A Kyrgyzstan summer
Of all the most memorable things I have done, mixing work with pleasure anywhere in the world, a few experiences stand out in my mind as the most exciting or the most deeply satisfying.
[justify]Chairing the opening and closing sessions of the first microfinance conference in Dhaka, Bangladesh in the year before Mohamed Yunus was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize was one such experience that I should write about in my blog one day.I held court over an auditorium with almost 1000 earnest microfinance customers, the real people, insisting vigorously from the upper gallery that their leaders listen to their valid concerns. It was sheer intellectual gymnastics trying to mix those concerns with that of an international audience in the lower gallery, and Professor Yunus and a cynical representation from the country`s banking industry as my panellists in an emotionally charged session. All of that dressed in a suit borrowed from the hotel managers at the Sheraton because Singapore Airlines had left my bags behind in Singapore on the flight over the previous night! It was good fun!
Another experience would be my trip to Lebanon to attend the Islamic Financial Services Board’s (IFSB) annual meeting in the month before the Israeli government foolishly miscalculated their options and drove their tanks to destroy such a fragile peace. The IFSB meeting itself was of little immediate consequence to me. I attend every year to support the tireless efforts of my friend Professor Rifaat Abdul Karim, it’s secretary general, as he promotes governance standards for this fledgling industry worldwide.
On that trip, I managed to visit almost every part of that beautiful country, not difficult as it is just three hours to the furthest borders. I even managed to sneak in and out of Damascus in Syria, with a Sunni Muslim taxi driver. We were stopped at the Syrian border on the way back to Beirut and held at gunpoint by the customs (majority Sunnis) for about three hours for allegedly stealing gas from Syria. My driver did refill his tank with cheaper Syrian gas while we were there (“please sirs, I support Hezbollah,” he pleaded with the Sunni Syrians while I tried to understand why that was important in this intriguing miniature of Middle East politics as we waited in a shed under the sun next to his confiscated taxi). Top that with a visit to the temple ruins of Balbak (“by the way, Hizbollah’s strong hold,” the driver casually tells me) through the Bekaa valley and a visit to the writer Khalil Gibran’s hometown, and you feel as if you have lived. I remember how impressed I was with Beirut’s new “downtown”, thinking that they had come a long way since the previous war six years earlier, only to have that perception shattered the month after I left.
The thing I remember best is the gracious hospitality of the Lebanese people despite their fragile and broken world. The strange thing about all of the Meditterenean people, including the Israelis, is their hospitality. Strange but true. The cool climate in tha region is the best in the world and it brings out kindness in the least expected places.
From all that I heard about how prevalent Hizbollah was to society, it struck me that Hassan Nasrallah, it’s leader is probably really an entrepreneur with a gun. I don’t know enough to either sympathize or support him, but I wondered that if he lived in Southeast Asia, would he have been a successful entrepreneur, building schools, businesses and tall buildings with his energy? Alas, he lives in an area of deep conflict and hatred and is probably a product of the very world he is shaping, building schools, businesses and hospitals for a very different reason.
This weekend, I am writing this from a hotel room in Moscow, where I stopped over to and from my very first trip to Kyrgyzstan, where I was one of the speakers and a guest of Asia Universal Bank and the banking association of the country. I had an open invitation from this bank since two years ago to visit them and finally I did. In order to attract international interest, the bank chartered a plane from Moscow, so there were about 200 foreigners, mostly Russian, turning up here last Monday, for the flight on a very old Tupulov 157 aircraft. But once it was filled with a plane load of merry making strangers who drank all the way to Bishkek, pampered by a smiling crew, all that anyone could remember was what a fun filled four hours it was.
I must say, as an aside, that Moscovites in the middle of summer are such a happy people and Moscow is such a happy place, or at least it was this summer. I was probably the most formally dressed person on the first day, and took off my neck tie for the rest of my meetings because nobody else was wearing one. I did some meetings here in the two days before the flight and others when I returned from Kyrgyzstan. I especially enjoyed this summer, despite the occasional rain everywhere.
My thin excuse for making this trip was that Kyrgyzstan is in Central Asia and anything with the word “Asia” in it would be fair turf for THE Asian Banker. Also, the organisers of this conference have themselves attended The Asian Banker Summit before and were open to establishing some meaningful bridges with the Asia Pacific region, and I am one of their earliest experiments towards this goal. Well, my experience would bear out that actually, this part of central Asia should really be called Eurasia, and that if The Asian Banker should succeed in this market, it should be in the Russian language, based on a very different model.
[justify]I have been sub-consciously nursing the idea of how to get something called The Asian Banker to become global in nature. I have always argued that if the American Express card does not refer necessarily to America, then The Asian Banker could be, by virtue of its quality and brand name, be associated with excellence and integrity that can be associated with any bank in any emerging market, rather than with a geography. We have already extended our business and mind share to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states in the Middle East quite successfully. It’s not a conscious goal, just a thought that is larger than me at the moment. With Asia rising, it’s great to be The Asian Banker.
Despite the amount of travelling I do, it is always a child-like adventure to go somewhere new, and learn so many new things all at once- such as mastering the art of spelling “Kyrgyzstan” correctly and not as Kyrgystan or Kygystan. I was super paranoid as I prepared the slides of my speech the hour before the presentation that even ifI spelt anything else wrongly, I would die if someone pointed out to me that I spelt the name of the country wrongly. Be especially careful of that hidden “z”.
I prepared my speech only on the day of the presentation because although I knew roughly what I wanted to share, I had no clue about the country or the region enough to craft my speech in a useful manner. So, I crafted my presentation by listening to the other presentations and by visiting several banks on the day I arrived in Bishkek.
As I was thinking about my speech, one of the delegates saved me from a faux pax when he related to me that the people in China had no clue that Kyrgyzstan was an immediate neighbour when he visited Beijing previously. His way of orientating them was to ask them “do you know who the Great Wall of China was meant to keep out?” Nomadic Kyrgyz horsemen. Ohhh, sooo interesting, it never occurred to me to have ever asked who the enemies were, I said, as I threw out the slides that talked too much about Chinese banks.
China occupies so much of our mind in East Asia, that isn’t it nice that there is this part of the world, “Eurasia”, where people are NOT talking about China, although it is right there next door to them.
I was learning all the way: Where exactly is Kyrgyzstan? Did I need a separate visa if I visited Kyrgyzstan via Russia despite their shared CIS status? (yes, I wisely got two visas for Russia without knowing the answer) Where do you get Kyrgyz money? (only in Kyrgyzstan, as it is not traded even in Russia, so leave your money there when you leave, or contact me for US$100 worth of Soms that I still have and cannot exchange now).
Work wise, this was a very fruitful and informative trip. My speech was very well received (as usual, ha ha!), and I promised to help the bank with their entire agenda for next year’s conference. I met with Anvar Abdrav, the president of the Kyrgyz banking association and explored ideas for training and so on. Istvan Lengyl from far away Hungary, in turn invited me to speak at his central and eastern European banking meeting this November. I also took the time out to meet several of the chairmans and CEOs of other banks like Demir Kyrgyz Bank (a very interesting Turkish man) and Bank Bakai (the chairman, a very attractive young lady). Very, very small but still ambitious or should I say, hopeful.
So, in my own characteristic way, contact by contact, meeting by meeting, smile by smile, the opportunities grow and the idea of becoming an emerging market business takes shape. Kyrgyzstan has 21 banks, 11 of which are owned substantially by foreigners. The banking system is less than 20% the size of the GDP and needs to grow fast. The country has a millstone around its neck of not having a Moodys or S&P rating yet because of problems associated with the largest state owned bank as well as with paying for a country rating. The US air force is parked full time at the Manas airport and uses it as a launching pad for forays into Afghanistan. Interestingly, the US airforce uses only one bank, and I think it is the Turkish Demir Kyrgyz Bank, to make all payments to staff and contractors and the government. Kyrgyzstan is definitely the last frontier for money laundering, especially from the drug trade and getting the approval of the FATF occupies every banker’s mind. Oh, did you know that cannabis grows so freely on Kyrgyz soil. Hey, what can they do if it just grows everywhere! So many contradictions co-existing in a small country of five million peple.
In the evening of the first day, during the welcome cocktails, I gravitated naturally towards any guests who spoke even a little English. John Howells and David Artingstall who run their own regulatory compliance consultany firm in the UK spoke a little moreEnglish than most. Actually, they spoke a little more anything than most – they were good fun. In fact, being the first people I know who run a consultancy service for regulators, I chatted with them about the possibility of doing some work with us for next year’s Summit. So if you hear more about them, you will know how that came about. Hanna Loikkanen a Finnish fund manager living in Moscow and her friend Annukka Kilnge were the other natural English speaking friends. Before long, I was running into this lot more often than not during the rest of the conference.
After the formal agenda, I joined Hanna and Annuka to an open air beer garden across the street from the Hyatt where we were staying, which looked as if it was a really local hang out under the trees in a park with a small stage and a dance floor. The local people came around to dance under the stars whenever the young singer sang a familiar song, giving me a sense of the informality of life in Bishkek.
From the speakers during the conference I gathered that the country defers a lot to its northern neighbour, Kazakhstan (remember Borat! They DON’T think he was funny). Unlike the animosity between border states like Singapore and Malaysia or Japan and Korea, there is hardly any enmity between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, as they are ethnically tied to each other. In fact, as I pieced the picture of the economies of this region, I came to the conclusion that the three countries that I must visit soon are Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan (now a very successful business community across the region) and Uzbekistan (yes, yes, Rustam, my friend from Uzbekistan National Bank – I know I said I will come!).
The Kyrgyz people love their lake Ysyk-kol (Issyk Kul in English), second highest in the world after Titicaca in Peru (which of course I visited in December:-). So do the Kazakhs and the other neighbours who drive across the border into Kyrgyzstan to spend their holidays there. The biggest, nicest alternative to an ocean that the people of central Asia have, surrounded by high glaciers.
The people love it so much that the second day of this conference was held at an old Soviet hotel by this Lake. On the five hour bus to the resort, I sat with Natasha Pavlova, the official translator assigned to me for my visits to the other banks in Bishkek.
Natasha told me, and her friends told me and even the chairman of AUB bank, Michael told me in passionate terms, just how beautiful and wonderful the Issyk Kul is long before I got there. In fact, as soon as we arrived in Issyk Kul, Natasha and several others went straight for a night time dip into the lake in pitch darkness. Skinny dipping? I don’t know! I entered the water only on the last day, and only because I had to say that I had soaked in the Issyk Kul, and yes, although the water was about 20 degrees, it was heavenly once you immersed into it. If I can enjoy the experience, anyone can!
During the bus ride, Natasha also told me other interesting anecdotes that helped me capture a glimpse of a place – man, I was completely in absorption mode. Apparently, when she was giving birth to her second child at the age of 28, the nurses put the words “late pregnancy” on her bed post. I told her that in small Singapore a sign like that is more for a first kid at 35 or something, not that I would know. Average age for first kid in Kyrgyzstan – 22. She also related to me the senselessness of poverty and crime in her country, when a wealthy Kazakh man who had a hotel along the Issyk Kul, was killed by two of his own employees for money, not realising that they had spite their own livelihoods and the life of a little girl he had adopted. Natasha and her husband, both second generation ethnic Russian Kyrgyz, dream of migrating to …. Melbourne in Australia … and so were the seeds of middle class aspirations expressed in that conversation.
What a wonderful time summer is at the Issyk Kul with all the sunlight playing on the deep blue waters and the cool, fresh air in the shade. All the coffee breaks and lunch and dinners during the conference were held out in the open, almost Mediterranean climate, conducive for friendly chatter. Everybody was relaxed except maybe for 1-2 obnoxious types, who were either Americans from US development agencies or Kyrgyz returnees who live in the US. Like returnees in any country, they had to have that accent and air about themselves just so that their own people would recognise their status. It bothered nobody.
The highlight for everyone was without a doubt The Beach Party held on the last night by the Lake after a hard day’s work. The bank really spared no expense on this one, and it was worth every cent. Several manger-like sheds build right on the beach with the waves lapping up from behind. A full bar area complete with authentic celebrity barmen flown down from a famous Moscow bar for the occasion, and dancing in the sands of the beach under the watchful stars and a quiet full moon traversing the night in magnificent splendour. Sheds on either side of the Party scene strewn with blankets on the chairs, and behind them fire places to give warmth in the cold evening air. When the music started it was electric and the cold of the night surrendered to friendships, laughter, music, throbbing lights, food and wine.
If the atmosphere was already charged, the music went ecstatic (yes, there were cannabis laced cigarettes going around, just a form of Kyrgyz hospitality) when the band (“London Beat – four black guy band from the UK, great band – Hanna calls them a “one-hit wonder” but they did their job!) came on stage. They held everyone on the dance floor for a good two hours, and they were followed mercilessly by a trumpet duo and them in turn by a solid DJ music all night. I don’t think that the worst dancer stood a chance to stay away from the dance floor that night.
Something very interesting happened to me on the sands of dance floor which made for one of the most memorable features of this trip. As gregarious as I am, I am actually quite shy about asking strange women to dance, and this is the truth. I am not one to chat up a stranger from the opposite sex in a bar and my greatest phobia is to be on a long flight with a woman next to me, because I love to talk to anyone, but am petrified of being seen as trying to get fresh. So, here I was raring to go, but quite at a loss as to how to get into the action, and it got worse as the music got mercilessly better.
But just as I was warming up, a little Russian girl, about 8-9 years old, dressed tom boyishly with short hair and a cap on, took to me and started to dance with me where we stood on the edge of the dance area. She was skinny and really very spunky, looking up to me, mimicking me and smiling at me all the time. Before long we became an act, prodded on by everybody around us, and we were probably two of the better dancers on the floor.
What followed was so interesting. I’d say that women are more affected by their primordial maternal instincts more than men from their caveman days. As I danced with this little girl, two older girls dumped their partners to dance with me. From there, I became part of the other circles all around the dance floor and before long became indistinguishable from everybody else having fun that night. That was my induction into Kyrgyz society that night!
The little girl and I danced a lot that night. She said very little because she did not speak much English and I did not speak any Russian, hanging on to just one word “Spaisiba”, for thank you. But she looked up to me and smiled a lot, and any time I gesticulated something, she nodded in complete understanding. Her parents, employees of the bank, watched from the side, and were so intrigued by the way we became natural friends that they took photos in approval.
I watched John Howell, the otherwise mild mannered regulatory consultant who gave a credible presentation earlier in the day, and my other three natural English speaking friends dancing on the other side of the floor. Hanna was going on like a “Duracell” non-stop battery. John, consciously or otherwise, picked up mostly the women from the central bank to dance with, so that I joked with him that he was “working” that night, being naturally drawn to his customer pool.
The most notable of the women he invited to the dance floor was Nazgul Momunzhanova, the senior economist at the Kyrgyz central bank, whose pretty serious presentation was in a session before mine. Just in case you are wondering what a Nazgul looks like, I’d say she looks Chinese as some central Asians look, but which they are firecely not. She could well be the younger and prettier sister of Teo Swee Lian, the banking regulator at the Monetary Authority of Singapore, and I think that Swee Lian would not mind me saying so if she met Nazgul. In fact, from Nazgul’s presentation, I will not be surprised if she becomes the governor one day. She was born in 197x, which makes her very young, but hers will be a career worth tracking.
As the party roared through the night, the bank had arranged for a large fishing vessel to quietly sail and anchor quietly close to shore behind the stage. Somewhere just before midnight, all of us revellers were treated to a delightful fireworks display from the ship with the full moon in the otherwise dark sky behind. The fireworks went on and on for a few minutes, and the little girl and I just naturally locked arms like two long lost friends.
As the fireworks lit the night sky, the thought that went through my mind was would any of the bank CEOs or chairmans in Asia, who pay themselves salaries in the millions of dollars ever do something as spontaneous and fun for their staff or their clients? AUB is a very small bank by Asian standards. Less than US$90 million in assets and only a few million dollars in profits. But there he was, the chairman of the bank – new generation Russian, born 1969, who owns it with some of his buddies – in a ship captain’s cap partying with his staff and guests. Not something you can fake.
The party went on all night. I probably called it a night at about 2 am, and chose to wake up at about 10am. One of my first encounters in the morning was John who had lost his room key while dancing, going through all the digital photos from the night before, with his partner David, frame by frame CSI style through alot of incriminating evidence, trying to figure out at which point John’s room key fell off the string tied around his neck.
The little girl came looking for me by the breakfast table spread out in the glorious morning sun, and we went off together for my inaugural swim in the cold Issyk Kul. I braved the initally cold water, by looking at everybody else in the water. The girl herself had been in earlier in the morning and was just keeping me company. Once you are in and you surrender the warmth of your body, the water in turn gives back to you its own warmth, and then you are one with the water. That is how I’d describe the experience. After that you better be thrashing hard to avoid hypothermia.
Deep in the water, a gentleman swam by and introduced himself to me in a deep voice. “My name is Malik, I am the acting deputy chairman of Agricultural Bank.” Nice to meet you sir, I replied. He then explained to me in the freezing water that Agricultural Bank had just been transformed from a policy bank into a full commercial bank. I am probably the only person in the industry who does not meet chairmans of banks at boring golf courses! All through the day, I had people come around and give me their name cards and asked me to stay in touch.
Later in the day, I enticed two boys from the bank to accompany me horse riding in the mountains. I saw the mountains behind the lake and I knew instinctively that there would be stables nearby, and so asked the concierge to arrange for three horses for us. The horsemen brought the horses to the hotel’s main gate. Emil Lyu, who is Uzbek and working for the bank for just three months, had never ridden a horse in his life. But I gave him a few pointers and within a few minutes he was cantoring alongside me like a natural. We joked that all Uzbeks have horse riding DNA in their blood.
Sitting here and finishing this blog entry in Moscow, I am grateful for the richness of my experience. The Russian speaking world is a very rich and dynamic one, despite all of its problems with the Western powers. It is as incredibly cosmopolitan and if not more complex than any Western society. In Kyrgyzstan as in Moscow, the region is made up of a rich kaleidoscope of people – Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, Russians, Kazakhs, gypsies, Turks, Mongols and so many more. People’s middle class aspirations, like that of all middle class people anywhere, is to have jobs, homes, schools, security and a life. With some form of stability, the people in this region are able to aspire to some of these things, and good for them.
It is a world disconnected from East Asia, just examining the flights connecting the two regions. On the original flight to Moscow from Singapore, at the Russian immigration queue, I ran into Randall Tan (?), an old friend of a very dear ex-colleague, Lynette Hooi, and he is the Singaporean tourism promotion board’s representative setting up office in Russia to lure Russian tourists to the little island. The flights to and from Russian to Asia were full with Russian tourists, not that there were enough flights in the first place, just 2-3 per week here and there.
In Moscow, I visited with a senior executive at Russbank, the chief operating officer of Alfa Bank, the deputy chairman of Unistrum Bank and even managed to squeezed in time to visit with the new Indian ICICI Bank office. Credit cards are just taking off in Russia, the COOs and chairmans of banks tend to be men in their 30s, rather than 40s, the economy is booming and even the Russian IT companies that sell to the banks, such as BPC Group, are so busy selling within Russia and the CIS countries that they have very little time to support businesses in Asia or elsewhere.
I am very aware of all the problems associated with Russia and the Russian speaking republics. Ukraine not being able to honour Russian gas prices, which had soared from $30 to nearly $100. Organised crime which still rears its ugly head from time to time. Racism in St Petersburg. The resurgence of the military. But you have to be in the country to realise all the good things that have been happening as well. There is more up-stream value added activities in the economy today. The Russians are not just selling crude oil but actually processing it, and in the process providing jobs to thousands of people. Wealth distribution has become far more equitable. Consumer credit is just starting. Domestic skill sets in the banks and other businesses was on the tremendous rise – the dependence on foreign experts is on the decline. Still no Russian will tell you that he really trusts the Russian government, it’s a deeply historical thing.
During the trip, news that President Bush wants to make a deal with India on the use of nuclear energy even when India is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty so disgusted me because I could see where it would lead to. It’s quite a raw ruse to use India as a pawn to balance China. On the other hand, Iran which is a signatory to the treaty, is treated so shabbily. I don’t think that many people realised the implications of that move, which will only hit us in 10-15 years – will India in turn become a belligerent nation when things go awry? Will the US ever learn from its deals with the Saudis in the 1990s that it is such meddling that give rise to the Osama Ben Ladens of the world? I can already see India abusing the deal to their own advantage. Will they never learn that they cannot engineer the global balance in that way and that every single time they do that, they create a larger monster that comes out to haunt them right back? You read the news in greater relief when you travel.
Being in Russia in the middle of summer is such a glorious thing to do. The Russians are so much more friendlier (than they would be in deep winter) for a start. I remember during my previous trip closer to winter, how gloomy and short tempered every one was. This time, three strangers came up to me at different times in the subway offering directions, and I used the subway a lot – and figured out the city. Moscow is such an easy city to walk around in and find your way – in summer! I walked all the way to the Kremlin and around to Gorky Park and back to Bellaruskaya where I was staying.
Russians are incredibly fashionable in the summer, much more than any other European city I have been to. Stand aside Paris! I love their sun glasses! Russian women wear what should be described almost as visors, covering almost the full face except for the pouty mouth. Very nice. The sun in all its summer fullness. Although I am born a tropical kid, I have come to appreciate the four seasons very much. You have to have the four seasons for the summer sun to mean something glorious and to enjoy it. I look forward to the seasons now in almost any country I go to.
Unfortunately, although there are four seasons in China, it struck me that the Chinese young people do not wear fashionable sun glasses in summer, because, well, there is no sun behind all that pollution. There is no fashion in China as there is in Russia. In fact, many things about China and its people seems that much less attractive when you realise there is a part of the emerging market world where people can be really sophisticated. Except that I must say, as a thought in passing, that the colours of dessert and the Tien Shan mountains around Chinese occupied Urumuqi are far more spectacular than its northern neighbour, Kyrgyzstan.
Trips like these broaden my own mind and my own resolve to become increasingly global in my ambitions. I have the energy that far exceeds the little corner of the world that I come from. Let’s see where all this takes me.
Even as I finish this, the requests for Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) from the various organisations have started to come in. The interviews with some of the key people need to be put in place. Weaved into this experience are the office calls back to Singapore or Beijing office, leveraging between the time difference. So, it’s not all play. But isn’t it a joy when you never called it work a day in your life.
If one day, you read that The Asian Banker has extended deeply into the Central Asian republics, or that I have pushed myself to become just that bit more global, then this entry was all about the experiences that makes up the formative process. I won’t trade this life for anything, although the personal sacrfices are tremendous.