Looking for a New Path

Time/CNN August 21, 2000

Jakarta, Indonesia - Believing in one god is mandatory in indonesia, but most people follow a smorgasbord of faiths: folk superstition, Hindu philosophy, the strictures of the holy Koran. Is there room for a new creed that offers the joys of "recontextualization" and gives devotees tips on how to "look beyond the content of their life to the context?"

Apparently so, because a phenomenon called AsiaWorks has taken Jakarta by storm. Among the capital's bourgeoisie, the self-help group has become a buzzword. Tycoons, film stars and fashion models attend its seminars (at $250 a pop). Astra president Teddy Rachmat credits the group's "trainings" with his return to the top slot at Indonesia's largest car manufacturer, after a two-year absence. "I have more fun in my life now," he says. "In the past it was not fun going to work. Now I take it lightly."

Based in Hong Kong, AsiaWorks was founded in 1993 by American Chris Gentry, a veteran of other personal-development groups like Outward Bound and Life Dynamics. Since then enthusiastic graduates have spread AsiaWorks across the region. Some 5,000 Malaysians have signed up, and 5,000 others have enrolled in Taiwan. In Indonesia, where the group has operated since 1997, more than 3,000 people have registered for AsiaWorks' programs, which purport to teach the values of commitment, responsibility and giving. Sessions start by asking participants to fill out a form disclosing their fears and personal problems; they are then guided through exercises designed to produce the typical 12-step goal of self-discovery. Southeast Asia director Mark Hemstedt attributes AsiaWorks' success in Indonesia to a "crisis of integrity" among the country's Elites. "It's not just about business," says Thessia Saleh, country manager for Indonesia. "It's about bringing back the faith that Indonesia can once again be powerful."

Hemstedt, a former Unilever executive in Britain, bridles at the suggestion that he's promoting a cult. "Cults are things people join," he says. "You don't join AsiaWorks. It is a full training company." Yet detractors say the group focuses too much on "self-help" for itself. Once hooked, participants are encouraged to sign up friends and are given recruitment goals and a "buddy" to make sure those goals are met. Sagar Mirpuri, 25, a textile importer, enrolled his whole family and found himself dedicating more time to AsiaWorks than to his business. He called it quits after a year in the group. "Whether it's good or bad, they are playing with people's minds," he says.

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