Protecting Yourself, Your Company and Your Family

Security in SE Asia

John Muller, CEO of
Security Services Asia (SSA)
talks to Business-in-Asia.com

Question:  For over 20 years you have been in Thailand and elsewhere in Asia, working in security and in other fields.  What is in your view the major error most new companies make in terms of security in entering Asia?

Answer:  Most companies don’t understand what security is; don’t hire a professional security manager or don’t outsource companies to assist.  The result, security decisions are left to Human Resource Managers with no security background or skills or worse Financial Controllers who only want to reduce costs.

Question:  How secure are most foreign companies in terms of their overall security?

Answer:  Most foreign companies simply don’t place a high priority on security in their budget plans.  Multinational companies normally place security expertise at key regional cities such as Singapore or Hong Kong and these individuals in turn cover other countries in the region.  I don’t feel this coverage is sufficient.  I have been surprised at the extreme lack of interest in security by most American companies operating in Thailand.

Question:  Do security guards equal security?  If not, why not and how can a company increases its security profile while not breaking the bank?

Answer:  I have found that most foreign companies end up hiring the lowest cost security provider.  These are generally local companies operated by provincial police.  These companies traditionally don’t pay fair wages to their employees and don’t conduct adequate training, inspection, management and poorly equip their security guards.  Before selecting a security services provider I urge senior management to get involved and conduct proper due diligence on the finalist before a contract is approved.  Note, international standard security companies are normally about 10% higher in cost than these local companies but if a fire, safety or security event occurs that could destroy your company, its reputation, etc., the extra 10% is well worth the money.

Question:  You have worked extensively in security in both Thailand and Cambodia.  How are the security problems in the two countries similar and how different?

Answer:  Foreign companies operating in Thailand spend little thought or budget on security as they see the country as a peaceful, politically safe place to do business.  In my opinion they operate on a false sense of security here.  For example, Southern Thailand is a war zone as bad as Iraq in certain areas.  More civilians have died in the south in the past three years than in Iraq.  Violence from separatist activities and foreign terrorist cells is escalating.  Most of this is downplayed in the Thai media.  In my opinion, it is only a matter of time before that violence spreads to major northern cities in Thailand.  The new Thai government is facing serious threats from opposition groups growing stronger every day.  Most people don’t realize there have been 13 coups here since 1932.  Coups don’t necessarily equate to violence but they do equate to instability.  Drug problems, human, arms trafficking, general crime and IT crime are on the rise in Thailand.

Cambodia faces the same drug, human, arms trafficking and general crime problems as Thailand but surprisingly the government has been stable since 1994 and is expected to remain so in the years ahead.  The economy is booming, and the police have been very successful in reducing hard crime, kidnapping, extortion and corruption that was the status quo till two years ago.  However, the disparity between the rich and poor creates high petty crime in the major cities and opportunistic crime dictates a high priority being placed on security.  Almost all factories and foreign residences require security guards. 

In both counties, their borders are porous and illegal drugs; immigrants and arms continue to be a problem to control.  Further, police and government forces in both counties are notably corrupt.   Judicial system in both countries can easily be "leveraged".  For these reasons foreign companies need to hire the best expertise they can afford to protect themselves.  Relying on the local police and local security companies to protect them is foolish.  I have always said the best security solution is one based on electronic security systems with well trained, well paid ‘security responders.’   Senior management must also get involved in developing security programs.  Don't just leave these decisions to non-skilled local staff.
Question:  Cambodia has a bad reputation and many tourists and businesses see it as an insecure place to live and work.  Is this characterization fair?

Answer:  Cambodia’s image has been badly damaged in the past from years of warfare and subsequent crime as the economy has struggled to overcome these challenges.  I do not feel the past characterization of Cambodia is fair.  The stable government established during UNTAC in ’93 has made great strides in improving the general economy and reducing crime.  I have been surprized at the rapid growth of a country so recently at war.  Vietnam took years to recover.  More and more foreign investors are looking at Cambodia today than surrounding countries for these reasons:  The government is stable, the economy is booming, the currency is tied directly to the USD, and street crime is at an all time low.  Today, we are witnessing the first four skyscrapers going up in downtown Phnom Penh.  Foreign banks and ATM machines are proliferating daily to accommodate this growth.  Due to the growth in business I’m now spending nearly 50% of my time in Cambodia. I strongly recommend my Thai business contacts to look at investing in Cambodia and believe it has a bright future.
Question:  Your new security company has grown quickly.  What are your goals for Security Services Asia (SSA http://www.securityservicesasia.com/)

Answer:  Thank you.  Yes, my company has grown quickly in just 2.5 years to a 2 million dollar company serving airlines, oil companies, major hotels and factories.  First, I plan more expansion domestically here in Thailand.  To date, we only provide security services in Bangkok and Rayong provinces.  Phuket, the famous tropical island paradise of the rich is our next target.  Internationally, we will expand our services in Cambodia and Vietnam.  To achieve these goals I will need additional capital.  I am looking for strong partners that share the same goals and philosophy to help fund this growth.
In terms of new services, besides professional guarding and close protection services, we are planning to expand our training programs.  Recently I certified police from the Middle East in basic bodyguard skills here in Thailand.  With the rise of local security companies in the Middle East replacing the foreign firms I believe more of these companies will want to train in Thailand or Cambodia and experience the culture and tourist activities here.  Recently, Blackwater USA paid us a visit to look at establishing lower-cost training facilities in this region.  Another area for growth is with investigations such as due diligence, business intelligence, and background investigations.  Our senior partners, Spectrum OSO Asia Limited
www.spec-oso.com  has a wealth of experience and expertise to assist our customers throughout the Far East.
Question:  Can you tell us a little more about your company?  What basic services do you provide?  How many people work in the security industry in Thailand and in Asia, and how does SSA compare to some of the big names in security in terms of size, service and cost?

Answer:  Today, Security Services Asia has 450 employees, mostly security officers.  We also have International Bodyguard Association (IBA) trained close protection officers that provide protection for celebrities and senior business leaders anywhere in this region.  In Thailand there are now more than 2,000 security companies but only about five are recognized as being professional and meeting international standards.  In terms of numbers of security officers here, we estimate nearly 350,000.  The security business both in manpower and electronic systems is expanding faster than any other business.  Given regional conflicts and the rise in crime, the security industry will continue to experience raid growth.

SSA was established to be a small niche provider for companies needing genuine security.  We intend to keep our security officer numbers to less than 1,000.  We feel expanding beyond that figure in the Thai market would create control problems and reduce the quality of our focused services.  We founded this company on being the best and providing our staff and security officers the best pay and benefits in our industry.  We know it is a challenge to find clients that truly value security but they are here.  Besides guarding and close protection services, our executives have many other security related skills and backgrounds that can provide our clients more than just security officers.

Question:  I note that recently you provided bodyguard services for the Indian Film Academy Awards in Bangkok.  A top event in which many of the guests paid over US dollars $1,000 to attend. It was televised worldwide.  Can you let us know why VIPs such as the top actors, actresses and directors from Bollywood are seeking your company out?

Answer:  I would have to say EXPERIENCE is why we are the preferred provider for special event and close protection services.  I have been in this industry nearly 40 years and high level security has always been my passion.  I continue to study as much as I have time on this highly skilled, demanding and sometimes dangerous work.  We spend a lot of time with our clients initially during the interview to ensure we design the best security program at minimal cost.  Unlike what you see in the movies, close protection services require more brain then brawn.  All of my senior security management has many years of experience in the Far East and I believe this is the true key to our success.  We know local customs, laws and work closely together with government and police emergency services.
Question:  What other celebrities have you secured if you can say and what was your most memorable assignment?

Answer:  The list is long.  I would say the most memorable celebrity I have protected was Richard Gere.  I think in Asia he is one of the most popular actors.  It was a challenge to keep the reporters and fans at arms length during his movements in and out of events.  I’ll never forget the time one beautiful blond woman came up to me to ask if she could speak with Richard?  I of course denied this request until an associate pointed out to me that she was Miss Universe.  As soon as I mentioned this to Richard, he was eager to meet her.  A Buddhist, Richard was also very culturally sensitive and it was a joy showing him one of the largest temples in Thailand and having the opportunity to talk about our life experiences together.  Helping to protect clients like Oliver Stone and President George Bush by working with the U.S. Secret Service, the U.S. Embassy and local police are experiences I will never forget.
Question:  What does a bodyguard do and what services do you provide for your clients?

Answer:  The term bodyguard conjures up negative meanings to the public.  Today, we normally refer to these services as close protection, VIP or executive protection services.  Security agents handling these assignments have what I define as 'extreme responsibility' in planning and protecting our clients.  There is no greater challenge in the security industry than working as a close protection security agent.  Their job is to ensure their principle moves safely and AVOIDS danger wherever they travel.  A security agent has to be highly tained, skilled and avoid conflict at all times.  One mistake in front of international media and our company’s image could easily be destroyed.  There are six basic ‘bodyguard’ skill sets necessary to keep our clients out of harms way.  In some ways, we also function as local tour guides and help them to assimilate into the local culture, avoid eating the wrong food and visiting the wrong places.  These services demand advanced planning, consultation about any health issues, having escape routes, backup plans, etc..  Given that most celebrities don’t have the budget of say the President of the United States for their security, it demands the highest performance from our security agents.
Question:  Can your company provide both armed and unarmed security? protection, do you have a team on call and what sort of notice do you need for this?

Answer:  SSA provides both armed and unarmed close protection services.  We prefer not to carry arms unless it is absolutely necessary.  We of course obey laws covering the carrying of concealed weapons in countries we operate.  We have a 24-hour call center and depending upon location we can usually respond within two hours to most requirements.
Question:  Can your company provide this service only in Thailand or do you have a greater range than this?

A) SSA can provide close protection services in Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, China, Lao PDR and the Philippines.
Question:  Lastly for the standard business traveler, what are the three things that you would suggest the traveler do to improve their security during their Asian travels?

Answer:   First, do some homework on the country you are visiting.  Second, check with your foreign office, embassy or State Department websites to see what security conditions are like in that country.  Third, hire a professional security consultant to help you plan your trip if you travel to a high-risk environment.
Thank you for taking the time to speak with Business-in-Asia.com

John Muller, Consulting Business and Security Expert, Southeast Asia.

John Muller has a lifetime of work and experience in Southeast Asia. A Political Science graduate of the University of Washington and a Seattle native, Mr. Muller has headed major U.S. and local companies in the airfreight, airline and helicopter services, security and other fields in Thailand, Cambodia and other Asian locations. Mr. Muller’s involvement with security first started in 1969 in the U.S. Army in Vietnam and then continued on with a private investigator firm in Seattle before he returned again with U.S. government security from 1975-77. Mr. Muller then worked for such famous names as Flying Tigers, Evergreen International Airlines, Circle Freight International and several security firms in Thailand where he headed up operations.

Mr. Muller is a world renowned expert in VIP protection, security, business in Southeast Asia and is often consulted on due-diligence and other business-security issues. Mr. Muller has numerous commendations from the U.S. Embassy, U.S. Department of State, the FBI, Thai, Cambodian and other nation’s police on his work throughout the years in the region. He is Chairman of the Security Committee of the American Chamber of Commerce of Thailand and the Overseas Security Council of Thailand respectively, a Member of the American Society for Industrial Security, the International Bodyguard Association and the US Special Forces Association. He is also an Honorary Member of the Royal Thai Special Forces.

About the Interviewer: 

Christopher W. Runckel, a former senior US diplomat who served in many counties in Asia, is a graduate of the University of Oregon and Lewis and Clark Law School. He served as Deputy General Counsel of President Gerald Ford’s Presidential Clemency Board. Mr. Runckel is the principal and founder of Runckel & Associates, a Portland, Oregon based consulting company that assists businesses expand business opportunities in Asia. (www.business-in-asia.com)

Until April of 1999, Mr. Runckel was Minister-Counselor of the US Embassy in Beijing, China. Mr. Runckel lived and worked in Thailand for over six years. He was the first permanently assigned U.S. diplomat to return to Vietnam after the Vietnam War. In 1997, he was awarded the U.S. Department of States highest award for service, the Distinguished Honor Award, for his contribution to improving U.S.-Vietnam relations. Mr. Runckel is one of only two non-Ambassadors to receive this award in the 200-year history of the U.S. diplomatic service.

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