Changing Economic Realities: An Interview With Hans Vriens

Following the 2017 PublicAffairsAsia Corporate Affairs Forum, Karen Scott catches up with lead sponsor Hans Vriens, Managing Partner, Vriens & Partners to discuss changing economic realities and the future talent needs of the government relations profession

As many of you know, it is nearly impossible to work in government relations in Asia without intersecting with Hans Vriens, who has lived and worked in Asia for decades and counseled clients on many of the region’s most sensitive issues. Given his broad perspective on the Asia Pacific region and deep background in government relations, Hans shares some initial thoughts on some of the important trends, in the context of a rapidly shifting regional landscape and the evolving role of corporations in society.

PublicAffairsAsia: We seem to be entering an era of reverse globalization, where nationalism could hamper free trade. Is this the case, and how does ASEAN as a bloc respond?

Hans: It is difficult to speak of ASEAN in a single breath. Compared to what we are seeing in the US and Europe, the region generally remains a brighter spot when it comes to trade. Even as we are seeing rising nationalism in a number of countries, trade is still very much embraced by both governments and public.

In general, ASEAN countries recognize the value in participating in global trade and are actively looking to integrate their economies into the global economy. The RCEP is moving forward, and ASEAN and several of its member states have a few FTAs in motion. Manufacturing remains an important pillar for many economies; as global supply chains become more intertwined, trade will remain critical. 

Hans Vriens Chairs a Session at The CA Forum

PublicAffairsAsia: How important is it that companies develop government relations (as opposed to business) strategies to manage major regional shifts?

Hans: I don’t think companies have the luxury of doing either in isolation. And in many ways, the innovation race makes GR a more important function in companies today—whether you are in a highly-regulated industry or in a yet unregulated space.

To succeed at being innovative, companies need to ensure that they are well-positioned to shape the policy and regulatory environment, to create space for innovation to take place, and to bring new ideas and technologies to market.

PublicAffairsAsia: As you mention, newly disruptive industries are shaking up economies here and globally. What does this disruption mean for the future of regulation?

Hans: Indeed, and the disruption is also being caused by start-ups emerging from this region—for example, Grab and Go-Jek, to name a couple. If we agree that these disruptors do create new value and jobs, we need to consider how we might preserve spaces for such innovation and experimentation to thrive when thinking about regulation. This might mean developing regulatory sandboxes or taking a wait-and-see approach before erecting new regulation around new innovations.

In other cases, to answer calls for “leveling the playing field,” this might mean reducing regulatory burdens on traditional players to allow them to compete more nimbly with newer players. Designing a regulatory framework that takes all these factors into consideration requires two-way conversation between governments and businesses.

PublicAffairsAsia: Interesting—and as you point out, it’s now more important than ever to develop a GR function which is efficient and engaged. What are the main barriers to achieving this, and how can they be overcome?

Hans: A major obstacle for many companies is finding the right talent locally. The GR function is relatively new in Asia, and you will be hard-pressed to find resumes that fit job descriptions exactly. Growing your GR team will involve being creative and looking for talent in adjacent industries.

PublicAffairsAsia: And it seems that government relations is not only evolving due to technology. Today’s companies also face expectations to deliver social value — which brings us to our final question: how do they do this?

Hans: There is certainly greater awareness and expectation in the region that companies are responsible stewards of the environment and societies in which they operate. In many cases, it is no longer growth at all cost.

In terms of how to define “social value,” this is a conversation that companies need to have with their shareholders and with governments, to identify where they can deliver the greatest value in areas of the greatest need.

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