The origin of Southeast Asians have been told in many versions. Some say the natives originated from the continent of Australasia, while some experts contended that most if not all came from Central Asia. However, one thing is for sure – the countries that make up Southeast Asia are all unique with its own languages and customs.

The arrival of the Chinese in Southeast Asia came in many waves – the earliest (recorded) being emissaries sent from China during the early 13th century, and most recently during the opium wars. Most immigrant Chinese assimilated well in Thailand, and Vietnam due to similarity in languages and culture. In fact, they thrived in business and trade, so much so they were regarded as the Chinese Jews. Today, the Chinese who emigrated have local names, and are most assimilated – only wishing to be known as Singaporean, Malaysian, Thai, Vietnamese or Filipino.

Enter modern day China

In recent years, Chinese companies (and government) have been massively expanding overseas through various economic initiatives – that many dubbed as aggressive. This has brought considerable investments and jobs to neighbouring Southeast Asia, and also tonnes of Chinese expatriates.

One Belt One Road Initiative – an ambitious project to link trade in Asia, Europe and beyond

While there are similarities in culture and food – these modern day Chinese are seen as aggressive, ruthless and mostly ignorant. However, it goes both ways. It seems that us as Southeast Asians have also rubbed off on them. So, what are the few key observations (in the Chineses’ own words)?

One size does not fit all

Many Chinese investors we have met once had this idea that Southeast Asia was this large geographical mass with a population to match (half of) China’s. Unfortunately, many came to realize that each market was a unique battle of its own – with its own set of challenges (be it government relations, rules and regulation, and culture).

For example, Malaysia comprises of mainly a muslim population majority, while Thailand mainly a buddhist majority. Thus, different sets of customs, and practices are observed. Most of these practices are not usually hard coded into law – and purely regarded as a way of life by many.

Thai culture – work to have enough, not work to have more

A Chinese investor once asked me (in jest), why does his Malaysian staff have to pray 5 times a day, and each time taking 30 minutes. That’s 150 minutes in a day of productive time! Also, that investor encountered a small protest when he tried to institute a 6-day work week (usually uncommon in Malaysia).

A spoilt generation  

As it is increasingly becoming well known – the Chinese have very demanding work ethics. Most, if not many young graduates who work in startups – do not protest long hours, and even weekend shifts (to the extent of even sleeping in office).

This is different when compared to most Southeast Asians who are used to 5 day work weeks, family time and going out for “teh-tarik”. The cultural differences are stark – Chinese students face stiff competition from the moment they are born. Parents invest heavily in their education and they are expected to do well from an early age. There are no safety nets if they fail – and they know success only through hard work and perseverance.

National examinations in China – to determine who gets to go to university. Extremely high pressure environment

In contrast, most Southeast Asians (of either Indian or Chinese descent) are third or fourth generation, and have enjoyed considerable prosperity that their grandparents have built for them. In addition, many Southeast Asian governments provide forms of assistance in terms of scholarship, and allowances – making their lives a little bit easier.

Mediocrity is acceptable

Drawing from examples such as the mind-numbing traffic of Manila, Jakarta, and Bangkok, the investor continued elaborating his point. Many Southeast Asians adopt the mindset that as long as it works – it was fine. The traffic is bad but it works – it’s fine.

Bumper to bumper – traffic woes in Manila (it often takes up to 2 hours to travel a few kilometres)

His points did hit a nerve – it was indeed true that in many Southeast Asian countries, mediocrity was a way of life. No one wanted to improve on anything for fear of “trouble” it may cause if they raised a complaint. No one wanted to stand out, and merely wanted to conform. In fact, in many companies this is the exact prevailing mindset – just get the job done. Bosses are called out as “asses” if they were too demanding down to the detail.

There was never an idea to do their best (unlike the Japanese or Chinese).


As venture builders ourselves, we are very aware of the ongoings in Southeast Asia. To simply say, let’s fix it – is not enough. There are always bad apples, but we know of many successful Southeast Asians who have built their business on hard work, perseverance and excellent corporate culture.

In the end, when comparing the work ethics of the Chinese and Southeast Asians, we should strive to learn the good, and drop the bad. Only then can we as Southeast Asians truly globalize.

Thanks for reading The Low Down (TLD), the blog by the team at Momentum Works. Got a different perspective or have a burning opinion to share? Let us know at [email protected].


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He has worn many hats in the past - selling advertising space, banking services, and even trading stocks. In 2013, longing for a change of scenery, he joined Rocket Internet’s (now Alibaba’s) Lazada as a online marketer in Bangkok, where he experienced first hand life in a startup. He never looked back since - landing lead roles at Rocket’s EasyTaxi (Singapore), Rocket’s MEIG (Dubai), and Bamilo (Tehran). After that, he launched (and ran) the Thai venture for one of Singapore’s biggest cross-border ecommerce. Last year, Chong put his expertise to work, helping an SGX-listed company relocate to and run operations in Thailand. Nowadays, he’s just chilling by the countryside.