The MT Diary

Our man takes a spring trip around Asia, where sport is a bizarre barometer of change.

by Howard Davies, the director of the London School of Economics
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Spring is in the air. Lambs gambol, daffodils bloom. In Covent Garden, midriffs reappear. So a university director's thoughts naturally turn to fundraising. For an institution like the LSE, that means getting on a plane, or three, to meet the Old Boys and Girls in Asia. Already, more than half our alumni are overseas, and almost two-thirds of our current students are from outside the UK.

Unless the fees for British students are allowed to rise, that proportion is likely to grow.

If it's Thursday, it must be Bangkok.

The Thai prime minister opens an LSE seminar on trade and development, with Dr Supachai, director general of the World Trade Organisation. The press are there in numbers, partly to hear our words of wisdom, but partly because the papers that week are full of stories that the PM, and his business partners, are planning to put in a bid for Liverpool FC.

For reasons no-one fully understands, Liverpool remains the vogue team in Bangkok, even more prominent than the ubiquitous Man U. The belief is that the brand has not been properly exploited. With aggressive marketing, the commercial spin-offs could be considerable. Can you buy Michael Owen condoms in Patpong? No, you cannot. There is clearly business to be done here.

The next step is Delhi - backwards, I know, but academics work in mysterious ways. There, by contrast, football is invisible. Pages 1-32 of the Times of India are devoted to the India-Pakistan cricket series, the first for 14 years. At every public event there is a screen broadcasting the latest heroics of Sourav Ganguly and his team-mates in Peshawar and points west.

Bravely, in the circumstances, a number of Indian businesses took their clients across the border to a game. They returned amazed at their reception. Nothing was too much trouble for their hosts. Hotels cut room rates, food and (soft) drinks were on the house, hostesses with Indian and Pakistani flags painted on each cheek administered to their every wish. For once, cricket seemed to reduce, rather than stimulate, international tension. It's not a trick we can pull off with Zimbabwe, unfortunately.

Mumbai is, if anything, even more obsessed. There, though, you wouldn't know there were 11 people in the Indian team. It is the favourite son, Sachin Tendulkar, and 10 others just to make up the numbers. At Tendulkar's restaurant, near the Gate of India, you can order his favourite dishes: at his souvenir shop you can buy mugs decorated with glowing tributes and blue pyjamas with No. 10 on the back. His product endorsements range from toiletries to Toyotas.

But once you have paid your respects to the little master, there are other possible topics of conversation. At last India, for decades the land of tomorrow, is beginning to be taken seriously. Mumbai, the business centre, is one of the chief beneficiaries, with property prices now almost as high as Tokyo's. Growth rates between 6% and 8% a year are attracting foreign investment, if not on a Chinese scale, and the government's disinvestment programme (privatisation is still a dirty word) is accelerating. There is, for once, upward pressure on the rupee. The finance sector is opening up. British insurers are gaining market share. A mis-selling scandal must be just around the corner.

On to Hong Kong, where the sport switches again, this time to rugby. Oddly, many international conferences - of bankers, brokers, dealers and even university presidents - coincide with the Hong Kong Sevens.

Even more oddly, John Major presides as a senior adviser to Credit Suisse First Boston, the principal sponsor. Less oddly, England win, as they have done for the past three years, beating Argentina in the final, to general rejoicing.

In the world's freest economy (Hong Kong's prized trademark) there is no nonsense about closing bars an hour before the end, or preventing drinks being taken into the stands. So by late afternoon even a loser's bowl game between Chinese Taipei (we are PC in Hong Kong these days) and the Cook Islands generates wild excitement.

The Standard Chartered box, with genial CEO Mervyn Davies pouring the drinks, was the place to be. The Welsh apparently couldn't afford to send a team this year (though Namibia could), which gave him the huge competitive advantage of neutrality. James Hughes-Hallett of Cathay Pacific, also a major sponsor, grinned broadly all day - no doubt partly because his airline is now worth more than British Airways.

After a day at the Sevens, you can be-lieve anything, but Hong Kong does seem to be back in business after several lean years. The idea of HK as a gateway to China, especially the Pearl River delta, is taking shape.

The market is up, the highest building in Asia (92 storeys) is up, tourism is up, and public-sector salaries are going down, by another 3% this year after a 3% cut in 2003. So much for Gordon Brown's tough approach to public spending.

There's an idea for Oliver Letwin, which would help him please the Daily Mail, if not Sir Humphrey.

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