January 11, 2018 10:00 am JST

Corporate whistleblowing meets culture clash in Asia

The story of Olympus and Michael Woodford is a template, and a cautionary tale

SIMON LANDY

A few years ago at Niu's Jazz Club in Bangkok, the James Carter Organ Trio blew the roof off with its brilliant, synchronized, fast-paced rhythms. The audience -- me and a small crowd of other jazz fans -- felt privileged. All credit to the band, though. Despite the disappointing turnout, the musicians played their hearts out for two hours.

I was reminded of those feelings of privilege and disappointment at a recent talk at Thailand's Board of Trade in Bangkok by Michael Woodford, the man who blew the whistle in 2011 on financial shenanigans at Olympus, the Japanese camera and optical precision equipment maker. A self-described "salaryman" with 30 years under his belt at Olympus, Woodford's elevation to the company presidency gave him immense privilege, but the disappointment that followed was fittingly, Olympian in scale.

My own feelings of privilege and disappointment were more Lilliputian. I was among a lucky few at a free talk by a figure who has graced the headlines of countless publications, written a best-seller on his experiences, and is now making a TV miniseries about it. Usually, Woodford delivers his talks in halls filled with eager punters for a fee in the tens of thousands of dollars. But there was also disappointment about the turnout. Fewer than 30 people were in attendance.

Like Carter, Woodford did not stint on his show -- and what a show it was. His story had Olympus Chairman Tsuyoshi Kikukawa and Executive Vice President Hisashi Mori slowly revealed to be the unacceptable faces of Japanese capitalism, and was accompanied by cameos featuring Woodford's tearful, supportive secretary Michiko and the mysterious, Deep Throat-like "Goro-san," who set Woodford off on his quest for truth in the murky world of the Japanese boardroom. Woodford's portrayal of the climactic lunch scene, involving a deluxe sushi spread for the two disgruntled executives, but a limp tuna sandwich wrapped in clingfilm for the whistleblowing president, and a temper tantrum from Mori, was a pithy allegory that will look great on television. As Woodford said at the end of his two-hour riff: "And if you want to know more, you'll have to buy the book or wait for the miniseries."

STUBBORN WAYS Behind the theatrics, though, was a serious message.

First, the cult of the patriarch -- he who must be obeyed, even when wrong -- still dominates many public and private Asian businesses, and is not conducive to good corporate governance. Second, public companies cannot afford to populate their boards with yes-men; directors must be accountable for the transgressions they permit. Third, the business media needs to find a way to deal with conflicts of interest created by the journalistic duty to expose lapses in ethics by the very business sources on whom they rely for information.

Last, but unfortunately not least, Woodford left a pervading sense that his exposure and its consequences (board resignations, fines for Olympus, suspended prison sentences for Kikukawa, Mori and auditor Hideo Yamada) was an isolated case resulting from the personalities of the main protagonists. It was, it seems, Woodford's dogged determination and the board's arrogant sense of untouchability that brought down the company, rather than a civic-minded reform of Japanese business practices.

Woodford's reception in Thailand, a key Asian business center, also highlighted differences between Asia and the West in attitudes toward corporate whistleblowers. Thailand slipped from 76th to 101st in Transparency International's 2016 ranking of countries perceived as corrupt. While many listed Thai corporations have improved their governance and ranking, most businesses remain shrouded in familial structures where the patriarch (or, often, matriarch) is untouchable.

Many in the tiny audience were inspired by Woodford's undoubted bravery in risking his position, and possibly more, by exposing his bosses. Some Thai executives drew parallels with their own situations, and talked of the difficulties that junior family members and even top executives encounter in contradicting their leaders.

Thailand shares with Japan tendencies toward group loyalty and compromise over conflict, even when the group might be ethically challenged. That can make whistleblowing a tougher gig in Asian corporate culture than in the West.

For Niu's Jazz Club, its inability to draw larger audiences in Bangkok eventually forced the owners to close, despite the quality of the music. The low turnout in Bangkok for Woodford's talk may indicate a similar fate for efforts to reform Thai business culture. Like James Carter, though, Woodford may have lit a spark -- for some, at least.

Simon Landy is a Bangkok-based businessman and former chairman of the British Chamber of Commerce in Thailand.

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