Keith Reimagines ASEAN (KRA Group)
Getting to know Mr.Keith Leong
KEITH LEONG YU KEEN (left), a graduate of the University of New South Wales (UNSW) and the University of Cambridge, is the Head of Research for the KRA Group, a public affairs consulting firm which focuses on the ASEAN region. As part of his job, he is constantly at the forefront of ASEAN’s current economic, political, and social trends. In late February, FLY: Malaysia’s Journalism Team had the opportunity to interview Keith, where he shared his life story and views on current world affairs with our Journalist, Muhammad Ali Imran (right).
After graduating from a local high school and completing his Cambridge A-Levels at Taylor’s College Subang Jaya, Keith ventured to the Land Down Under to pursue a B.A. in Literature and Sociology at UNSW. He returned to Malaysia in 2006, where he had a short stint teaching English in a private university. After receiving the Endeavor Malaysia Award (now known as the Endeavor Scholarship and Fellowship), he returned to UNSW to pursue a M.A. in Creative Writing. In 2008, he started working with ISIS Malaysia (no, not that ISIS!) until 2010, where his thirst for knowledge and passion for the social sciences saw him continuing his education, this time at the famed University of Cambridge, to study an MPhil in Politics.
“While I was in Cambridge, Karim (Founder and CEO of the KRA Group) came to give a talk and he asked me to join him when I got back to Malaysia. That’s exactly what I did. I joined the KRA Group in September 2011 and the rest is history. I’ve been here for 5 years now,” he said with a smile.
When asked about what a day in his work is like, he noted that every day brings something new: he could be reading news summaries from an ASEAN country in the morning and helping a colleague with their work in the afternoon. “I’m not saying that there’s no routine — there is, but we cover so much that every day is different and rarely monotonous,” he said. “Plus, things develop so quickly that you pretty much have to be on your toes all of the time!” he added jokingly.
As mentioned, Keith graduated from not one, but two of the world’s premier education institutions. This has allowed him to accumulate a wealth of knowledge over the course of his time abroad. “Both UNSW and Cambridge had such wonderful libraries,” he reminisced. He stated that doing humanities and social sciences in university was one of the best decisions he has ever made because it taught him to think outside of the box: “They teach you to have imagination and allow you to be flexible. [It’s not] rigid like getting from point A to point B,” he said. Keith added that this has helped him in his writings. “Once you divorce your writings from imagination and literature, it becomes really dry,” he stated. “Everyone can write, no doubt about that. But, it’s the creativity that makes the writing stand out.”
When asked about his work-life balance, his answer was a simple yet cheeky “Non-existent!” Keith subsequently reminded us that work is work and urged everyone to never ever let go of the 3Fs: faith (or fundamental beliefs), family, and friends. “They are your support structure. Without them, it’s hard to stay on the job and on the challenge,” he said in a serious tone. “It’s especially easy to lose touch with family and friends if it’s your first job,” Keith added, though he admitted that with social media, this is less of a problem compared to the past. “Again, work is work, but the people close to you should not be forgotten,” he emphasized.
Mistakes are a part of life. They are inseparable and being aware of them is the key to improving oneself. However, some mistakes are just too common. Throughout his years of working, the one that Keith has often encountered is rigidity: “Different countries have different cultures, so if you’re not flexible and are too set in your own ways, it’s going to be hard.”
Keith also shared with us some tips and advice for whoever aspires to join the industry. He notes that KRA hires people from all kinds of backgrounds. Nonetheless, he states that an interest in the Southeast Asian region is a must, given the Group’s very region-specific focus. Keith also added that strong language skills is essential. “Let’s face it, if you can write well and have excellent language skills, you’ll never starve!” he stated. “I say that based on experience,” he quipped.
Given the diverse range of clients that the KRA Group’s deals with on a daily basis, it is little surprise that they can tailor their work to the needs of each client. “We’ve done work for clients from all kinds of backgrounds, be it private or public, local or multinational, we’ve virtually done them all,” he said proudly. “Different clients require different approaches because of their different sectors and interests.”
When we asked regarding a project that he finds interesting, Keith noted: “One of the things that we are very passionate about is connecting people in ASEAN.” Keith then brought up an excellent point – Southeast Asians do not know much about each other! “We love to get Southeast Asians talking, because you’d be surprised by how much we don’t know. Let the politicians handle all the number crunching and big regional questions, but when it comes to culture, let’s share it,” he urged.
No job is without its challenges. For Keith, the most crucial of these is navigating cultural differences. He continued by saying that everyone is different, be it in terms of social classes or education background. “You can even be from the same religion, but you will think, wow, I have nothing in common with this guy!” Indeed, Keith’s job seems to be a particularly difficult one! “My job is to weave everything together into a coherent whole, getting all the separate elements into one. It’s not easy,” he said.
When asked about his proudest achievement, he gave an answer that none of us expected. “Lasting this long!” he exclaimed. “I’m proud that I’ve been able to stay despite the firm changing a lot and the work evolving.” After a moment of thought, he mused, “To be Head of Research at 33, where else would I get that kind of opportunity?”
Indeed, Keith has witnessed a lot of change in his industry. When asked about the next 5 to 10 years, he opined that he cannot say for certain because of its great diversity. “However, there is no doubt that there will be change, especially considering how the media, which is our mainstay, is changing,” he said. “Time will tell.”
When asked if he had any dislikes about his job, he noted that: “People come and go and if you get too attached, then it’s going to be difficult.” Being in charge of the firm’s internship program, Keith sees many people entering and leaving the firm. “Most of my colleagues are under 30 and working their first jobs, and people don’t tend to stay in their first job, sadly.” He continued, “Training is a form of investment. When someone has been in your firm for a long time and they’re really good at [their job], when they go off, it can sometimes leave a void.” But as he concedes however, “People come and go.”
We then moved on to discussions about current world issues, starting with the problem of political apathy in the youth. Keith believes that the real malaise is the disengagement of young people from formal politics. “They see no way of improving their lives through party politics and so they disengage themselves,” he said. He also believes that the barriers to entry for politics is too high now and that fewer things are getting done. “Politics definitely has to be more responsive to the people for them to be more engaged in politics,” he suggested.
KRA undertakes a lot of work in Indonesia and Keith feels Malaysia can learn a thing or two from our neighbor. He started off by saying how Indonesia has a very lively and free press. “They are not at all deferential towards the wealthy and powerful. There is support for the independence of public institutions and civil society.” This is something that he hopes Malaysia can move towards.
Given KRA’s focus on ASEAN, we enquired his thoughts on the importance of research in the region. “There are different levels of research, there’s the quantitative: number crunching, GDPs and returns on investments. I, myself, don’t know how to do it,” he jested, “But then you have something known as human intelligence, getting to know the people, the area, and the region.” Keith was very optimistic and believes that Malaysians are very flexible when it comes to things like this. In other words, Malaysians are adaptable. “There’s no place in the world where Malaysians can’t blend in. Our versatility and diversity is a strength in this regard!” he exclaimed.
When asked about the untapped potential of Malaysia, Keith was also optimistic. He stressed yet again on Malaysia’s unique racial composition as the source of his optimism. “We’re like the fulcrum of Southeast Asia because of where and what we are,” he said.
When asked about his view of the ideal ASEAN, he noted that the process of regional integration has yet to result in any concrete benefits for its people, especially the most underprivileged. “Unlike the EU, you can’t deny that it has had its impact to a great number of its people, whether good or bad,” he elaborated. “You can’t really say the same for ASEAN.” However, Keith is unsure of the form that ASEAN will take in the future, but believes that the grouping should focus on substantive issues like facilitating freedom of movement. This in turn will arguably help to increase development and integration in a way that will help Southeast Asians across the board.
With all the controversy surrounding President Donald Trump’s electoral win, his subsequent policies, Brexit, and the rise of populism in Europe, we concluded the interview by asking Keith about his thoughts on the risks and opportunities that they bring for Malaysia. “Trump, is very transactional. He thinks of what can benefit him. So, for us, we need to be asking, what can Malaysia do for Trump? What can Malaysia do to irritate Trump?” In this sense, nothing is set in stone: “He has an agenda. He has his personality. How do we stand in relation to that?”
In regards to Brexit, Keith believes that it will be a blow to the UK politically and economically, though he admits that its soft power remains intact. “Everybody wants to be the next Tony Blair, God knows why,” he joked. Despite its current problems, he also believes that the EU will remain strong, noting that Malaysia is in the process of negotiating a free trade agreement with it.
As for the populist surge, could it happen here? “It has already happened in the region,” he said matter-of-factly. “An example is [Rodrigo] Duterte winning office in the Philippines. The question is, does it result in further polarization in our country? Are people going to push themselves into different camps? Is religion going to be conflated with politics? Does ethnicity become synonymous with political stances? Given how diverse our region is, it will be quite hard to predict what impact this will have.”
Before wrapping up, Muhammad Ali asked, “Keith, how Leong have Yu been Keen on this industry?”. Keith gave that pun a 3/10.