the societal infrastructure.  They are so deeply ingrained that the source code is not typically considered.  So children listen to their parents and even siblings may listen to their older siblings.  

I would compare this dynamic to how certain Christian-sourced values are embedded in Western culture—even though the majority of Westerners no longer subscribe to the source code.  One example is Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan.  That term is well-understood in the West.   We praise the helpful and heroic bystander and denigrate the one who could have but doesn’t intervene.  Many of today’s Westerners wouldn’t quote a verse from the Bible on the concept, but they accept its fundamental principles. 

How then can one understand the family business in Asia in greater detail?  Many of the family businesses in Singapore, and elsewhere throughout southeast Asia, are part of the Overseas Chinese Diaspora—communities that can trace their roots back to the motherland.  The Overseas Chinese comprise a network not only throughout southeast Asia, but into Western countries such as the US and Canada.