Is Southeast Asia now a lucrative new frontier for Large Group Awareness Training (LGATs)?
Controversial mass marathon training, such as Lifespring, EST, and Landmark Education, have often generated controversy, bad press and lawsuits in the United States. But now Asiaworks, an apparent spin-off of such controversial "transformational" seminars, launched in Hong Kong during 1993, has now spread throughout the region.
What might make Asians vulnerable to the pitch of such seminars? One issue for many Asians is "face." That is either "saving face," or losing it in some situation. This might include business or social situations. For example, someone needs to attend this or that function or they will "lose face," amongst their friends or colleagues. Or, if you don't conform, you may somehow lose face within a group or company.
In Singapore another term to describe this is "kiasu," which literally means "don't want to lose."
How does this relate to an LGAT like Asiaworks? Well, someone approaches you about Asiaworks and they may say that this program "makes dreams come true." And then say, "Why don't you come to our introductory presentation?" Or, a "graduation" and it will make your world "open up." An Asian might base his or her response on "kiasu." That is, they "don't want to lose." So why not give it a shot?
The cost for a basic course at Asiaworks is $400.00 US. But those who go hope that they will experience something valuable, perhaps even come out a new person. There's just one small catch, they don't say that this might just turn your mind around 180 degrees.
In Asia we want to learn new tricks, technology, agricultural approaches, anything to give us an added competitive edge. And Education, is something every Asian family values. Education is the key that opens the doors to success, wealth, and even a good match for marriage.
A marriage often begins with parents discussing a potential match. One parent might say, "My son has a MBA, but your daughter only has an undergraduate degree in accounting, do you think that she deserves my son as her husband?"
At the workplace education is even more of a factor. If you want a high paying job, this is most achieved through your level of education. And of course parents compare this too. "My son has an MBA and he earns a good living"
Face, status and education work hand in hand.
The recruitment approach of Asiaworks seems to take into account such considerations. That is, people are told that Asiaworks is essentially an educational seminar program, focused upon self-improvement and achieving goals. Asiaworks may improve your ability at work, increase your success, job prospects and ultimately your wealth. It can help you to make "your dreams will come true."
Little does the potential recruit know that the educational seminar, motivational course, or training, whatever it is called, isn't really something new, or a "breakthrough," but instead simply another spin off from the so-called "transformational industry," which began in America during the 1970s. Asiaworks is actually based upon established techniques used by much older LGATs like Mind Dynamics, Lifespring and Werner Erhard's seminars (EST), often called the Forum and now known as Landmark Education. Chris Gentry the founder of Asiaworks simply reworked this old "technology," which some critics have compared to "brainwashing."
Now this is where my own story begins. A friend of mine attended an Asiaworks basic training and then asked me to attend his graduation. Out of curiosity I went along with his parents. The ceremony lasted about 15 minutes. It was held at a hotel. When I walked in the lights were dim, soothing music was being played and there were workers wearing orange posted around the room. Later I learned they were unpaid volunteers. The workers looked like well-oiled robots, with ever-smiling faces. There was a Caucasian man at center stage, giving a speech. When he was done they released helium-filled balloons that supposedly contained curses.
At the end all the graduates were hugging each other, some laughed loudly, while others cried uncontrollably.
Asians are not known for such public emotional displays. We Asians are conservative and hugging people doesn't come that easily, other than amongst close family. Never the less my friend was hugging as many strangers as he could. All this after just five days of training? Whoa, I thought to myself, this atmosphere is eerie. His mother said, "This looks like a cult-like gathering, or like some faith healing meeting." I left and he went home with his parents.
After a couple of days the harassment began. He would keep trying to get me to attend the Asiaworks basic course.
My friend decided to attend their advanced course. But I didn't like the idea of wasting my money on some "special" training, which I felt was unnecessary. I just told him that I didn't have the money. Next thing he said was that he would lend me the money to go. Now I really smelled a rat. This friend is known to be tight with his money and now suddenly he's willing to lend me money? I told him no again and explained that I didn't like owing money to friends. He insisted that I think it over.
What a "transformation," from cheap to generous, in only one seminar.
The next week the harassment started up again. I finally had to switch my cell phone off. Next he called me at my office. I told him on the phone at work, "I'm really not interested in your Asiaworks."
My colleague at the next desk looked up and asked, "What works did you say?"
"Asiaworks," I replied.
Her next statement shocked me. "Don't ever mention that fucking Asiaworks in front of me ever again!"
I told my friend I had something to do and hung up the phone. I looked at my colleague and told her that this friend of mine was trying to recruit me into Asiaworks. She began to explain her own personal story. I knew she was divorced, but had never discussed this with her. Now I learned the full story, which was largely related to Asiaworks.
She said that her husband was on an emotional high after he finished his first training with Asiaworks. "He wanted to analyze everything," she said. He told me, "To be in the front you have first be in the middle, to be in the middle you have first be behind." Statements like that didn't make much sense to my colleague. At times she saw her husband strangely smiling to himself, at others times crying. He also constantly wrote within something called his "Journal of Life."
Conversations became increasingly difficult. Her husband couldn't clearly explain himself. Almost every discussion ended abruptly with some illogical or irrational statement. Thankfully they didn't have any children. He spoke his own lingo, which was apparently some internal jargon known within Asiaworks.
As time went by my colleague's husband spent more and more time with his new friends from Asiaworks and less time at home. Even in the middle of the night, he would discreetly be on the phone with his Asiaworks comrades. And soon there was one particular Asiaworks friend that he spent most of his time with, a female. Before long he would disappear from work.
Finally my colleague met her husband's new female friend from Asiaworks at a social gathering. Old friends were there, but he invited his new Asiaworks comrades, who were busy preaching about the seminar as the ultimate in motivational training. My colleague watched the body language between her husband and his special new Asiaworks female friend. It became obvious that she was more than just a friend.
When they returned home that night, a big argument soon started. And her husband finally admitted that he had slept with this woman, confirming my colleague's suspicions. He claimed that she was his soul mate, his savior, someone who could understand him. Distraught, my colleague asked for a divorce and her husband promptly agreed.
Things were difficult in the months that followed. Her in-laws couldn't understand the situation. They believed their son might be under the influence of black magic or some spell cast over him. Asians often think of black magic whenever something seemingly unnatural surfaces.
At this juncture I began my own extended research.
At the Asiaworks webpage on the Internet, little is said specifically about the course layout. They focus instead upon the founder and staff's background. But searching the Internet further I came across an article that was written in Indonesian. I was shocked to read the description of what participant's underwent. It seemed like psychological brainwashing. The article explained it this way, "Picture yourself and others at the seminar in a small boat, in the middle of the ocean, now you must do what it takes to stay on the boat." It also discussed Asiaworks participants behaving erratically at the workplace, laughing, crying, smiling to themselves, the list went on.
There was also an article in TIME Asia about Asiaworks, and one line really stayed with me. It said, "Whether they are good or bad, they are playing with your mind."
I dropped by my friend's house a few days later. His mom let me in, but he wasn't home. I asked her about his "transformation." She was quite upset about the whole matter. She said that his behavior was unbecoming and he was analyzing everything constantly. He had even asked why his father chose her to be his wife. He also said he could predict the outcome of the lottery, astral project, hear voices in his head and could now read minds by looking into another person's eyes. But when he was asked to prove these claims, he refused and said that Asiaworks taught him all of this. And therefore he was bound by a clause not to divulge the details of such teachings.
The only way anyone could understand and/or achieve all this would be to attend Asiaworks training.
Imagine, for the price of only $400.00 US dollars, you might just get rich quick. You can go to some casino and predict what number will come up at the roulette table.
His mother then told me that a devout church member she knew had attended Asiaworks, but fled on the third day. She apparently experienced hallucinations during one of their "closed eyes exercises," which frightened her.
Later in the evening my friend came back, and I asked him how Asiaworks could make my dreams come true. He explained that they would completely break down my old personality and rebuild me into a whole new person.
"How are their courses conducted," I asked?
He answered, "It's a secret."
"What are the outlines of the course," I inquired further?
"That's a secret too," he said.
I tried again, "Where are the course materials?"
He responded, "They don't have any because they don't need any."
"Can you remember how was it was conducted," I asked?
At this point he paused, looked lost and said he couldn't remember.
Again I researched through the Internet. I found out that Chris Gentry the founder of Asiaworks, has a background as an "experiential facilitator and program designer for the transformational industry." No educational credentials were listed. And I recognized that the "the transformational industry" seems to be the same jargon frequently used to describe LGATs like Mind Dynamics, EST, Landmark Education, Lifespring, etc.
I went back to my friend's home a few days later, but this time he wasn't in a recruiting mood. His job was hanging by a thread. His mother said this was because he was not concentrating at work. He look stoned, his eyes were emotionless, glazed, like his soul had been sucked out. Every time I asked some simple question he would pause for several seconds before beginning his answer. I finally told him that he seemed "brainwashed." But he said others he had recruited who attended the basic course were fine. But it seemed to me that something had happened to them too. And then they went on to take the advanced course.
I shared information with my friend about LGATs like EST, Landmark and Lifespring. He said that Lifespring most resembled Asiaworks.
He then lost his job. Thankfully his parents were very supportive and understanding, after they learned more about the history of LGATs like Asiaworks. At times he seems so normal and then there are days, when he lapses back into his Asiaworks mindset. His parents were once convinced that he was somehow under a black magic spell, or possessed by some demonic spirit.
My colleague at work has also reviewed material about LGATs. She says now she has a better understanding of what actually happened to her ex-husband.
Asiaworks seems to target big multinational companies in Asia. The reason they do this is simple; it's the English language. Asiaworks trainers don't need to present their courses in Mandarin, Thai, Tamil, Bahasa, Indonesian, Malaysian or Tagalog. As the world gets smaller, the English language is the most widely spoken foreign language in Asia. This is partly a legacy of the British Empire's colonial period. Today Asians who seek to improve themselves, outdo competitors, gain status and recognition, will do whatever it takes to get ahead. And if you speak English, it is a clear advantage. And of course understanding English also enables Asians to easily take courses with Asiaworks.
Asiaworks may claim that they can make you over. Perhaps even help you to be better at work, more successful and/or even find the right life-partner. They might say, "We can rebuild you, into new more effective person." But through my observation and research Asiaworks has caused unhappiness. People I know lost friends, a spouse even employment. Maybe those I know about were just unlucky. Or just maybe, they lost their minds.