The Chinese have this saying.
(A thousand mile journey begins with a single step)
In 2015, I took that first step. I applied for the Kuok Khoon Hong scholarship. It came with an opportunity to work in one of Wilmar International’s overseas ventures. That first step brought me on a journey more than 5,000 miles away from home. I was long interested in the commodities industry, and seizing this opportunity was one of the best decisions I made in university.
When people think of South Africa, they think of wild animals roaming the vast lands. Sometimes they think of the very high crime rates and perceived lack of safety in its cities. But there’s so much more to that in South Africa. In taking the road less travelled, I was rewarded with an eye-opening experience that yielded me uncommon insights.
South Africa is known as the “Rainbow nation” due to its multicultural diversity. Living in and learning about the post-apartheid environment reinforced my conviction that Singapore’s harmonious multicultural society should never be taken for granted. Beyond that, living in South Africa has also taught me the subtleties in navigating an emerging market. Adaptability, cross-cultural sensitivity, and open-mindedness helped me to thrive in such an environment.
Travelling solo wasn’t easy, but it allowed me to be a lot more observant of my surroundings and fully immerse myself in it. It made it easy for strangers to approach and strike a conversation with me, or vice versa. Through that I made very good friends and companions who taught me a lot about the culture and the way of living among various ethnic groups in South Africa.
The nature of my job as a sales and trading intern allowed me to experience different sides of the country, see the different distribution channels in which the company operates, and meet the different faces of South Africa. Since I travelled up to 500 km on a typical day, and because throughout the journey I was stuck in the car with my colleague, who could be anyone ranging from a junior sales representative to the national wholesale manager, the seemingly mind-numbing journeys were actually some of the best times to learn the ropes, especially when I could get the almost undivided attention from my friendly colleagues.
Kara, one my best mentors, often brought me along on courtesy calls to his customers. Together with his customers, we moved tonnes and tonnes of oil through the market. Because every customer wanted a better pricing each time we met, I got to learn about negotiation through the trade.
South Africans love their sports – usually rugby, football and cricket. Many are also deeply devoted to their religion. Knowing what makes them tick can often help to seal deals. Because Kara and many of the wholesale customers are Muslim, I had the chance to pick up basic Arabic, visit mosques and observe prayers. These gave me a deeper understanding, as well as a newfound respect for their culture. Being able to greet them their language, no matter how little, was visibly appreciated by the locals.
Each time we hit the roads, we strived to visit as many clients as possible. When we engaged our clients, the focus was always on how we could serve them better. Doing so goes a long way in building sustainable, long-term relationships that are mutually beneficial. Without trust and connections, it would have been a lot more difficult to do business.
Contributed by: Tay Wong Yeow (ACBS Class of 2017)