Go back 40 years and ask Wee Chow Hou where he would see himself today and, chances are, the answer matches where he has ended up. At the very least, he would not be disappointed.
On his business card, he is a professor of strategy and marketing at the Nanyang Business School, at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.
In corporate and government circles, he is a consultant and executive trainer who has worked in more than 30 countries with over 300 major organizations, including Bank of China, Siemens and the Lippo Group.
His area of expertise: The modern-day application of the philosophies of Chinese strategist Sun Zi, as laid out in his world-renowned treatise Sun Zi Bing Fa, also rendered as The Art of War.
Written by Sun Zi (also known as Sun Tzu or Sun Wu) during the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC), it is one of the world’s oldest and most successful books on military strategy.
Wee had his first brush with Sun Zi Bing Fa in 1976 while serving in the armed forces to fulfill his call-up for national service in Singapore. But he developed a serious interest in it five years later, when he was studying for his doctorate in marketing.
“China had started to open up in 1978. Back then, I thought that if China made it, the Westerners would be interested to understand the mindset of Chinese political, military and corporate strategists.
“Sun Zi Bing Fa was a logical book to focus on, as it is widely known and read by the Chinese. This was the niche I identified for myself,” he said.
Coming from the generation of Chinese Singaporeans who did not study Mandarin at school, he wanted to master the Chinese language — both the classical and simplified versions — so that he could read the book in its original form and apply its principles.
So successful was he that the Singapore government later made him chairman of the Promote Mandarin Council for 10 years.
Wee began to teach Sun Zi’s applications in 1985 at the Stanford-NUS Executive Program in International Management — a course hosted annually in the city-state by California’s Stanford University and the National University of Singapore.
This spurred him to co-author his first book on the subject, Sun Tzu: War and Management, published in 1991. It became a bestseller in this part of the world.
“It was a way to bridge the East with the West; bring the past into the present, and into the future; and bring the philosophical realm to the practical world of business,” he said.
Since then, he has written several more books about the subject. His latest, Sun Zi Bing Fa: Strategic Applications to Business and Marketing Practices, came out this year.
“This is more of a new book that features the importance of China, and the need to know the mind of the Chinese strategist,” he said.
Time served on the boards of various companies has demonstrated and compounded Wee’s ability to apply Sun Zi’s philosophies particularly well.
“It’s given me exposure to the business angle,” he explained. “More importantly, through such experiences, I learn that in life it’s not about being cheaper, faster, quicker, it’s about being different.”
So what exactly is Sun Zi Bing Fa? Wee emphasizes that Sun Zi never advocated physical war.
“It is about how to win without fighting, because fighting is very exhausting, wastes resources, creates inflation etc. According to Sun Zi, an army engaged in a protracted campaign can never secure a victory. You win by strategizing.”
Wee translates it as a four-stage model that involves: Attacking the “plans and strategies” of the enemy; attacking the enemy’s “relationships and alliances with other nations”; attacking the enemy’s “army”; and attacking the “walled cities”.
The final phase is the least desirable, with the preference being to use a nonviolent approach.
This philosophy helps to understand the way China has opened up its economy, he said.
Wee said “there is nothing to fear” when it comes to plans like the Belt and Road Initiative — China’s ambitious goal to build a trade and infrastructure network across the ancient Silk Road routes.
“The Chinese have strong business instincts and make for good businessmen — and this is what they will focus on.”
Regarding China’s growing military might, Wee is quick to reassure: “China has a military that is fast-growing and emerging — something which is necessary because the Chinese have an increasing presence around the world.
“But it is just playing catch-up now. China has never been a conqueror; history speaks for itself. If you study Sun Zi, you will know that for the Chinese, war is the last thing they will resort to.”
Wee is equally adept at using the strategist’s principles to understand President Xi Jinping — in this case, the one that states that the characteristics of a general are to have wisdom and benevolence.
Xi’s approach, Wee said, is very different from that of US President Donald Trump. “To be the president of the United States is to be the biggest talker. To be the president of China is to be the biggest planner.
“Sun Zi will say the best strategy you can have is not to share what you are thinking. You can see how President Xi does that in the way he is getting rid of corrupt government officials without a word.”
Shifting away from politics, Wee believes Sun Zi’s teachings are equally applicable to the business world.
For advice on how to enter and succeed in the Chinese market, he quoted the military strategist: “Know the other side (the enemy), know yourself, and your victory will not be threatened.”
One key takeaway is to realize that what matters to the Chinese is the exact opposite of what Westerners believe in.
“The Chinese value the relationship the most, followed by reason and then the law. In the West, it is the reverse.
“Historically, the Chinese blur the line between a business and its owner. They are sociable, that’s why they enjoy drinking with you — but it is also to see the real you, which emerges when your inhibitions are removed because of the alcohol.
“If the Chinese see you in court, you can be assured you’ll be enemies for life.”
Wee also has a word of caution for Chinese businesses. “They must try to change their mindset by starting to invent and create new ideas, concepts, products and services. It’s time they avoid copying others.”
He acknowledged that creativity has never been part of the culture, but there is no better time than now to create.
“Sun Zi has a saying that encourages riding the momentum. Many Chinese businesses are already on par, if not better than their Western counterparts, in terms of manufacturing and operations.
“They now need to ride on the momentum. In particular, they need to market and brand themselves more, strategize and find their competitive advantage.”
That is definitely easier said than done, especially given how much uncertainty the world faces right now. But Wee is quick to come back with a quote from Sun Zi, which he feels may be useful.
“In the midst of disorders and turmoil in war, while the troops have to fight under chaotic situations, they must remain orderly and in control.
“In the midst of confusion and chaos in fighting, one (the general) must still be able to marshal the troops from all directions and deploy them such that they cannot be defeated.”