Living On Locust: Action Learning In Southeast Asia

Wharton MBA students in Kenrinci, Indonesia after dinner

This summer, I traveled to Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia alongside a mélange of 40 students: full time MBAs, executive MBAs, and undergraduate students from Singapore Management University (SMU) on an exciting adventure.

What did we learn? On the surface, over 90% of Singaporeans are homeowners and 11% of Indonesia’s export revenue comes from the palm oil industry. The Film in Malaysia office also administrates a 30% cash rebate on qualifying Malaysian production expenditures. I internalized these facts as I participated in a Wharton-credited Global Modular Course (GMC) visiting three vastly different Southeast Asian countries. The GMC was managed by two amazingly knowledgeable Wharton professors, Janice R. Bellace and Sergei Savin, and two first-year Wharton MBA teaching assistants (TA’s) who are native to this region.

GMC Professor Janice and Azline enjoying the slide at Singapore Airlines


The GMC explored the post-colonial state of three nations and highlighted their governments’ pursuit of economic independence. Sustainability is a core theme across Southeast Asia and our group explored the balancing act of how these nations must consider housing and rapid urbanization, social-economic viability, and regional inter-connectivity. Global Modular Courses are very popular and competitive at Wharton, requiring an application and essays before students can be accepted. For students looking to explore business themes within a global context, GMCs are an immersive learning experience, whereby knowledge is absorbed through industry visits, local conversations, and regional travel. Beyond the formal curriculum, students typically travel together after the GMC and make connections with other MBA students across different programs.

GMCs can also be taken as pass/fail. They are offered several times each year during fall and spring breaks and during the summer months – before summer internships. I participated in a summer GMC and embarked on a 22-hour flight to Singapore the day after graduating from the Wharton full-time MBA program. Singapore is an extremely clean and beautiful nation. The transport systems were simple and manageable, and I enjoyed shopping at the local street markets. It’s essential to highlight that GMC’s are logistically intense. An average day began at 7:30 am for breakfast and typically ended by 6:00 pm. The days were eventful and engaging as the group explored a variety of industries to better understand each countries thriving business ecosystems. Students also have assigned readings, graded pre-trip assignments, and a final paper to facilitate a deeper immersion and elevated networking with the presenters.

The GMC group witnessed the Singapore/Malaysian integration first-hand are we crossed the border by bus and walked through the immigration terminal at 8 am. This common commute signifies the economic integration between these two nations, as many Malaysians work in Singapore but live in Malaysia given the salary arbitrage. After crossing the border, we met with the CEO of MRT, Datuk Mohd Zarif Hashim, to discuss the upcoming RTS rail line between Singapore and Johor. The MRT Corporate Office and local Johor media firms hosted our group and provided local food, desserts, coffee, and tea. Mr. Hashim concluded the presentation with consulting-centric scenarios to solicit feedback from our group. He could not resist picking the brains of MBA students from the number one U.S. MBA program.

GMC participants at MRT event in Malaysia


GMCs are structured to expand students regional and industry perspective within emerging and established sectors, while simultaneously enhancing their global business acumen. A trip highlight was visiting the Iskander Movie Studios, a renowned production facility with top-notch filming stages, TV studios, and water filming/production capabilities. Movies produced in this facility include: Netflix’s Marco Polo, Asia’s Got Talent, The Voice (2017 Singapore/Malaysia edition), Disney’s Wizards of Warna Walk, and the T2 Asia-Pacific Table Tennis League Season. Malaysia’s Government is dedicated to development within the film and television industry and created a production incentive in 2013. The Film in Malaysia Incentive (FIMI) mandates a 30% cash rebate, on qualifying Malaysian production expenditures, including production and post-production approved activities.

I recall living in Atlanta, GA – a state with various film incentives – seeing movies filmed frequently, including The Tomorrow War, which filmed several scenes at my condo in 2019. The rise in streaming services and membership subscriptions is a prevalent trend within business and entertainment companies. Film incentives can create additional city tax revenue, bolster tourist interests, and attract local artists and actors. Film is an art form that directly showcases the culture within a region. Participating in this GMC shed light on the similarities within the U.S. and Malaysian entertainment industries.

Following the film tour, we focused on the health and medical tourism. Miss Chin Wei Jia, Group CEO of Health Management International, gave an overview of the health care industry and highlighted that cosmetic surgeries are a burgeoning industry in Malaysia. I was shocked to learn that Malaysia is among the top three nations for safe international plastic surgeries. The presentation outlined the state-of-the-art hospital facilities and educational training for the medical personnel. Additional presentations included touring Forest City (Malaysia’s environmentally sustainable development project), Indonesia’s palm oil industry, and local entrepreneurial ventures (where we discussed regional challenges for a plant-based dairy company named Turtle Tree).

Kristin, Leah, Azline and Nora visiting Tegalalang Rice field in Bali, Indonesia


I was intrigued by the Housing Development Board (HDB) and the Real Estate Market presentation.  Singapore’s approach to homeownership is directly tied into a government-controlled savings account. Citizens are mandated to put 20% of their earnings into a separate account, called the Central Provident Fund, and the employer matches 17% of their savings. This account can be leveraged exclusively for purchasing a home, retirement, and medical expenses. The HDB’s presentation shed light on the 90% homeownership rate in Singapore, and a broad government initiative. Additionally, this influences real estate development to provide condos, family units, and other commercial spaces when building out new neighborhoods.

As an aviation enthusiast, I have a strong affinity for all things airline-related. I became a kid in a candy story when our group toured the Singapore Flight Training Center. It was fascinating to hear from the Singapore Airlines VP of Public Affairs, Siva Govindasamy. He shared the company’s post-COVID goals and larger sustainability strategy, which leverages younger and newer aircrafts to mitigate carbon emissions. During the flight training center tour, the group viewed former flight attendant uniforms and historical in-flight souvenirs. Interestingly, the Singapore Girl became popularized in 1972 after the company hired a French designer to update the flight attendants’ uniforms.

The most eye-opening experience of this GMC was traveling to Pangkalan Kenrinci, Indonesia to tour the nursery and paper, rayon and yarn mills. This excursion required a ferry, a domestic flight, and a two-hour bus ride to the Unigraha Hotel. The group visited the April Group and Royal Golden Eagle (RGE) operational facilities to learn about their sustainability efforts and employment strategy in this region. As we toured the nursery, science lab, the paper processing mill, and the palm oil plantation, the company personnel explained their growth strategy and rapid industrialization expansion to capture a bigger share of the natural resources.

The paper, rayon, and palm oil industries are both labor-and-capital intensive industries. Witnessing the intensity of the employees’ labor in extreme heat, as they operated machinery and objects five times their size to produce export products, made me inquire about employee retention. Consequently, these industries have a very high workforce turnover rate, and automation is a possibility for some functions but not all. Fortunately, Indonesia has a large low-skilled labor workforce. The bigger picture for April Group and Royal Golden Eagle is that size directly influences financing opportunities. Thus, the expansionary phase of these two firms influenced better terms for extracting resources to scale each business’ sustainability. The economies of scale also helped enhance the manufacturing ecosystem in Kenrinci, Indonesia.

Mahpari, Azline, Cady and Sanjit kayaking at Luon Cave in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam


After the GMC concluded, I continued traveling in Southeast Asia with my Wharton classmates, starting with a girls trip to Bali, Indonesia. Kristin, Leah, Nora, and I spent time at the beach, enjoyed massages, and chased waterfalls. The learning continued as we visited a rice and coffee plantation. We saw first-hand how Kopi Luwak, an expensive Indonesian coffee, was made. Classified as the world’s most famous coffee, Luwak Coffee is made from cat poop. No joke! Kopi Luwak is an exclusive Indonesian coffee that is made from an Asian palm civets’ feces. These cats are so soft and adorable, but I draw the line at drinking cat feces.

I met these amazing women at Wharton and we are continuing to create shared memories. I reminisce being cold-called in class together, working on group assignments, and attending industry conferences to support each other. Now, we are Wharton MBAs; in fact, each of us pursued dual master’s degrees. We are basking in our alumna status in Bali and celebrating several accomplishments. Business school is a team sport and my success has been predicated on the relationships that I built inside and outside of the classroom. The connections formed during these transformative two years are my first line of defense as I forge business ventures or change careers. Traveling with classmates is an essential learning component during business school. I am extremely thankful that COVID-19 did not take limit these memorable moments.

Interestingly enough, there were over 100 Wharton students traveling in Asia throughout the summer. Some were exchange students taking elective classes at INSEAD Singapore and others were on vacation. I randomly connected with four other classmates whom I had not met during business school, and we decided to travel to Vietnam. Cady, Mahpari, Sanjit, Amanda and I visited Hanoi, Ha Long Bay, and Ho Chi Minh City over seven days. Each city has its own character and I loved exploring a new country with new friends. We kayaked, hiked to see incredible views, participated in a street tour that took us down the smallest alley in Vietnam, and climbed in the same tunnels as the Vietnamese Soldiers from the Vietnam War.

I highly recommend visiting Vietnam for adventure, food, and relaxation. It is common for MBAs to enjoy their summer before starting a new full-time job and I loved spending 30 days with a diverse group of classmates in Southeast Asia. This is what people mean when they say you go to business school to “rub elbows” with folks you would otherwise not have the opportunity to meet.

One day sample itinerary of the GMC programming and logistics

Reflecting on my personal and academic voyages in business school, I visited 20 countries with classmates over two years. The Wharton MBA program facilitates global learning outside of the classroom whereby cultural immersion programs, such as this GMC, are only one example. There are also student led treks, leadership ventures in Chile or the Caribbean, or international exchange programs with partner schools. I am confident that in five years when I reach out to a classmate, they are more likely to remember our trip to Istanbul, Turkey or Tallinn, Estonia, than the “scaling operations project”. Both have added tremendous value, however, remembering the excursion will create a euphoric emotion when these classmates honor my request.

I hope to see you “Living on Locust” with soul and a spirit of adventure!

Azline is from Waterloo, IA, and became a National Gates Millennium Scholar in 2009. She studied International Studies and French at Spelman College in Atlanta, GA, and graduated Cum Laude in 2013. During her undergraduate tenure, she studied abroad in Fort-de-France, Martinique, and Geneva, Switzerland, and also interned at Black Entertainment Network and Google, Inc. Azline worked for Delta Air Lines for seven years before starting a dual-degree MBA/MA program at the Wharton School and the Lauder Institute.


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