Naina Lal Kidwai, Chairman, HSBC India; Elaine Lo, Asia Chair and Senior Partner, Mayer Brown JSM; Mari Elka Pangestu, Former Minister of Tourism and the Creative Economy, Indonesia Moderator: Nina Easton, Fortune
Philipp Engelhorn
By Scott Cendrowski
November 11, 2014

Where’s a multinational to turn in Asia? Pessimism is turning to optimism in India after new Prime Minister Narendra Modi set about a reform agenda. Indonesia just elected an exciting new leader. And China’s economy is slowing.

In other words, perceptions are changing, according to three women from those countries on the ‘Changing Asia: New Dynamics for Multinationals’ panel at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women forum in Hong Kong.

“We are all growing in the right direction,” said Mari Elka Pangestu, former Tourism and Creative Economy Minister in Indonesia. With liberalizing governments in the region—Vietnam is begging for foreign investment and even Mynamar is turning closer to democracy—many agree with Pangestu’s generalization.

But because Fortune MPW is about lively discussion, the panelists each made a case for multinational investment in their own country. The responses were instructive.

Naina Lal Kidwai, Chairman of HSBC India, called Modi’s recent election “historic” and said he represents an office charged with executing ideas. She said energy efficiency and water efficiency projects offer huge opportunities in the country and called India the factory for the rest of the world, but in an updated 21st century context. “The services sector in India relies on broadband, and it and telecom can be the next wave of growth,” she said.

Elaine Lo, Asia Chair and Senior Partner at law firm Mayer Brown JSM, said that despite talk of a China slowdown, multinationals should be encouraged by the progress the country has made.

“China is still perceived to be a country with a lot of risk—I tend to see the positive side,” she said.

The government calls eradicating harmful pollution its top priority and president Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign is historic in its breadth. “I consider that to be good for business,” said Lo, a veteran M&A lawyer who has worked on foreign investments since China opened its doors to the outside world in the late 1970s. “Corruption is the root of all evils even for the business sector.”

Pangestu of Indonesia added that Indonesia and India share a demographic gift that ageing China and Japan can only dream of.

“Asia is young, and in my country of 250 million people, 30% are below 30 years old,” she said in language that might have been spoken by an official in China three decades earlier. Without saying it directly, Pangestu echoed what new leader Joko Widodo has been pleading for since being recently elected: foreign investment and foreign capital in potentially Asia’s next big manufacturing market.

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