ASEAN community by 2015?

06 December, 2014
As appeared in TheStar.com.my

Currently it’s like sweating before sitting for final exams

THERE is a frenzy of interest on the establishment of the Asean community, particularly the Asean Economic Community (AEC), especially in Malaysia as the country takes over the chair of the association in 2015, at the end of which it will be pronounced the Asean community is in place.

This is no bad thing. Again, especially in Malaysia, where apparently the level of awareness of Asean is the lowest among member countries. It is also just as well there is this increased tempo so that the pressure on Malaysia to demonstrate leadership in the crucial year becomes clear and unmistakeable.

At the same time, it should be admitted all round – media, civil society, private sector, government – that everyone has been rather slow at communicating about the Asean community which, it is said, has been rather like a well-kept official secret.

Quite rightly, fingers are pointed at government for not bringing Asean to the people. Only next year, in the final lap, are the people being truly emphasised – Our People, Our Community, Our Vision.

There must be a number of quick fixes to bring a sense of Asean community to the people. The Malaysian government is to be congratulated for – at last – implementing next year an Asean lane for immigration queues at airports. Others, almost all other Asean states, should also take this simple step.

Malaysia will also introduce the Asean Business Travel Card (ABTC) next year for those coming into the country for whom a visa is necessary, like those from Myanmar. Others – particularly Myanmar – should reciprocate. Even where visas between Asean countries are not required, the ABTC offers the privilege of being an Asean business traveller by easing immigration clearance and by affording a special lane at airports, quite apart from encouraging the multipliers that may come from more business travel.

If truth be known, these two simple measures were supposed to have been introduced ages ago, but Asean member states have been tardy. If they cannot make them happen in 2015, I for one would sneer if it is announced at the end of next year that the Asean community has been established.

Another simple way to bring a consciousness of Asean to the people is to offer – and brand – Asean food at the warungs, pasar malams, and street stalls and airports. If there is anything most common in Asean, it is the love of food, and eating cheap and out. It does not take or cost much to have a bunting proclaiming: Makanan Asean Istimewa. Or to have an Asean Cafe billboard at airports. Or for airlines to identify and serve at least one item of Asean food when going to an Asean destination, indeed to any destination to showcase an Asean reality.

Simple, abiding measures are better, and usually less costly, than one-off extravaganzas ministries in Asean love to organise. Cultural shows and dances come and go. They may be good for entertainment and the pockets of the organisers but not for information and abiding interest.

Far better to have TV programmes which depict and bring into living rooms interesting facets of Asean peoples. Not boring speeches and lectures talking at people but the lives of well-known personalities in fashion, in sports, singers and actors, about lives in Asean cities and villages – on a sustained basis.

People love to know about other people. They love gossip and saucy stories. They love sport and entertainment. They have had enough of TV coverage of politicians making speeches and people sitting on chairs apparently listening to them. They want something interesting – not, for instance, the kind of stodgy stuff to be found on the Asean secretariat web-site of leaders linking arms, copious reports, astounding calendars of official meetings and long reports and press releases on their purported outcomes.

Asean has to come alive and be made real to the people. The Asean web-site for one should be spiced up, made more attractive and inter-active to attract the younger people who would now not spend more than a minute there if they got to the web-site at all. There are any number of Asean IT and software companies which can achieve this for the secretariat. All it needs is for the secretariat to reach out – like its web-site should – and be more proactive. I have introduced an interested company to a senior secretariat official and I hope something comes of it.

Reform of the secretariat will take like forever. Far better to make some incisions into it to achieve specific outcomes – like a better and more interesting web-site. In this connection, the proposal of the Asean Business Club (ABC) for a financial services and capital markets (FSCM) expert group to be housed in the secretariat to advise Asean leaders on how to achieve FSCM integration to power the Asean economy, is something that should be pursued in the year ahead which must be characterised by action and not more action plans and speeches.

Proactive

Actually, the private sector itself has not been especially proactive on the AEC until just a couple of years ago when the ABC was established. I had in fact established the Asean Institute in 1989 when I was executive chairman of CIMB to get Asean companies to work together towards economic integration, rather like the ABC is now focused on, but when I had to leave at the end of 1992 to set up the Securities Commission (Indonesia’s Aburizal Bakrie and the late Tan Sri Loy Hean Heong took over), I lost touch of it and it seemed to have meandered to a quiet end.

Even the Asean Business Advisory Council (Asean-BAC) which was set up 11 years ago has really not been that loud and effective until the last couple of years or so. Now it is working hard on small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and suddenly everyone is crying out loud about what would happen to them when the AEC is established.

While the needs and concerns of the SMEs must be addressed, it should be noted the opportunities and challenges are not something that will come down like a guillotine at the end of 2015.

The Asean Free Trade Area (Afta) agreement was signed in 1992 and the CEPT (Common Effective Preferential Tariff) scheme through which it became effective has been in place since 2010 for the Asean-6 with the latecomers Asean-4 (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam) given a dispensation until 2018 to come to the zero tariff level – but they had to sign the Afta to become members of Asean.

Old Apec proposal

Indeed many Asean (and non-Asean) companies have been enjoying the benefits of the Afta in penetrating markets and setting up single production bases. There are many Asean plus FTAs. The RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) and the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) are being negotiated. The FTAAP (Free Trade Area of Asia Pacific) is being championed by China, an old Apec proposal that went into long hibernation.

So the AEC is not happening without earlier announcement or in isolation. On the one hand, there are those who fear its full implication and on the other, there are those who contend it will be short of total promise. This shows something is happening. Indeed, for business, it is all taking place in our region, the most dynamic economically in the world.

What is not evident however is a sense of community in Asean. It is this void that is causing all the cynicism, not the economic reality which is sweeping across the region anyway. Since Asean has used the term “community”, it is incumbent upon its leaders to inject that sense among the people if they do not want to sound like empty vessels making a lot of noise.

In reality Asean as an organisation is an inter-governmental association of states without surrender of sovereignty to any supranational authority. There is no harm to aspire to become a community. The point, however, is that to become a community it cannot remain a pure association without communitarian obligations.

At the very least, it must get the people engaged in the community-building process. And against all its community blueprints, there must be some surrender of authority to some supranational authority, particularly in respect of major obligations undertaken, so that they can have some prospect of being made real, starting in the business world under the AEC.

Tan Sri Dr Munir Majid, chairman of Bank Muamalat and visiting senior fellow at LSE Ideas (Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy), is also chairman of CIMB Asean Research Institute.