14 Nov, 2016
Gangneung City, Korea — Korea’s status as a Muslim-friendly destination took giant leap forward with the convening of a high-level Forum of businesswomen from Korea and the Islamic world. Held in this East Coast city of Gangwon province, the 8-9 November event saw a strong turnout of women from Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, Senegal, Sudan, Spain, Thailand, Bangladesh, Kenya, the UAE and Pakistan, most of whom had never been to Korea before. Focussing on the theme of “Women and the Creative Economy”, the forum programme was stacked with dynamic examples of Korean cultural creativity. In turn, the Koreans met some powerful, intelligent businesswomen, bankers, designers and NGO representatives from the Islamic world.
It was the first such event organised in a stand-alone format in a non-Islamic country by the Malaysian-based World Islamic Economic Forum (WIEF) Foundation. It was enthusiastically supported by Gangwon Province Governor Moon-Soon Choi, a well-travelled journalist turned politician with a Master’s degree in English literature. He surprised delegates in his opening remarks with a crisp “salaamalaikum” and recounted his personal friendship with Indonesian President Joko Widjojo and his familiarity with the customs and traditions of the Islamic world.
Designed to empower and connect women entrepreneurs, the event was backed by Governor Choi as it fitted in well with Korea’s national development goals. These were comprehensively outlined by Dr Myungho Lee, a Board member of the Korea Association for Futures Studies. In his presentation, he said Korea had been in an almost constant state of reinventing itself since the Korea War. Relating how Korea had moved from textiles to shipbuilding, automobiles, home appliances and cellphones, he warned of the danger of becoming too dependent on multinational corporations and cited the lessons of the 1997 economic crisis. Today, he said, it was all about boosting productivity and creativity, with a focus on small & medium sized enterprises, technology, culture, design and innovation.
In her opening remarks, Dato’ Dr Norraesah Mohamed, Chairman, WIEF Businesswomen Network, said: “K-pop is very well-known in Malaysia. Many dance to the Gangnam Style and people stay up late to watch the Winter Sonata (a popular TV series). Nearly every household has a KIA or Hyundai and the fight between iPhone and Samsung is fierce. Everyone wants to have the porcelain complexion of the Korean girls. How do you do this? Please tell us your secrets while we are here.”
The hosts were more than happy to oblige.
The sponsors included some of Korea’s most creative technology companies. SK Telecom showed a heart-warming clip of how its audio-visual technology has uplifted Yang Jae-rim, the only visually impaired Alpine skier in Korea, and her female instructor Ko Un-so-ri. Another sponsor, Papago, advertised a translation app to help Koreans overcome language barriers while travelling. The Korean Tourism Organisation distributed copies of its new English- and Arabic-language publications, a listing of Muslim-friendly restaurants. Gangwon Province, too, has just published a listing of Muslim-friendly facilities.
The Korean hosts laid on an extraordinary programme of five entirely different music and dance performances: An all-male quintet of amazing singers known as Uangel, an orchestra combining modern and traditional instruments, drum-dancers and the highlight, a performance in pitch darkness of Michael Jackson numbers by a five member troupe who could only be seen by the silhouettes of their lit-up suits.
Speakers also recounted the role of women in Korean and Islamic history.
Governor Choi said that Gangneung is proud of its women who were ahead of their time, such as Shinsaimdang and Hurnansulhun, the most respected female writers and artists of Chosun dynasty.
Raja Zarith Sofiah binti Almarhum Sultan Idris Shah, Queen of the Malaysian State of Johor, and Chancellor, Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, recalled that one of the world’s oldest universities was the University of Qarawiyyin in Fez/Fes, Morocco. The Queen, who holds a degree in Chinese studies from Oxford University and also speaks French and Italian, said: “The Qarawiyyin mosque and university were founded in 859 CE by a wealthy businesswoman Fatima Muhammad Al-Fihri Al-Quraysh. The word “university” in Arabic is “jami’ah” which is a derivative of the word “jama’a” (to congregate). The tradition of scholarship and learning in Islam had its impetus at these congregational mosques. Qarawiyyin mosque and university began in the same way: it hosted study circles attended by scholars and the learned.”
Dr. Moo-Kyung Han, Chairman, Korean Women Entrepreneurs Association, noted that about 200 years ago, one of Korea’s leading businesses was run by a woman who donated her entire fortune to the poor people in Cheju island. She said the Association, set up in 1989 and now boasting about 250 members, saw good opportunities for boosting relations with the Islamic countries. She said: “The world is changing rapidly. New markets are opening up in the Middle East and Africa. This forum can give us great opportunity to get to know each other. We have three million companies in Korea. Our products are becoming popular in Korea and can be popular in the Islamic world. Let us grow together.”
Dr Young Bae Moon, Head, NICE Credit Bureau Research Institute, cited the importance of women-owned SMEs in the Korean economy. He noted that Korean women in the 25-34 age bracket had the highest levels of education amongst the OECD countries. In 2014, he said, 33% of all Korean entrepreneurs were women, especially in the fields of accommodation, food service and education. Even more interesting, he said, nearly every women-owned business in Korea is an SME with fewer than five employees. The Korean government has a major interest in promoting their growth, and the WIEF Businesswomen’s Forum was a perfect platform for that.
Hyunju Shin, Global Regulatory Affairs Manager, Daesang Corp., talked of the growth experienced by Korea’s leading food conglomerate since establishing a 1973 presence in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority country. She noted that the Korean government had announced plans in June 2015 to develop its halal food industry, and updated that in July 2016 to focus on cosmetics, tourism and content (K-pop, drama, movies). She said there were an estimated 150,000 Muslims residing in Korea, and Muslim visitor arrivals of 750,000, up respectively 6% and 15% over the last 5 years. The Korean Muslim Federation has issued certification for 202 producers of 597 items as of August 2016.
Dr Heekyung Choi, Secretary-General, International Women and Family Foundation, narrated how Gangneung city had pushed the boundaries of creativity by reinventing itself from a small coastal city in 1981 to a “Coffee City” in 2016. A region that had never grown a single bean of coffee now boasts Korea’s first coffee farm, first coffee museum (which is also claimed to be the biggest in the world), first coffee factory. From a mere 30 coffee shops in 2009, the city now has 300. All these helped Gangneung city host Korea’s first coffee festival, which generated economic benefits of US$26 million. Dr Choi hailed this repositioning as a great combination of creativity, people, and community participation. “It is a wonderful example of how cultural ideas has been transformed into commercial products,” she said.
All the speakers gave powerful presentations of their own companies and the opportunities of building linkages.
Wacuka Mungai, Director, Global Links Africa, Kenya, said Kenya was one of the four biggest economies in Africa, along with Egypt Nigeria and South Africa. However, she said, Kenya was the leader in terms of technology and, like Korea, had a large pool of young people who could be utilised to good effect to build technological bridges between Korea and Keyna.
Aissa Dione Tissus, founder of a company of the same name in Senegal, outlined how the Senegalese textile industry was being destroyed by imported cheap goods, while Senegal’s own cotton production was exported in raw material form to the global market. She narrated a touching story of how she set up her company 25 years ago for the conservation of traditional know-how, focusing on weaving. Today, she said, she creates value out of high quality raw materials from West Africa to produce a broad range of fabrics, fashion items, footwear, furniture and bags. Her company remains a “brilliant example of how innovation, creativity, Art and Design can combine into a successful business model in West Africa.” Her most recent collaboration is with Japanese textile companies who are themselves seeking new opportunities due to a decline in the number of women wearing the kimono. And yes, she creates a lot of jobs. “We have 100 employees working for us,” she said. “Nearly all are men.”
Mariam Isabel Romero Arias, Chief Executive Officer, Halal Institute of Spain, a Muslim convert formerly named Maria, said more women need to get involved in the halal certification sector. There is a huge opportunity for women to promote SMEs and grow the halal ecosystem to compete with the multinationals. “If they (the MNCs) grab all the markets, what happens to the normal people?” she asked. “25% of people who buy halal products in Spain are non-Muslims as they know that it is certified and good for health.”
Fatma Hussain, Chief Human Capital Officer, TECOM Group, United Arab Emirates, outlined how Dubai had reinvented itself and diversified its economic base away from oil, with tourism now a major driver. She said UAE women were now very involved in media, design and technology. “Creativity is a major opportunity for women to transform their energy into reality.”
Amnah Shaari, CEO of Serunai Commerce Sdn Bhd, Malaysia, said the Malaysian government is backing her in setting up what is being touted as the world’s first Global Halal Data Pool, a barcode-based verification scheme of the plethora of halal “certification” processes. Rokia Afzal Rahman, Chair, MIDAS Financing Limited, Bangladesh, a former central banker, who also chairs the leading English-language newspaper in her country, said women borrowers setting up micro-enterprises had a far better record of repayment than the male-owned start-ups.
After the high-powered presentations, all the women participated in three roundtable networking opportunities. As the Korean women introduced themselves, it turned out that they represented a great collection of restaurants, wedding halls, cosmetics companies and health & wellness facilities.
The Malaysians did good business at the small trade show alongside the forum. Nur Rahmah Ranong Abdulla and her husband Malik Fajdiar of Ran & Nong Creations attended with their daughter. They are jewellery designers, and their daughter is a budding designer herself. Five pieces of jewellery designed by the young lady, ranging in price from US$100 to US$150, all went in a flash. Visiting Korea for the first time, they also took the opportunity to visit Nami island, the backdrop of the popular Winter Sonata TV series.
Borneo Essentials couple Nur Latifah Kamaruddin and Muhammad Ashraf Wajidi were seeking Korean buyers for their range of halal toiletries and cosmetics. Fadzilah Abdul Rahman who runs a school for special needs children in Malaysia, was seeking partners to set one up in Korea. Kamarul Hafiz Mahpot, who runs an educational centre in Malaysia, said she has signed up a deal to give halal training courses in Korea.
Later, the Gangneung city hosts organised technical tours to the renovated and restored Seongyojang House, residence of a former noble family, the upcoming stadiums and Visitor Centre of the upcoming Winter Olympics sports complex and the Gangneung Science & Industry Promotional Agency (GSIPA) which undertakes research on marine bio, novel material and information technology.
In a wrap-up interview after the session, I asked Dr Norraesah what has been her greatest source of satisfaction in chairing the WIEF Businesswomen’s Network for 10 years. She responded: “It is when I see the look of confidence in the eyes of the women when they are inspired by other women. We look up to women who are strong but how do we ourselves become strong enough. Each time these women attend a WBN Forum, they learn something new. We showcase successful workplaces from all over the world. These are women who have risen from nothing. They realise that they can be (successful) but only if they work hard. That is what the WBN is all about, and we are very steadfast in our objective.”
She said the event is especially important in countries such as Korea. “They have the impression of Muslim women being oppressed and subjugated. And suddenly they see that’s not true. That alone says a lot.” She admitted that there had been some early reluctance amongst the Koreans about hosting the event, “but then it started to dawn on them that they have been misled. So it dispelled those misperceptions. Now there is talk of setting up an association of Women Entrepreneurs in Malaysia to link up with the Koreans.”
Tun Musa Hitam, Chairman of the WIEF Foundation, said the partnership with Gangwon Province represented more than just business. “It shows that men and women of different backgrounds are able to work together in harmony towards achieving our common goals of economic empowerment of all.”
He said, “In this new era of creative economy, I am happy to note a profound societal shift in thinking taking place. Many are calling it the “values revolution”. It is evident that there is a renewed interest in culture and heritage, and a willingness to meaningfully integrate them into business and everyday life. Innovation is another current buzzword. Fifteen years ago, the top 5 public listed companies in the world were General Electric, ExxonMobil, CITI, Wal-Mart, and Microsoft. In 2016, they have been replaced by Apple, Alphabet, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook. Significantly, they are all technology companies in the forefront of innovation. It is no longer the era of finance, oil and gas, or real estate. For businesswomen to advance, they must be able to effectively engage themselves in the Creative Economy.”
In a wrap-up interview with Tun Musa, I asked him to reflect on the broader global event, the World Islamic Economic Forum, which has just completed 12 years. He replied: “The biggest challenge will always be to stay relevant. The older it becomes, there is a danger of it becoming irrelevant. We want to be much more innovative, to keep it updated and relevant. Of course, we have to rethink the organisation (of WIEF) in terms of structure. But it’s not about attracting numbers. We have to focus on the issues, monitor the feedback and have more consultation. We are always mindful of opportunities. This year, we had a major session on Islamic fashion. Just look at it and the huge Islamic middle class in Indonesia, India. My God, there’s so much money to be made.”
Although Tun Musa has firmly maintained that the business of the WIEF is business, he admitted that there is a “semi-political agenda, to address the perception of Islam.” He said, “For many years now, Islam equals all things negative. I want to show to the world that we are Muslims but we are ordinary people who collaborate with everyone anyone who wants to cooperate with us. We want to prove this to the world. At the WIEF, the presence of non-Muslims has increased tremendously. We now have Scandinavians coming to link up with Malaysians. They want to be involved.”
The best comments came Governor Choi himself, a fine example of a far-sighted leader seeking to build inclusive, globalised, multi-cultural societies. He said: “Islam is a dynamic community with great potential and, at the same time, a region with hopes for peace and security. As the only divided province in the world, Gangwon province has a dearest wish for peace and reunification.
“Gangneung city and (the neighbouring city of) PyeongChang will be the venue of the Olympic Winter Games in February 2018. The name of the 2018 Winter Olympics host city has a special meaning. The first syllable “Pyeong” means peace and the second syllable “Chang” means prosperity. So PyeongChang means Peace and Prosperity. The honorable Tun Musa Hitam once said, ‘Business partnerships can actually become bridge towards peace and prosperity between nations’. I hope the WBN Forum in Gangneung will serve as a stepping stone bringing forward the peace and prosperity of the world.”