Pioneers of progress: Charles Ormiston and Peng T Ong on the Angsana Council’s mission of advocating for Southeast Asia's growth

This article was first published on Tatler Asia, written by Nafeesa Saini

In a world marked by increasing turbulence, one region stands as a surprising bastion of stability: Southeast Asia.

This insight stems from a research study conducted by the Angsana Council, a non‐profit think tank convened by Monk’s Hill Ventures (MHV), a Singapore‐based venture capital firm. A collaboration with global management consultancy Bain & Company, the report, Southeast Asia’s Pursuit of the Emerging Markets Growth Crown, highlights the region’s major growth drivers and emphasises the pivotal role of tech‐enabled disruptors in driving overall growth.

The Angsana Council is committed to driving progress in Southeast Asian businesses and economies. It takes its name from the Angsana tree, which is native to the region. With its expansive canopy and serene presence, it symbolises the council’s dedication to collaborating with intellectuals, policymakers and visionaries to advocate for regional growth.

Steering the helm of the council are Peng T Ong and Charles Ormiston. Ong, a prominent figure in technology and entrepreneurship, is the co‐founder of and managing partner at MHV, while Ormiston, the council’s chair, is the founding partner of Bain & Company’s Southeast Asia business.

For Ong, starting the Angsana Council was a logical next step as a successful entrepreneur and venture capitalist. Raised in a single‐parent household after his mother’s passing, his early life experiences instilled in him a sense of resilience. It was his father’s unwavering entrepreneurial spirit that illuminated the way forward. “He never had a real job all the time I knew him. He’d do different things to put food on the table,” Ong recounts. “The sense of confidence that my dad had, in knowing that he could take care of us, spilled over. [I’m] willing to push to figure out how to move things forward.” 

Growing up, Ong wanted to be a doctor so as to find a cure for cancer, which claimed his mother’s life. However, an innate aptitude for engineering manifested itself in his childhood as he eagerly built Lego blocks and disassembled toys to unravel their inner mechanisms. In secondary school, he discovered computers and never looked back.

He later graduated with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin and a master’s degree in computer science from the University of Illinois Urbana‐Champaign. Despite a promising academic career, he dropped out of his PhD programme, citing tech luminaries such as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs for his ambition to create groundbreaking companies. His career trajectory first took him through roles as a founding engineer at start‐ups. These experiences served as a launch pad for his goal of starting his own business. And indeed, he did.

His early accomplishments include co‐founding successful ventures such as Electric Classifieds (the parent company of Match.com). He also founded Interwoven and Encentuate, respectively offering content management software solutions, and identity and access management software. Ong’s journey in the tech and business landscape culminated in a prestigious honour in 2012, when he was awarded Singapore’s Public Service Medal (also known as Pingat Bakti Masyarakat) for his work with Infocomm Investments, a venture capital fund backed by the Singapore government.

Before starting MHV, he served as a venture partner at GSR Ventures in China. His experiences provide insights into the distinct characteristics of Southeast Asian and Chinese markets, with a focus on their differing scales. In China, businesses navigate a more unified landscape with a single currency and legal system, while Southeast Asia’s vast and diverse regions involve multiple legal systems, languages and currencies.

Ong, however, views this as an advantage. “While you have to be successful in six smaller countries, you’ve got diversity. One reason why I’m excited about Southeast Asia is that our companies are naturally internationalised.” Echoing this, Ormiston notes that “Southeast Asia has many facets of growth, and has always been integrated with the world”.

Charles Ormiston

Reflecting on his early years in Singapore, Ormiston recalls the different cultural and economic landscape. He shares that he had a girlfriend when he first arrived on our shores in 1986. “After a few months, I met her mother, who told her that I couldn’t be an expat since I didn’t own a car or a driveway,” he says, referring to the stereotype of expatriates enjoying lavish relocation packages back then.

Ormiston was part of a new wave of individuals who came to Southeast Asia to be an “on-the-ground” talent. “Businesses realised that they needed people who were familiar with the business at a lower level, instead of having a hierarchy of expats at the top,” he explains.

“Southeast Asia is even more attractive now than it was 30 years ago. Back then, if you wanted to set up a factory in Asia to leverage lower labour costs, Southeast Asia was [the go‐to choice]. South Korea and Japan were relatively closed markets,” he says. “It was Southeast Asia that wanted MNC investment. 20 years later, the region has lost a lot of opportunities to China because it couldn’t compete.” Yet, Ormiston observes, Southeast Asia remains in a strong position to catch up. “I’d say it’s positioned to have a better decade than it’s had since the 1980s and 1990s.”

Armed with a master of business administration from Harvard Business School, Ormiston returned to Singapore in 1993 to establish Bain & Company in Southeast Asia. He assumed the role of managing partner from 1995 to 2007, overseeing significant growth as the company expanded to six offices in the region and a team of 500 employees. He also served on its worldwide management committee and played a key role in opening new branches in emerging markets. He is now an advisory partner at Bain & Company. “I’m semi‐retired,” he says. “When I handed off, I took a year off from Bain and wanted to do non‐profit work.”

It was around this time that “Peng mentioned that MHV was thinking of setting up a council that would promote growth in Southeast Asia”, says Ormiston. “I didn’t think about it for long before I said yes. Peng and I have worked together since the early to mid‐1990s. We served on a board together and respect each other, even if we differ in how we think, approach problems and build institutions.”

Ong’s inspiration behind Angsana Council stems from his experience at MHV, where describing Southeast Asia became a recurrent necessity. Recognising that this challenge persisted, he chose to address it head‐on. “The issue wasn’t going to go away. We could solve it for ourselves by doing the pitch over and over again. Or we could build a platform to raise awareness [about the region’s vast potential] at the global stage,” Ong asserts. “It makes it easier for all of us to access global resources.” 

The first step was assembling a council of trustees. Aside from Ong and Ormiston, the council is made up of Gita Wirjawan, former trade minister of Indonesia; Doris Ho, the president and chief executive officer of A Magsaysay Inc; and former Singapore cabinet minister George Yeo. “All of them have been active in the government, business [and] community, and [have] performed an academic role,” Ormiston says.

The Angsana Council’s vision centres around collective success. “We anchor to the idea that Southeast Asia succeeds together, as opposed to individual countries,” Ong shares. The pursuit of additional trustees continues, as Ong and Ormiston strive to build a network of like‐minded individuals dedicated to the region’s progress. “We want to assemble a group [made up of ] both government and business as well as NGOs that genuinely have an impact on Southeast Asia and reflect the new leadership in the region,” says Ormiston, with Ong adding that “we’re not fully represented across the big countries in Southeast Asia; we’re still looking at more trustees we can bring on board.”

The Angsana Council pursues its mission through meaningful dialogue, leveraging its esteemed trustees’ wealth of experiences to offer new insights to governments and stakeholders. As Ong notes, “Take someone like George, Gita or Doris. When they talk, people want to listen”. Ormiston offers this perspective: “Many economists only look at things that can be proven empirically. It means always looking in the rear‐view mirror. That’s not good enough. If you’re trying to advise the government on strategy, it’s as the metaphor goes: skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.” He emphasises that the council’s strategy is not to provoke these issues in a public forum. Instead, it is about working behind the scenes with individuals committed to accelerating growth in their respective countries.

According to Ormiston, the council is already attracting significant attention despite it being in the nascent stage. This is likely because its trustees are not just academics but also individuals who have practical experience operating in these markets. Additionally, there is a sense of trust towards the group, as they are committed to safeguarding the interests of the communities they serve. Says Ormiston: “We have George Yeo, who’s been part of negotiating most of the key trade agreements in the past 30 years in Southeast Asia. He understands the governments’ constraints when they need to make concessions that will affect local businesses, but overall promote growth.”

A cornerstone of the council’s initiatives is its comprehensive and qualitative research, which presents integrated insights from business, government and social experience. “A year and a half ago, we embarked on a joint research project [with Bain] on the growth prospects from Southeast Asia. We took some risks with it and … are going to do [a] version two of that,” shares Ormiston. After publishing the report and delivering talks in various countries, they noticed a trend. “Interestingly,” says Ormiston, “the audiences that were the most receptive were the governments who recognised that the old model for growth [in export‐oriented industries] in Southeast Asia has run out of steam.”

The council’s involvement has also begun to spark discussions with governments about the future of innovation‐driven economies. “Our trustees are passionate about this. We’re starting to tiptoe into that space, using our networks in the tech field and government domains, to facilitate these dialogues with the hope of influencing policy changes,” says Ong.

The Angsana Council’s influence has already led to unexpected positive outcomes, such as the engagement of the Southeast Asian diaspora. Young adults, in their 20s to 40s and originally from the region, are becoming aware of the significant progress Southeast Asia has made. This new‐found awareness has opened doors to potential innovations.

A less anticipated aspect of the council’s work is the connection it is creating between business communities across the region. “We didn’t expect that there were a number of Southeast Asian groups, typically conglomerates, that appreciated our reports and articulations. While they know their country very well, they might not know their neighbours well enough,” Ong suggests.

For now, the Angsana Council plans to continue its dialogues and research efforts. It is also planning a forum in the first half of 2024, bringing together people from the six major Southeast Asian countries.

While both Ong and Ormiston are optimistic about the future of the region, noting Indonesia and Vietnam as standout performers in its rapid growth, Ormiston points out that this positive outlook varies depending on the specific country. “What we believe is [that] competition between the countries will force governments to be more thoughtful about engaging with entrepreneurs and promoting pro‐growth policies,” he says, “or they might miss out on this incredible opportunity to attract investment that would otherwise go to China.”

Ong expresses his enthusiasm for the region, emphasising its potential: “There’s a lot more upside here than almost anywhere in the world. I’m positive in that sense. People want to come here, which means good people come to help us build the future. I’m excited about that.”