Beyond Brexit: global opportunities in China and Southeast Asia

Article 50 has been triggered and the UK is now on the long road to Brexit nirvana, whatever that looks like.

The path ahead is more likely to be one of those twisty-turny, gut-wrenching mountain roads than the fast lane of a motorway, with no clear vision of where the final post-Brexit destination will be, when this fabled destination will be reached, or even if the Brexit bus will arrive in one piece. It might lose a wing mirror – or worse.

As familiar pastures recede into the distance, the Brexit bus will climb higher through the mist, and the air temperature will drop a little. There will be signs of ice. Mountain goats from the past will clatter down the rocks from their lofty perch to butt in the conversation, though unlikely to topple the Brexit bus altogether.

Bus on a mountain road

Despite the uncertainty, or perhaps because of it, old symbols from the past will be revived. There is talk of the navy British passport coming back (though a passport cover is just as effective; mine is black – which is neither blue nor burgundy, and frankly no one in the world cares what colour the British passport is). Bizarrely and worryingly, there are growing tensions over Gibraltar.

But we can’t go back to 1982. Looking past the cranks and the hotheads on both sides of the Brexitian fence, there are intriguing global opportunities to explore for UK-based Brits and EU citizens alike – and where better to begin than in today’s most exciting “emerging” markets in East Asia.

China

Relations between Britain and China have come a long way in recent years, which is just as well, as good terms will likely come in handy. There is much talk of a “golden era”, symbolised by President Xi and then British PM David Cameron enjoying a bilateral pint down the pub in late 2015 before the cameras (Green King IPA sales later went through the roof in China and the pub was bought by the Chinese).

The Chinese premier later participated in a photo op with Cameron and Man City’s star striker Sergio Aguero in what was arguably the most surreal selfie in modern times. It’s fair to say that he is still going strong, while Cameron and Aguero have been sidelined, with more than one goal missed…

China and Britain have since made a fresh commitment to promote free trade as both countries speed up efforts to start the golden era for real, according to Xinhua, and there are indications that things are taking off.

Taking off literally in the case of the new flights announced in March from London to Guangzhou and Manchester to Beijing. Meanwhile a delegation of 60 high-net-worth entrepreneurs from China will be visiting London in June to seek opportunities for investment and partnerships with British SMEs.

But let’s focus on everyday people.

Young Brits are already doing incredible things in China. Leading the way in telling their story is the British Council, who interviewed Christopher Colman, a young British animator who moved to China upon graduation, and published a piece by British fashion designer Stephanie Lawson on launching a brand in China and “surviving”.

An earlier article tells of an English language assistant in China who had come up with a sustainable bamboo clothing and accessories brand, Mabboo, in between classes and plans to take it global.

Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia, the most eclectic of regions, has traditionally offered something for everyone over the decades, from bankers to beachgoers. In global terms, it’s growing in influence: Asean is now the UK’s 8th biggest export market worth $17.4 billion in 2015, more than twice the value of UK shipments to India.

With a rapidly evolving landscape, Southeast Asia looks same same, but different. Hubs like Singapore no longer have such a commanding appeal in the region, though the resilient Lion City will continue to roar as always.

Indonesia

Take Indonesia, for example, one of the “BRICS” when the term was still popular. A strategic partner of the UK, the sprawling archipelago is the world’s fourth most populous country and expected by PwC to jump from 8th to 4th biggest global economy by 2050.

With 80 million social media users, the nation is among the biggest users of Facebook and Twitter in the world. Jakarta itself is said to be the Twitter capital of the world – take that, London.

Jakarta and Bali have thriving coworking scenes, and the Hindu island in particular is a big draw for digital nomads, attracted to its spiritual vibe and charm. Hubud and Coworkation are just two among several coworking options that have surfaced in recent years.

Malaysia

Hopping now across the Straits of Malacca (mind the container ship), where Malaysia is also of special interest to the UK. In recent days both countries affirmed their commitment to enhancing ties post-Brexit.

One of Southeast Asia’s more alluring countries (I have my own special relationship with their culture), Malaysia has compelling tech opportunities in Kuala Lumpur and vibrant northern neighbour Penang. Jobbatical frequently advertises opportunities with Malaysian startups.

If you are still studying, good news – KL is the most affordable city in the world for students, according to the annual QS Best Student Cities 2017.

Another hop, though technically two – one across the mountains and another across the sea – will take you to mystical Borneo. Kuching, a tranquil city not far from Singapore, has been described as “the next Chiang Mai“, Asia’s digital nomad hotspot, and the famous laksa isn’t bad either.

Thailand

Which must make Chiang Mai the next Bangkok. Possibly. Thailand’s cultural capital is a magnet for location independent workers, and it’s not difficult to see why, with its food scene, quality of life and affordability. Nomad List ranks Chiang Mai top worldwide for remote workers.

Koh Lanta, near Krabi in Thailand’s south, takes the idyll a step further – unlike Bali and Chiang Mai, KoHub remote workers can enjoy mile after mile of golden sand.

But Thailand appeals even if you’re not a digital nomad. In recent days it was announced that the Thai government is offering British expats a 20 year residency permit. The package, which costs £481 pounds a year on top of a £48,138 one-off fee, will include a VIP fast track on matters relating to driving licence, work permit and immigration.

Two decades might be excessive for some, A 10 year permit is also available for £24,066, in addition to an annual fee, and a 5 year permit is available for £12,033.

The Thai government agency, speaking to the Press Association, explains:

I think that Brexit will give us an opportunity to even open more, or to introduce Thailand even on a broader scale … you can live in Thailand for up to 20 years if you’d like to, therefore it would be a good opportunity for both countries, in terms of UK people and the Thai people.

What have I missed?

Coworking Unconference Asia days away in Chiang Mai

Temple in Chiang Mai

If the future of work is your thing (and it really should be, because change is the new norm), you might be interested in the Coworking Unconference Asia – now just days away in Thailand.

Brought by The Coworking Association of Asia Pacific, co-founded by Steve Munroe of Hubud, Coworking Unconference will take place in digital nomad hotspot Chiang Mai on 8-12 February 2017. The first four days will see a tonne of talks take place, ranging from Seoul’s ecosystem to lessons from Uber in Southeast Asia, along with opportunities for participants to set the agenda (the unconference bit).

The speaker lineup is impressive, with representatives from household names like Google, Uber and Regus to movers & shakers in the coworking world and beyond.

An excursions day will conclude activities with complimentary temple and waterfall trips – a literal cooling down.

Having experienced a conference in Chiang Mai myself, I’m mildly envious of anyone joining Coworking Unconference. It’s a terrific city that allows for both focus and calm (something that cannot be said about most cities) – and the food isn’t bad either!

KoHub coworking space puts Koh Lanta on the digital nomad map

KoHub

Ko Lanta might not be as widely recognised as neighbouring Phuket or Phi Phi, but it has become a hotspot for at least one traveller group. A picture of bliss, the Andaman island that feels like a blend of Bali and Laos (if you take away the temples) has established itself as a popular digital nomad destination. Its sweeping beaches and sunsets are fabulous, its roads are free of traffic, the crowds are mercifully absent, and there is a more mature feel about the place – ideal conditions for both chilling and getting stuff done.

Taking a few days recently to unwind on the island, I stopped by coworking space KoHub en route back to Krabi to see what it was like, having heard about it while attending the Digital Nomad Conference in Bangkok earlier in the year.

KoHubKoHub wasn’t an easy spot from the road, and I found it to be quiet when I neared the entrance, far from the hive of activity I had been expecting. But there was a good – and somewhat enviable – reason for the stillness of it all.

Greeting me at the door, KoHub’s amiable Polly explained that many of its members were out kayaking, as it was the weekend. Where else can you do that? 🙂 She then kindly took me on a tour of the work spaces and dining areas set amidst a tropical garden.

Established two years ago, KoHub has a swelling membership that comprises web developers, designers and online teachers, in addition to people passing by to connect with like-minded others (the average tenure is a month).

I was told that the transience is such that digital nomads hop from one established hub to the next within Southeast Asia, seeking out locations as the seasons (and prices) change. The circuit starts in Chiang Mai in Thailand’s north, before moving south to Ko Lanta, across the equator to Bali, and North again to Vietnam. I’m guessing it’s only a matter of time before other affordable locations join as pastures along the route, from Penang to Yogyakarta (someone who can shed light on this is Dave Cook, whom as I mentioned before, is leading a study into digital nomad behaviour).

Transience aside, there is a strong sense of community. KoHub is not a coworking space alone. Members can take Thai lessons and themselves teach English at a local school, and there are eco-friendly activities like upcycling.

KoHub activities

The environmental message came out strong: outings include the aforementioned kayaking and island tours, and Full Moon parties are organised on the nearby beach (a popular thing in Koh Lanta, apparently).

Indoors fun meanwhile included a games room with foosball and movies, in a setup similar to traditional offices (I was told it’s also popular for Skype calls).

All that foosball fun leads to hungry stomachs (or maybe that’s just me), and KoHub’s food offerings looked better than average. One of the biggest appeals of living in Southeast Asia is the food, which is among the best on the planet, and Thai cuisine in particular is renowned the world over. KoHub’s menu includes familiar favourites like tom yam and tom ka, alongside curries, fruit shakes and fresh juices.

While I didn’t see many members on the day, KoHub is becoming highly subscribed to the extent that a new space on the island is sought to accommodate more people. It has come a long way in two years, and a bright future beckons if more people join the digital nomad movement. Altogether now: ko ko, there’s ko limit…

From Keynes to karoshi: the long hours debate continues

Today is World Values Day (apparently), an invitation to reflect on what really matters in life, such as happiness, independence and family.

It’s easy to overlook the things that are important to us as we strive for success, and sometimes it can go too far. In recent weeks, the long hours question has found itself once more in the spotlight. A Washington Post article, Stop touting the crazy hours you work. It helps no one, over leaders trumpeting their aversion to sleep, was shared on Linkedin, while tragedy in Japan attributed to karoshi has sparked ongoing debate.

Economists have been wrong about a number of things, but Keyne’s now famous 20th century prediction about working hours is one of the more glaring (and perhaps grating) failures. In 1930 he predicted the working week of his grandchildren’s generation would be reduced to just 15 hours. He was way off the mark. From New York to Tokyo, professionals continue to grind out evening hours and beyond.

Of course, Keynes may yet be right: some commentators are now suggesting the elimination of work altogether by 2050 because of automation (and who knows how that might look). But until that happens, there are alternative models to consider.

The Scandinavian way of life, for example. Sweden famous introduced a 6 hour work day and Denmark’s work day typically ends at 4pm. A former Danish co-worker confirmed this was true, saying that “presenteeism” was, well, absent from Danish workplaces.

But while we can’t all work in Scandinavia, we can take a piece of Scandinavia with us, and I don’t mean shopping for a desk at IKEA. When I attended the Digital Nomad Conference in Bangkok earlier this year, one name stood out more than most. Tim Ferris, he of “4 Hour Work Week: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich” fame.

Ferris’ 2007 bestseller described a different approach to work, in that you could eliminate 50% of your tasks in 48 hours (in doing so living the life you want). As a result, the book created quite a stir.

But what’s the reality like? Are freelancers and digital nomads enjoying reduced hours?

I asked London anthropologist Dave Cook, who is conducting a fascinating study into the social and cultural impact of nomads, to shed some light. He explained that, based on his observations:

free from imposed working structures, digital nomads tend to move into a working pattern that is personal to them.

This makes sense. However – and this is surprising – none of the working patterns observed looked anything like the model championed by Ferris:

I haven’t seen anything approaching the ideal of the 4 hour work week. In fact some of the digital nomads I’ve spoken to find the sales rhetoric of some of the self help books such as Ferris, or bloggers who over-emphasise life hacking, quite irritating, because meaningful daily routines can be reduced to productivity problems to be solved.

Indeed, rather than a 4 hour work week, some nomads (bootstrappers, for example) work harder than they would in a conventional day job.

Explaining further, Dave added that there was no conventional working pattern. Much depended on cultural background and level of experience. Some digital nomads are young, with relatively little work experience, while others have fled the “tyranny” of micromanagement and are putting in the hours on their own terms.

And that’s what really this is all about: the freedom to call the shots. Power is now in the hands of the individual, who determines what works best in accordance to their needs, or what is personal to them, as Dave describes it. And that may indeed result in long hours – or failure altogether.

Whether it’s a case of working at a desk in Pudong or from a deckchair in Phuket, work-life balance is evidently less straightforward than it seems.

The Beach 20 years later: spirit lives on in digital nomad tribes

Matinloc Beach, El Nido, Philippines

Today is a remarkable anniversary. Alex Garland’s The Beach was published 20 years ago (younger people might recognise Alex as the director of Ex Machina). What’s remarkable is that it’s only been 20 years. The world has changed almost beyond recognition since: ICQ (yes, that long ago), Google, the iPod, MySpace, Facebook, the smartphone, the Millennial, Tesla, the selfie, Instagram, #sorrynotsorry. It has been a period of enormous change, for better or for worse.

Looking at it now, The Beach evokes “end of an era” and end of innocence feelings, and not just because disillusioned Richard left the hidden paradise he called home. It really was the fin de siecle: the end of the 1990s, the end of the 20th century, and the end of simpler times as we knew them, when care-free hedonism and dial-up connections reigned.

Soon after reading the now cult classic and watching the Hollywood movie when they emerged, I travelled to Southeast Asia for the first time. I felt like a novice backpacker like Richard, armed with a knackered copy of the Rough Guide and a traditional camera with 3 rolls of film (no digital cameras then, let alone smartphones), staying at cheap Malaysian guesthouses, popping into “cyber cafes”, and staring wide-eyed at the sheer exoticism of the Far East, as the region was still called then in that quaint pre-globalisation way.

Seven years later, I unexpectedly returned to Kuala Lumpur – this time in a suit, my own “innocence” lost. And this time, I stayed.

Hopping about frequently in Southeast Asia, I never forgot The Beach and the hope that there was a mystical idyll out there somewhere, buried in the South China Sea or hidden in the Indonesian archipelago. I was fortunate enough to encounter extraordinary beaches and fascinating characters, but The Beach as described in the book, a tropical shangri-la, was forever elusive.

And yet, while the untainted paradise beach will likely stay a myth, the utopian spirit of The Beach lingers on. Its post-911, post-capitalism incarnation can be seen in the form of co-working spaces, filled with digital nomads who get about using apps such as Airbnb and Waze.

Like The Beach’s main character, digital nomads also flock to Thailand (although the book’s original location was The Philippines), to places like Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Krabi, making connections and living the dream. And with the passing of Richard’s generation into middle age gloop and suburbia, the baton has been passed to globetrotting Millennials, themselves looking for purpose.

Travel might no longer be romantic, as it surely was pre-internet, but the essence of what made The Beach special – the pursuit of a more spiritual, community-minded and more “authentic” alternative to everyday life – endures to this day.