Aftershocks from Japan’s tsunami

Although it was a business-networking event, much of the conversation in the hotel ballroom inevitably revolved around the devastating earthquake and tsunami that took place more than 5,000 kilometres away from our shores on March 11.

As the latest edition of the MALAYSIA SME™ Biz Networking and Seminars series was held four days after the catastrophe in Japan, much of the 100-odd entrepreneurs and business executives were sharing amongst themselves their disbelief, grieve, and expressing their apprehension for the global economy resulting from the tragic event.

“It has already hit our business as several of our customers have either cancelled their shipping orders or had their goods delayed after the tragedy. As Japan is amongst our local and regional customers’ leading destination, we hope that the nation recovers soon so that we can resume our shipping operations there,” remarked Bernard, director of a Malaysian shipping and freight forwarding company.

In addition to having more than 1,500 Japanese companies operating in Malaysia particularly within the electrical and electronics, manufacturing and transportation sectors, Japan has also over the last ten years been amongst the top three investing countries into the country. On the other hand, export of Malaysian goods to Japan valued at RM66.29 billion last year, registering a growth of 21.8% from the year before.

Similarly, Razali, owner of a Port Klang-based cargo-handling and logistics company, concurred with Bernard. “As leading Japanese automobile firms including Honda and Toyota have now suspended production of their cars and vehicle parts, and because the global supply chain is so integrated, the disruptions to the industry will undoubtedly be felt throughout the world including here in Malaysia,” said Razali.

Like millions across the globe on that ill-fated day, both entrepreneurs came to know of the tragedy through social media networks. An hour after the 8.9 Richter-scale earthquake struck off the coast of the northeastern city of Sendai, Twitter reported 1,200 tweets each minute – such as #prayforjapan, #tsunami and #japan – related to the earthquake and tsunami. Soon after, more than 4.5 million status updates from 3.8 million Facebook users across the world mentioned the words ‘Japan’, ‘earthquake’ or ‘tsunami’.

For information technology network consultant Tan, the first thing he did after reading of the news on his BlackBerry was to contact one of his biggest client whom he knew was holidaying with his family in Tokyo at that time.

“When I could not reach his mobile phone, I FB (Facebook) him and only then did I get a response 30 minutes later from his business partner that he was safe and about to return to Kuala Lumpur,” said Tan.

In such circumstances, social media communication tools such as Twitter and Facebook have demonstrated to be not only the fastest medium when it comes to breaking news, it is also proving to be a vital means to monitoring the global business and economic environment, which will ultimately effect businesses.

“While I was definitely concerned for the lives of people living over there, as a businessman, the next thing on my mind was the effect on my company and to my customers. I was concerned if their goods could still reach Japan and if materials could still be shipped out,” recalled Bernard.

Evidently, he was not alone with his concern. With a possible nuclear radiation crisis looming from its nuclear reactors, many multinational companies including Bosch, which employs 8,000 people across 36 sites in Japan, BMW, Ericsson, and Maersk Line swiftly relocated their personnel, resources and operations away from Japan.

On the consequences facing Malaysian SMEs, Ho, general manager of a data centre outsourcing provider believed that businesses that deal with Japanese suppliers or rely on export to the country would be badly hit.

“Whereas the bigger corporations can afford to move out or refocus their operations to other countries, many local SMEs that are depending on parts and products to run their businesses would suffer greatly in the short term.”

With Malaysia positioned as a manufacturing hub to the global marketplace, he also cautioned that it is indeed an obvious and present danger to our nation’s manufacturers. Ho added, “From car manufacturers and assemblers, telecommunication equipments producers, right up to retailers of IT gadgets and audio and visual devices, these businesses will all endure challenges in some ways resulting from this disaster.”

Yet, while the rest of the world extends their condolences, our Japanese counterpart is seemingly handling the tragedy with their renowned resilience and grace. Unlike the customary chaos, public frustrations, looting or profiteering that ensue disasters elsewhere over the years, Japan’s 127 million people is enduring and quietly rebuilding their country.

Perhaps its their experience dealing with disasters – earthquakes, World War II, atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – but as we pray for the speediest of recovery for the nation, maybe we should also sit back and learn how to correctly handle a crisis, the Japanese way.

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