On Your Own

The writer is an entrepreneur who hopes to share his experience and insights with readers who want to take that giant leap into business but are not sure if they should.

21/2017 – Power with control of the military

Foreword: Three Kingdoms was considered as the greatest of the “Four Great Classics” of Chinese Literature and many Chinese read it as a guide to success in life and business. Foreigners read it to better understand the core attributes that make up Chinese society.

Towards the end of the Han Dynasty in 220 AD, almost 1,900 years ago, the three kingdoms known as the Wei, Shu and Wu were controlled by warlords in the north, central and the south of ancient China. The three warlords had brilliant scholarly advisers who were learned in military warfare and civil administration with brave and loyal generals helping them to upheld the law and defend their territories.

Each warlord would raise an army of 500,000 to one million soldiers to wage war and battle for hegemony so as to unite the nation. Depending on their individual strengths at any particular period, the two weaker kingdoms would set up an alliance to defend against the dominant kingdom. Switching allegiance was the norm, the vanquished banding together against the victors of the many battles waged over 40 years during this tumultuous period.

Just like in present day politics, there are no permanent enemies nor permanent friends. The power play among the warlords in any political party constantly evolves, the supporters switching camps sometimes for profitable alliances but most times, the financial rewards far outweigh loyalty and integrity. Even within the warlords’ inner circle, the advisers and the generals compete against one another for the attention and affection of the warlord they serve. Treachery, bravery and foolhardy antics are the norms of politicians nowadays.

Cao Cao, the warlord of Wei Kingdom was so powerful that he reduced the power of the Han Monarchy to a puppet emperor. His son, Cao Pi then ended the Han Dynasty by forcing the Han Emperor to abdicate the throne. After Cao Pi declared himself the emperor, the other two warlords also declare themselves as emperor of their own kingdoms.

If you look back the last 100 years in world history, the role of the monarchy in many countries has been reduced to a constitutional role, as head of state. Only the Saud family of Saudi Arabia still wields tremendous power and that is because the extended Saud family controls all the key ministries including the military. Whereas in Iran, the Shah of Iran was forced to flee as the religious clerics took over the country with the support of the military. Flashback to Ayatollah Khomeini.

In countries like Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, the military runs the countries with their top generals going into politics and becoming the prime minister. In Malaysia which is styled as a constitutional monarchy, the prime minister wields the most power as long as the military and the police are subservient to him and the parliament.

In Africa and South America, the balance of power lies in the hands that controls the military and to a lesser extent the police force. In times of chaos, military discipline is required to restore order and peace to the nation. The military usually step in when the civilian government is corrupted and dysfunctional which is the excuse needed for military intervention. It is this moral high ground (Heaven’s Will) of righteousness that will balance the forces between heaven and earth.

Since the beginning of civilisation, power crazy men will use either religion or military means to control the mass, making up justification of righteousness as they go along. It is just cycles of history repeating itself as long as mankind coverts power and greed.

In business, a similar analogy applies. Whereas the entrepreneur is both the emperor and prime minister, the corporation has split the two functions. The emperor (chairman of the board) has to work with the CEO (prime minister) in managing the affairs of the state together with court officials, the advisers and the generals. Internal politics are aplenty with each general setting up their individual silos and fighting battles internally and externally.

The CEO instructs his general and his troops to march forth daily to conquer new territories (market share). The victorious general is richly rewarded while the failed general is beheaded (sacked). While in the palace (office), do watch out for the deceitful whispers of the eunuchs (ball carriers – pardon my pun) as they sow discontent through their boot licking tongues. In the meantime, the CEO has to strategise on stockpiling his grains (cash reserves) for the many battles in the long winter ahead.

While the military is all powerful during war time, the civil service remains arrogant as they are empowered by the emperor. Just like the magistrates that rule over districts back in the old days, our current administrators act like little Napoleons, lording over their so called little kingdoms, collecting personal taxes and administering their own laws upon the hapless people of the land.

Our current state of affairs can be described as a cauldron of boiling oil sitting on three legs. The three legs are represented by the monarchy, prime minister and the clerics. Like the Three Kingdoms, if the three legs stay united, there will be no spilt oil. If any of the three legs decide to set out on its own, the cauldron will come crashing down and the nation will be in peril.

“He who wins people, prospers: he who loses them, fails”.

This quote from Three Kingdom should serve as a reminder to all the leaders to act responsibly for the good of the nation.

Similar to the constant leadership power struggles of the three kingdoms, Malaysia’s former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad in 22 years ousted and outlasted a few deputy prime ministers. Our current Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak has already ousted one Deputy PM.

A Chinese idiom says, “One mountain cannot contain two tigers”.

There is still hope that this alliance might just survive. If one is the paper tiger.

Published: http://www.thestar.com.my/business/business-news/2017/11/18/power-with-control-of-the-military/


20/2017 – Lessons from the Three Kingdoms


Age-old philosophy: A movie set depicting the period of the Three Kingdoms. The philosophy proved unworkable for governing in peacetime.

I HAVE just read the Three Kingdoms, the translated English version which was written over three books which was given to my three children by my third nephew whose grandmother was my third aunt.

It was so absorbing that I finished reading the three books in three days and am now watching the made for TV serial – 103 episodes on YouTube every night until 3am the next day.

I understand the Three Kingdoms book is one of the pre-requisite reading among the four literature novels in China’s secondary school curriculum. Since the Chinese civilisation is one of the oldest in the world (some 7,000 years back), the written records of the History of China can be found in 1500 BC (before Christ) which is more than 3,500 years ago! Writing ink was discovered in China and writing was on bamboo tablets and any clothing materials.

The Three Kingdoms era happened between 220 AD and 280 AD when China was ruled by three warlords at the end of the Han Dynasty (202 BC-220 AD). The Imperial China era started with the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC) which managed to subdue great parts of what constitutes the core of the Han Chinese homeland and to unite them under a tightly centralised Legalist government seated at Xianyang (close to modern Xi’an). The doctrine of Legalism that guided the Qin emphasised strict adherence to a legal code and the absolute power of the emperor.

This philosophy, while effective for expanding the empire in a military fashion, proved unworkable for governing in peacetime. Qin Shi Huang united the country but the Qin Dynasty lasted only 15 years.

A golden age in Chinese history, the Han dynasty’s long period of stability and prosperity consolidated the foundation of China as a unified state under a central imperial bureaucracy, which was to last intermittently for most of the next four hundred years.

During the Han dynasty, territory of China was extended to most of the China proper and to areas far west. Confucianism was officially elevated to orthodox status and was to shape the subsequent Chinese civilization.

Art, culture and science all advanced to unprecedented heights. With the profound and lasting impacts of this period of Chinese history, the dynasty name Han had been taken as the name of the Chinese people, now the dominant ethnic group in modern China, and had been commonly used to refer to Chinese language and written characters.

It is from this glorious period some 2000 years ago that we can draw many parallels and similarities with our political and economic realities of today. It is eerily fascinating that some of the philosophies of yesteryears are still applicable today.

The Three Kingdoms book starts with: Unity succeeds division and division follows unity

One is bound to be replaced by the other after a long time. This is the way with things in the world. A single warlord conquers all other warlords and sets himself as the Emperor and starts a new dynasty after unifying the country. Over four hundred years,

The Han dynasty weakened due to poor succession of emperor quality and the last two emperors were indulgent in the good life of woman, wine and song and worst of all ill advised by treacherous eunuchs.

Periods of peace and prosperity often lead to increased arrogance of the palace and its officials thus leading to their downfall.

Nowadays we have business cycles and product life cycles. When there is growth, market stay calm and peaceful and everybody prosper. Then more players enter the market and existing players become arrogant and greedy and this leads to oversupply and a fragmented market without a clear market leader.

During the downturn the weak and inefficient will be eliminated and after some time, the market will start consolidating and you will see the emergence of the new warlords who will rule over the industry in the next growth cycle.

In this digital world, you must disrupt the enemy, grab larger territories, and always ensure food and equipment (finance) supply is continuous. Never mind the losses, don’t worry if you lose some battles, just ensure you win the war at the end of the day. Local market dominance now. World dominance next.

Malaysia has just celebrated its 60th birthday so compared to China’s history, we are considered a new born. Even then Umno has undergone a few periods of major upheavals with old and new warlords at loggerheads every few years. Sabah politics has been most volatile for so many years as the tribal warlords and siblings fight over the spoils of the state.

Barisan Nasional now faces Pakatan Harapan which is really a coalition of parties where its existence is a marriage of convenience or rather of necessity. PAS on the other hand after 20 years of peaceful and meaningful existence as the party of opposition is now stranded all alone in limbo land, out manoeuvred by the emperor.

Who is the next leader who can unite the country?

Wikipedia quotes that The Mandate of Heaven is a Chinese political and spiritual doctrine used to justify the rule of the emperor of China.

According to this belief, heaven which embodies the natural order and will of the universe—bestows the mandate on a just ruler of the Chinese country, the “Heavenly Son” of the “Celestial Empire”.

If a ruler was overthrown, this was interpreted as an indication that the ruler was unworthy, and had lost the mandate. It was also a common belief that natural disasters such as famine and flood were signs of heaven’s displeasure with the ruler, so there would often be revolts following major disasters as citizens saw these as signs that the Mandate of Heaven had been withdrawn.

Mandate of Heaven is similar to legitimacy to rule as the leader of the party with a simple majority of seats. However in China, the right of rebellion against an unjust ruler has been part of political philosophy and the Mandate of Heaven has been used throughout the history of China to legitimise the successful overthrow and installation of new emperors.

Similarly in our society, everything that has happened has been interpreted as Heaven’s will. This spiritual doctrine was created by scholars way before the Bible and Koran was written. Legitimacy to rule as always been based on the doctrine of righteousness and justification.

As this article is only part one of three, I leave you with the popular Chinese saying, “The winner becomes king, the loser becomes outlaw”.

May you be bestowed with a billion blessings from heaven.

Published: http://www.thestar.com.my/business/business-news/2017/11/11/lessons-from-the-three-kingdoms/

19/2017 – Inculcate Rukun Negara values to the young

Saturday, 28 Oct 2017

IT has been a while since I have eaten supper at 11pm. To the western foreigners, supper in Malaysia means another full meal after dinner. The habit of having supper was prevalent in the old days when family dinners was usually done by 6pm hence being hungry again to have the last meal for the day, supper at late night hours.

Like old times, my childhood friends, Jon, Leo and I had a late supper of hokkien mee and oyster omelette in Paramount Garden. After explaining to them about the potential of the halal market, our discussion veered towards our Malay school friends. Ashraf with the untidy afro hair, the neatly attired Razak with the Arabic facial features and Abdul Hadi, one of our top badminton players in school. All three of our “cool” Malay buddies speak and write perfect English.

When I was in Form 6 Arts, half my classmates were Malay. As I was poor in memorising facts, I avoided History and Geography and took up English Literature and Malay Literature (which had only two Chinese students).

Iskandar Zulkarnian was the only Malay student to take up English Literature at STPM level and he was given a scholarship by ITM to study English in the US when he had a principal pass. Such was a rare Malay talent in the English language some 40 years ago.

My other classmate Mus Chairil was like me, a La Salle PJ thoroughbred (of 13 students) who studied from Standard One to Upper Six. The last I heard of Mus, he was working as an Editor with either Utusan Melayu or Berita Harian. I have lost all contacts with most of my Malay classmates since we left school.

It is kind of funny now to call them Malay friends as I remember back in school, I only know of them as Ash, Razak, Iskandar and Mus. We were all race blind and it did not matter what race you were.

You will be subject to ridicule because you were fat, skinny, short, tall, slow or dim-witted and not because you are a Malay, Indian or Chinese.

The only racial slur that I suffered was when my English Lit teacher, Mrs T.T. Chung admonished me for speaking like a Chinaman in her English class. This reprimand did spur me to study hard and thanks to her, my distinction in her paper helped me secure a place in Universiti Malaya.

Despite La Salle PJ being a Catholic school managed by Christian brothers, I was never pressured in school to join Christianity. Every week, we would have a class where Christians attend bible studies, Muslims attend Islamic studies and atheists like me will attend moral class.

The only compulsory tenet that all students had to learn was Rukun Negara (National Principles). We were drilled non-stop to memorise the five principles of Rukun Negara and I never realised the significance of the philosophy behind this tenet until now. How the Rukun Negara helped this multi-racial country achieved unity and harmony.

Being a marketing student all my life, I have been taught to segment markets by age, income and race. Racial profiling in marketing is important as there are distinct consumer behaviours due to cultural differences and communication strategies involve multi-language campaigns.

Back then consumer profiling based on religion was normally restricted to halal food and beverages.

There has been a tremendous shift in consumer profiling in recent years. Since 65% of our population are Muslims, religion and race have been given more weightage in marketing strategies due to the increasing Islamisation in consumer behaviour. Demand for halal products have extended beyond food and beverage to apparel, headwear, cosmetics etc.

Travel services for Muslims have experienced exponential growth similar to takaful insurance, syariah banking and syariah-compliant investment products. Mass market entrepreneurs should heed this major market shift if you want to stay relevant. Sustainability depends on coverage of total market where halal and syariah-compliant products will have a dominant share.

The other major shift is language of communication. Over the last 20 years, our school education system has evolved into three distinct vernacular model. The national type school graduates speak only Malay, Chinese school graduates speak only Mandarin and the private schools in urban centres produce English-speaking graduates.

As these three types of schools are mutually exclusive in terms of language, you will have to communicate separately with each market in their vernacular language. E-commerce sites will have to be duplicated in the three languages if you do not want to miss out on any market segment.

image: https://cdn.thestar.com.my/Themes/img/chart.png

and Media Prima have been investing in unique and original entertainment programmes in both Malay and Chinese. As their English programmes will be disrupted by Netflix and other digital media, their future success will depend on their ability to communicate and entertain the local population in their vernacular languages.

Recent events of businesses like the launderette restricting services to Muslims only makes no commercial sense to me.

Just as I urge non-Muslim entrepreneurs to not miss out on the vast potential of halal and syariah compliant segments, I would advise the Muslim entrepreneurs to not neglect the non-Muslim segments. Business is business. It should be race blind and religion inclusive.

It gets more difficult for entrepreneurs when race and religion are politicised as the consumers become confused and irrational in purchasing behaviour. These are testing times for marketeers. Will the good old times return to this beautiful country we called Home?

Suddenly I am feeling nostalgic. Looking back to 1970 when Tun Abdul Razak as head of the National Consultative Council formulated the five Principles of Rukun Negara:

> Belief in God

> Loyalty to King and Country

> Upholding the Law and Constitution

> Rule of Law

> Good Behaviour and Morality

Perhaps we should go back to school and inculcate these values to our young, focusing on unity, preserving democratic way of life, sharing prosperity in a just and equitable manner, guaranteeing a liberal approach towards our rich and varied cultural traditions and building a society that will make use of science and modern technology.

Wise words from a wise man and still relevant after 47 years. Let us all hope for the best.

Published: http://www.thestar.com.my/business/business-news/2017/10/28/inculcate-rukun-negara-values-to-the-young/

18/2017 – Staying ahead of the curve

Saturday, 14 October 2017

THE older I get, the more difficult it is for me to change or to adapt to changes. Just ask my wife and she will not only confirm but add on additional truths that her husband has also become more stubborn, forgetful and temperamental.

It is because of the fact that she will be celebrating her 30th wedding anniversary next month that she has decided not to change her marriage status quo… as of now anyway.

Big telcos like Maxis have been going through major changes in the last 10 years. From providing mobile phone services with SMS services to provision of mobile Internet services currently. Going forward, the intense competition within the telco industry will lead to commoditisation of data services with compressed margins in a heavy capex business model.

Recognising this threat, the CEO of Maxis Morten Lundal, a well known telco veteran is taking Maxis through another transformation, this time going fully digital. From a paperless office to a clarion call for the employees to get on board the digital train or be left behind, Morten is fully aware of the need for this telco giant to change or to transform its business model.

Since the bulk of e-commerce or digital transactions will be conducted over mobile devices in the future, Maxis will have to up sell or plug itself into this digital ecosystem to stay relevant to its data consuming customers. The new digital services will provide additional revenue streams plus the high margins needed to justify the continuous capex investment into the unknown digital world.

On a similar note, Astro has been transforming itself from a subscriber based cable operator to a complete digital company selling customised entertainment content, e-commerce via home shopping and selling gaming and merchandise over cable TV and digital devices.

Henry Tan, COO of Astro and a media veteran, is fast tracking the transformation journey recognising the vast disruptions to its original business model.

The brick and mortar retail industry is facing tremendous challenges from a fast growing e-commerce tsunami of online consumers. As the biggest retailer of personal care and cosmetic products with over 400 personal care stores in Malaysia, Caryn Loh, veteran retailer and country manager of Watsons is stepping up online business via investment in a dedicated online team and a separate online shop. To counter the invasion of online purchases of Korean cosmetic products, Watsons shops now have a dedicated display of Korean offerings which is also retailed online.

There are many similarities amongst these industry market leaders. They have experienced leaders who recognised the forthcoming changes that will affect their existing business model. Though they are very successful and sitting comfortably on top of the heap, they understand that they will have to disrupt their existing model to stay ahead of the curve.

All these market leaders have an existing large customer base. Their new business model must not only continue to keep their millions of customers in transaction and engaged, it must be able to up sell new products and services with a higher margin and all this via a new distribution channel – the digital channel. The digital revolution will restructure every society in terms of consumption habits, employment opportunities and shift resources within the industry.

Market leaders who take the risk stay ahead of the curve. Previous market leaders like Kodak and Nokia (smart phones) that did not change when faced with new technology developments are no more around. In his presentation in an event earlier this week, Henry Tan of Astro put up a slide that says “Same old, same old is a RISK. Not taking risk is BIG Risk”. Chew on that.

My main concern with the digital revolution is how well will our SMEs cope with the changes in their industry? Are they even aware that disruptions are happening along their industry value chain?

If you are in the manufacturing industry, the digital revolution might not affect you directly. Are your customers disrupted? If yes, is there a need for you to go direct to your customer’s customer? Can your manufactured goods be sold online? Will it be a digital B2B, B2C or B2B2C distribution model? Or a combination? Or should you still stick to existing distribution model – selling to a disrupted importer/distributor who has no clue as to how to compete in the new digital world?

E-commerce is just another distribution channel option for manufacturers to go direct to consumers bypassing the distributor middleman or brand owners going direct to consumers bypassing traditional retail stores.

The Alibaba/Lazada DFTZ digital online platform will enable China factories to ship goods for storage in LCCT Sepang, DFTZ zone and Pos Laju direct to online consumers in Malaysia thus bypassing Malaysian importers, distributors and retail stores. The entire “import from China” value chain will be disrupted. For the entrepreneurs involved in this value chain, be afraid or as Morten Lundal puts it, ‘Be very afraid!’

Entrepreneurs of SME’s must identify the risk of disruption along their entire value chain. When you have a clear understanding of how your industry will be disrupted then only will you be able to change your business model or at worse scenario pivot out of the industry.

If the major corporations are reinventing their business model to survive in the new digital world, the SMEs being smaller and more agile should move faster to stay ahead or to be more creative with innovative solutions. In a constantly changing environment, the early birds who risk the unknown might just catch the juicy worms.

To those of you who are stubborn and resistant to change, be prepared to sail into the sunset like me. I assume you are ready for retirement, at peace with yourself and with not a care in the world on what your wife thinks of you. Welcome to my analog world.

Published: http://www.thestar.com.my/business/business-news/2017/10/14/staying-ahead-of-the-curve/#FS7AM3QJQhvl5dPe.99

17/2017 – Humility and integrity start from the top

Saturday, 30 Sep 2017

EVER since my parents passed away some 25 years ago, mum in 1991 and dad in 1993, my one and only older brother, Thiam Ser will call me towards the end of March every year and ask me when I will be able to go back to Klang for Qingming (Ching Ming in Hokkien).

For the benefit of the younger generation, Qingming festival normally held in April 4/5 is also known as Ancestors Memorial Day or Tomb Sweeping Day.

In China it is a declared one-week holiday to enable the people to travel back to their hometowns to celebrate the Qingming festival. Traditional Chinese families will organise or the whole family to visit the columbarium, graves or burial grounds to remember and honour their ancestors.

Young and old pray before their ancestors, sweep the tombs, offer food and burn joss papers. Since I am always travelling and busy with my business life, my brother will ask me to fix a date as long as it is 10 days before or after April 4/5. I would normally pick a Sunday morning, reach his house by 8am or so (to avoid the searing hot sun) and my sister-in-law would have prepared some food offerings, incensed joss stocks and joss papers and a disposable lighter in two plastic bags.

The two of us would then visit our parents’ grave site which is just a 10 minutes’ drive from my brother’s house. As the elder son, my brother assumed the responsibility and the obligation to perform this annual ritual, leading always to clean the grave site, display the food offerings, burn the joss papers and I would silently help him with the chores.

He would then light the joss sticks and we would kneel side by side to pray to our parents. In our early years of parenthood, he would ask for guidance and pray for the successes of our children’s education. The last few years, he prayed for my good health and I for his as we were both facing health problems. At the end of our prayers, he would take out two coins and ask my parents if they are happy with their offerings before throwing the coins and letting it drop to the ground.

If it is head and tails, yes they are happy and we can then collect and repack our food offerings and with a last look depart from the grave site. Another year of obligation fulfilled. For me, this ritual is like an annual renewal of bonding with my brother. We have never missed a year since 1992.

Unfortunately for me, my brother passed away last Sunday and I will for once in my life miss his phone call come next March reminding me of my obligations to attend Ching Ming. Thiam Ser has led a simple and humble life.

After attending Chinese primary school, he was enrolled in Remove class in Catholic High School and being a poor student struggling with English language, he failed his Form Three LCE exam then known as Lower Certificate of Examination. As a school dropout at 16 years old, he had to work as a helper in a noodle stall to supplement our family income. He eventually got a machinist job at Furukawa Electric Cable in Shah Alam with the help of a recommendation from my seventh Uncle.

With a steady job and living frugally, he managed to buy himself a second-hand motorcycle to get to work, saving hours of waiting and travelling on Tong Fong buses which dominated the PJ to Klang route at the time. With constant overtime work, he managed to save enough money to buy a brand new Honda C70 motorbike.

I remembered I had just passed my Form 5 at that time and was going to continue my Form 6 in La Salle PJ while my family was in Klang.

As I had to stay out on my own, I had requested for a second hand bike from my mother. My brother let me have his new bike and without any hesitation and bought himself a second-hand bike.

After he got married, Thiam Ser decided to learn a new trade driving back hoe tractors as the construction boom in the late 1980s offered new opportunities.

Within a few years, he decided to venture out on his own by buying a second-hand back hoe tractor and offering his services to construction companies and plantations. To earn more money, he took on dangerous jobs that paid very well like being hoisted into the cargo hold full of bulk fertilisers and working 24 to 48 hours non-stop clearing the fertilisers while the ship was docked in Port Kelang.

There were no protective respirators in those days despite the dangerous fumes in the cargo hold. The long and irregular hours and lack of workplace health care took a toll on his health and he was struck with severe diabetes and he eventually lost one eye.

He had to sell his tractor and look for another occupation to look after his family of three growing kids. With a smattering of English, he sat for his insurance test and eventually became an insurance agent selling both life and general insurance. He was already into his late forties but being a responsible husband and father, it was his obligation to provide for his family and he has never shirked from his duties. Despite his irregular income, Thiam Ser seldom asked me for money.

He lived frugally with his family, always spending within his means. Only when his eldest son got a place in Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and having exhausted his EPF monies, did he call me for financial assistance.

Subsequently the other two children also graduated from local private universities and I still remember the relief on his face and his pride of having fulfilled his obligation as a father.

Thiam Ser’s story is nothing extraordinary. In fact, his story is the story of millions of wage earners and small entrepreneurs struggling to provide for their families.

Like every immigrant kid, as long as he has a healthy body with two hands and two legs and a willingness for hard work, he will always survive and hopefully build a better life for his next generation through education.

Entrepreneurs who have not forgotten their humble backgrounds tend to be kinder and more considerate bosses. Being humble and staying humble is a strength and not to be seen as a weakness. You will gain respect and loyalty from your staff and suppliers.

Building a culture of humility and integrity in your organisation starts from the top and the entrepreneur must assume this obligation and responsibility.

Just before my mother passed away, she had asked me to look after my brother who is eight years older than me. Worried for my brother’s well-being, my wise mother asked me to keep him out of harm’s way and to look after him.

Come next April, I will have to humbly ask my mother for forgiveness for failing in my duties. Without my brother at my side, I will be at a loss for words, feeling lonely and heart broken.

Published: http://www.thestar.com.my/business/business-news/2017/09/30/humility-and-integrity-start-from-the-top/

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