Update: A Bamboo Bursts Through

Update: A Bamboo Bursts Through

Recalling the explosive growth
of Toastmasters clubs in Asia.

By Johnny Uy, DTM, PIP

Photo Caption: Enthusiastic Toastmasters pose for
a photo during District 51's recent Spring Convention.

In July, Toastmasters International’s global structure will undergo a major shift. Districts and clubs worldwide will be divided into 14 regions, replacing the current system of eight North American regions and several districts not assigned to regions (DNARs) What seemed unthinkable just a decade ago – this kind of membership growth outside of North America – has become a reality. I find myself growing nostalgic as I reminisce about how it all came to be at least in my part of the world: Asia. 

In the Beginning
Toastmasters came to Asia in 1952 with the chartering of the Tamaraw Toastmasters club in Manila, Philippines. Other clubs chartered in that decade that are still active today include the Hong Kong Toastmasters club in China (1954), Tokyo Toastmasters club in Japan (1954), Bangkok Toastmasters club in Thailand (1955) and Taipei Toastmasters club in Taiwan (1958).

Growth was slow. It took the clubs in the Philippines 29 years to become a provisional district (District 75). Twelve years after that, the clubs in the rest of Southeast Asia (Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia) were finally grouped together to form District 51. Clubs in Taiwan and Japan were grouped into Territorial Councils when they reached 20 clubs per country, though they were unable to build high-enough numbers to become districts for many years. 

Les Brown, the 1994 recipient of Toastmasters’ Golden Gavel Award, tells the story of how when planting Chinese bamboo seeds, one has to water the ground for five years – without anything growing. But if the planter is patient and diligent, after five years the bamboo will shoot out of the ground and grow to more than 100 feet tall in a few weeks. Similarly, patience paid off with Toastmasters in this part of the world. In the mid-1990s, members in Asia began to discover something new: each other.

In 1994, I was a lone visitor from the Philippines to the District 51 conference. The attitude of the conference participants blew my mind; they were all so enthusiastic! The following year, I invited Toastmasters from around Asia to attend the District 75 conference. Ten members from Taiwan and two from Japan attended. They, too, immediately realized the possibilities that had eluded them. They promised right then and there that their clubs would achieve district recognition within the decade. 

New Clubs Take Off
With more visits to each other’s conferences, the bamboo began to shoot out of the ground. Fueled by a surge of new clubs, Taiwan was recognized as District 67 and Japan as District 76. Districts 51 and 75 jointly chartered nearly 200 clubs in a two-year period (1996-1998).

“The most important success factor I can put my finger on is the attitude of Toastmasters in Asia,” says Past International Director Augustine Lee of Singapore. “When we want to do something, we make sure we do it well and are recognized for it, or we don’t do it at all.” Clearly, the Toastmasters leaders in Asia embraced excellence, and the more they saw other Asian districts succeed, the more they wanted to succeed as well.

Another event that helped water the bamboo occurred in 2000, when the Toastmasters International Board of Directors allowed provisional districts to join district officer training at the International Convention. Along with District 59 (Central Europe), the provisional districts of Taiwan and Japan proved the Board’s decision wise, as they immediately grew by leaps and bounds.

Around that same time, the clubs in India and Sri Lanka, receiving advice and support from Past International President Dilip Abayasekara (2005–2006), joined hands in forming a Territorial Council, and in short order, became District 82. Likewise, in China, Keith Ostergard (now an International Director) of Beijing, along with his ex-pat counterparts Warwick Fahy in Shanghai and Mark Pixley in Guangzhou, pushed to build enough clubs in China to form a Territorial Council. In just one year, enough clubs had formed in the country to become District 85. 

Lessons Learned
Did such growth occur because people who want to learn English found an excellent avenue in Toastmasters? Yes, this reason is often cited for rising membership in countries where English is not the first language. District 85 actually gets as many as 50 calls a week from companies wanting to set up Toastmasters clubs to help their employees develop English-speaking skills.

But Past International Director Maimunah Natasha, from Indonesia, offers a contrarian view. She says that often, people don’t join Toastmasters because they can’t communicate well enough in English, thus “English only” clubs are sometimes a hindrance to optimal growth. In fact, much of the growth in Asia is attributable to the establishment of Toastmasters clubs where the program is conducted in Mandarin, as well as Japanese, Cantonese, Malay, Tamil, Hakka and other languages.

But there is more to it than that. The opportunity to improve regardless of the language spoken, the sense of belonging to a worldwide organization, and a strong and focused leadership all were key factors in the successful growth of Toastmasters clubs in Asia.

Past District Governor Arunasalam Balraj from Sri Lanka says the desire to learn English isn’t even a factor in the rising number of clubs in Sri Lanka and India: “India is the largest English-speaking country in the world, so English is not a problem,” he says. “Instead, the need for effective and articulate communication is the one and only reason for [Toastmasters’] growth.”

Past District Governor Jack Tsai from Taiwan says people in Taiwan join to improve both English and Mandarin communication skills. He suggests that networking opportunities and the feeling of camaraderie also play a big role. “Many people go to their Toastmasters club to relax and unwind after a hard day’s work,” adds Past International Director Christine Temblique from the Philippines, where most club meetings are held in the evening.

Past International Director Natasha cites the drive and encouragement of TI leaders: “Motivation and inspiration from leaders are very important in growing a district.” International Director Ostergard, of Beijing, says of the growth of Toastmasters in China: “Had there not been the unification of the clubs [in China] to focus our direction, China would still be growing at no more than two to five clubs a year instead of its average of 20-25 annually. Leadership has been the driving force for continued development of our programs.” 

The Future
The formation of regions outside North America, the election of international directors from each region and the appointment of region advisers marketing will effectively unify districts into a unit focused on growth. Already, District 51 has split yet again and District 82 will soon do likewise. Districts 79 and 85 are waiting in the wings to split. The clubs in South Korea have the potential to become a Territorial Council soon. Truly, the formation of regions outside North America is a giant leap by Toastmasters International toward achieving its vision of making effective communication a worldwide reality. 

Johnny Uy, DTM, served as Toastmasters International President in 2006–2007. He is a member of the Tai-Pan Club in Cebu City, Philippines.