ASEAN leaders push for greater regional labour mobility

    An integrated community will accelerate the pace of structural change, and is expected to generate some 14 million additional jobs by 2025.

    By Saifulbahri Ismail
    POSTED: 12 Apr 2015 20:51
    UPDATED: 13 Apr 2015 12:52

    KUALA LUMPUR: More engineers and architects in Southeast Asia have registered with professional bodies in the region to have their qualifications recognised. According to the ASEAN Secretariat, there’s a “steady increase” of these registered professionals who have started working in other ASEAN countries.

    Currently there are 987 engineers registered with the ASEAN Chartered Professional Engineers (ACPE) and 220 architects registered with the ASEAN Architects (AA). They are among eight professions that come under the Mutual Recognition Arrangements (MRAs) endorsed by ASEAN leaders to promote freer movement of skilled labour as the region moves towards an economic community this year.


    Dr Nurul Huda Hassan has been in the dental practice for about 11 years. Recently, the 35-year-old started her own clinic in Kota Damansara, just outside the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur. However, she also aspires to practice in Singapore and Indonesia.

    “It’s a stimulating idea to have that in mind,” she said. “I think it’s quite exciting if I can be given a chance to move to another ASEAN country and work.”

    It is not easy to get a licence as a foreign practitioner. Dr Nurul said dentists have to take exams to practice in different countries. She is hoping for greater flexibility in the future, especially with the MRAs for dentistry.

    “Probably, one exam that allows you to work in a few countries,” suggested Dr Nurul. “So, you don’t have to go over and over again, sitting for the exams for different countries.”


    ASEAN wants to establish a common market and production base by the end of this year. As current chair, Malaysia has an important role to make this dream of an ASEAN Economic Community a reality.

    Under an integrated community there will be free flow of goods, services, investment, capital and skilled labour.

    MRAs are a key instrument in ASEAN’s push for greater labour mobility in the region. Through the MRAs, ASEAN countries may recognise the education or experience obtained by workers in certain professions.

    There are MRAs in eight professions for doctors, dentists, nurses, accountants, surveyors, architects, engineers and those in the tourism industry. These professions only represent 1.5 per cent of the total ASEAN labour force.

    Moreover, the arrangements (MRAs) do not guarantee greater labour mobility, because those allowed to migrate for employment are still determined by domestic rules and regulations.

    Said Chairman of the ASEAN Business Advisory Council (Malaysia), Dr Munir Abdul Majid: “For example, if an engineer wants to come to work in Malaysia, immigration will require him to prove, despite the fact that he’s already qualified, to prove that he’s doing a job of work or project of which there are no qualified Malaysians.”


    In Singapore, measures have also been introduced to protect locals.

    From August 2014, employers have had to advertise vacancies on a Government jobs bank for at least 14 days before they can apply for a skilled foreign worker.

    The Trade and Industry Ministry says while Singapore welcomes skilled manpower, it cannot afford to have an unregulated flow of foreign labour, due to the country’s small physical size and limited resources.

    Observers believe it may be useful to consider a “locals first, ASEAN second” mechanism.

    “That’s what the ASEAN agreements are moving towards,” said Moe Thuzar, lead researcher at the ASEAN Studies Centre (Singapore). “And that is also what the mutual recognition arrangements are moving towards. So, that you do have a wider pool of skills and talents to choose from, after looking at what is available in your own national talent pool first.”


    Besides MRAs, ASEAN is also taking steps to create a Qualification Framework aimed at harmonising regulatory arrangements between countries.

    “We don’t look across 10 countries, we start at bilateral,” said member of the ASEAN Business Advisory Council Douglas Foo. “Let’s maybe start with two countries that can recognise each other’s skills sets for a particular profession quite readily, because of that level of development of the economy – which is more practical, as compared to if some economy is still at the beginning of development. It’s more difficult to realign that.”

    The steps towards a free movement of labour may be slow, but economists cautioned at moving too fast.

    Said Assoc Prof Randolph Tan, director of the Centre for Applied Research at SIM University: “It will have to be an exercise in patience. For the longer term, all countries should benefit.

    “One of the things I would warn against is to look for rapid gains. One of the lessons that Singapore has tremendous experience over the last 10 years is that rapid flows of non-local manpower have to be strictly regulated.  We have benefited from it, we have tremendous experience from it, and yet we have also experienced a significant amount of public debate about the consequences.”

    ASEAN is expected to continue attracting international talents because of its growth potential fuelling the demand for labour. The region is projected to be the fourth largest economy by 2050.

    An integrated community will accelerate the pace of structural change, and is expected to generate some 14 million additional jobs by 2025.

    A free flowing skilled labour in the region is expected to generate much higher demand for talent. In responding to these challenges, human resource practitioners say companies will need to develop better retention programmes to cope with potential loss of talent. In the new ASEAN marketplace, companies will pursue sought-after skills across industries and countries.

    “Two thirds of the CEOs today say they want to promote internal talent, which means they want to retain the people that they hire,” said country manager at Adecco Personnel (Singapore) Femke Hellemonds. ”They need to be offering good packages, compensation and benefit packages, be flexible, but also be an attractive employer to the younger generation, and international mobility is something which for the younger generation is high on their agenda.”


    The younger generation in Myanmar also want greater mobility.

    Myanmar is one of the less developed ASEAN nations. It started on reforms in 2011 and the impact of skilled labour mobility can be significant. Some businesses are concerned workers may not be able to compete with foreign professionals.

    “Will Myanmar have skilled professionals in 10 years in the same rate that Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore have? I don’t think so,” said member of the ASEAN Business Advisory Council (Myanmar) U Moe Kyaw. “The environment for them to develop is going to be harder. They will not be able to compete. In 10, 20 years when Myanmar opens up, when it becomes a better investment climate than it is now, there is going to be a surge of people.”

    ASEAN is moving into uncharted territory as it tries to realise this vision of an integrated community in 2015 and beyond. However, the reality of a full integration is still quite far away. ASEAN countries will need more time because they are still so different from one another in terms of stages of development.

    While ASEAN can reap huge benefits from this integration in the future, experts say it has to work much harder in order to achieve that.

    (This story was produced under IPS Asia-Pacific’s Reporting ASEAN: 2015 and Beyond series, in cooperation with the Probe Media Foundation. It is supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, the ASEAN Foundation and the Japan-ASEAN Solidarity Fund. Copyright of MediaCorp Pte Ltd.)

    – CNA/ek