He is a Malaysian by nationality and prefixes his name with the title “Dato’”, the equivalent of a knighthood, bestowed in Malaysia. But what is most striking about the man is his claim that he follows the principles of “ahimsa” (although it technically means non-violence, the scope of this connotation is widened to include ethical behaviour) which Mahatma Gandhi, the apostle of peace, not only preached but also practised.
The entrepreneur says he practises Gandhian principles even in today’s corporate world, known for its dog-eat-dog notoriety, where ethics tend to recede into the background and profits reign supreme.
Meet 52-year-old Vijay Eswaran, a Malaysian of Indian descent, who has set up a business empire that stretches across many parts of the world.
He was recently in New York to receive the New Global Indian (NGI) award for business excellence and philanthropy from the global Indian diaspora that descended on New York for the gargantuan Global India Business Meet (GIBM) 2012. Penang-born Eswaran is also an author, speaker and philanthropist.
He graduated with a degree in socio-economics from the London School of Economics in 1984. Thereafter he stayed on in Europe for a year and did several odd jobs. In 1986, he obtained an MBA from the Southern Illinois University. Finally, Eswaran worked towards creating his own business; he is today the executive chairman of the QI group, founded in 1998, an e-commerce based conglomerate with businesses diversified into retail and direct sales, technology, lifestyle and leisure, luxury and collectibles, education, training and conference management, property development and logistics.
The QI Group has regional offices in Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, besides having a presence in nearly 30 countries through a wide range of subsidiary companies. The chairman of the Council of Quest International University in Malaysia, Eswaran is also on the advisory board of the Global Business Council and Corporate Malaysia Roundtable. In addition to the GIBM award conferred on him, Eswaran was given the Outstanding Entrepreneur of the Year award at the Asia Pacific Entrepreneurship Award 2012. He arrived in New York as one of Forbes Asia’s top 48 philanthropists.
Eswaran addressed the audience that comprised, largely, of Indian industrialists and businesspeople from a number of countries, including Malaysia, Singapore, South Africa, the UAE, the United Kingdom and the United States. He was given slots for two speeches at the event; the audience had eagerly waited to hear his views on India, his mantra for success and the much-touted “Gandhian approach”.
In an exclusive interview with Weekend Review in his suite at New York’s Plaza Hotel, Eswaran urged India to close the “gap” between itself and its diaspora. “These are people who have strong emotional ties with India, yet they are treated as outsiders. You have large Indian populations in a number of countries such as Mauritius, South Africa, Malaysia, Singapore and also in the UK, the US, Canada and Australia. The Indian diaspora does not have any advantage on investing in India. Indeed, persons of Indian origin sometimes have more advantages on investing in other countries,” Eswaran said.
He was “extremely happy” to meet people of Indian origin from other parts of the world who had come to New York for the GIBM. “It’s a good networking platform,” he said.
Eswaran has authored several books, including the popular “The Sphere of Silence”, which was discussed at the GIBM. Describing the book as a “modern-day tool for achieving success”, Eswaran said that he had synthesised the tool from ancient wisdom, stemming from the Vedic concept of practising silence. It is not orientated to any one religion. Describing India as a “consciousness and a 4,000-year-old concept that has permeated the planet”, Eswaran praised the “brilliance” of the Indian diaspora. He also spoke about the significance of silence in our day-to-day lives, emphasising the importance of listening and seeing, rather than talking, in line with the thoughts of Mahatma Gandhi.
He maintained that 60 minutes in the “Sphere of Silence” every day enables us to slow down and take stock of where we are and where we are headed. The practice is made up of three paths — duty, knowledge and devotion. “It sets into motion the liberation of our mind and, to the mind, it is what physical exercises are to the body — a mechanism for fitness. The Sphere of Silence applies to any field of endeavour, but it is especially effective in the arena of management and leadership,” he explained.
He also discussed the situation in Malaysia. Indians in Malaysia, he said, had the advantage of being able to tilt the political scale in the country. “There is no alternative to the Malaysian Indian Congress. [Malaysian] Prime Minister Najeeb is vocal about his concerns for Indians and has done the maximum towards bringing them into the mainstream,” he said, adding that the voices of the minorities are heard in the country by all the political parties concerned.
After discussing various cultural and philosophical issues, we returned to the mundane world of business. Eswaran urged India not to overlook the small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). “The small and medium-sized enterprises should also be courted because they are an engine for growth. The big companies have their resources and they know exactly where the opportunities exist. Because of their smaller size and limited resources, the SMEs may not know about opportunities for them in other parts of the world.”
Eswaran said that India should not hesitate to carry out reforms which are badly needed to provide the much-needed economic jump-start. “I believe we need strong and pragmatic leadership at the centre [federal government] in India to accelerate the reform process that is vital to the country’s growth,” he said.
“By closing certain sectors to foreign competition, India is, in effect, protecting inefficiency and minimising productivity. Punjab, which is called India’s granary, produces less rice than Thailand. For decades, India manufactured the Ambassador car although it was highly inefficient. There is no justification, except a political one, to block foreign direct investment,” he added.
During GIBM’s gala evening, Eswaran sat next to Robert Blake, the US assistant secretary of state, who was representing Secretary Hillary Clinton at the event. Blake spoke of the “extraordinary achievements” of the Indian community in the US, where many Indians have risen to key positions not only in business and other professional areas, but are also increasingly entering mainstream politics. He described the Indian diaspora as a “force to reckon with”, and India as an “important strategic partner”.
“While most Indians already know quite a bit about Malaysia, the award given to Vijay [Eswaran] at this event has put the two countries on each other’s business radar. Indeed, Vijay’s presence will afford Malaysia an opportunity to enhance its visibility in the eyes of the increasingly influential and financially powerful Indian diaspora,” Amit Khanna, a US-based Indian businessman familiar with Malaysia, told Weekend Review.
Manik Mehta is a commentator on Asian affairs.