Towards people-centric Asean

“Our People, Our Community, Our Vision” promises to bring the people from the far-flung and latest chair, Myanmar, and the CLV (Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam) closer to the rest of Southeast Asia.

24 November 2014 @ 12:24 AM

FROM Nay Pyi Taw to Kuala Lumpur, the last two weeks have been abuzz with Malaysia’s takeover next year since it was handed the gavel.

With Malaysia as chair, there are a myriad takeaways we can provide to fellow Asean citizens next year, but none as meaningful and encompassing as what our prime minister announced.

“Our People, Our Community, Our Vision” promises to bring the people from the far-flung and latest chair, Myanmar, and the CLV (Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam) closer to the rest of Southeast Asia.

After 25 years, one glaring area, which all three pillars of Asean — economic, political-security and socio-cultural — is faced with is the lack of unity of the people. There is such a wide disconnect and people can be forgiven for their lack of “Aseanness” in comparison to those in the European Union (EU).

It is also not uncommon to read about members of the public across the 10 countries who have not heard about the regional grouping, let alone understand its ideals and work all these years. Asean Day is a case in point. Are you aware that it falls on August 8?

But such a theme espoused would also be a challenging one and hard to measure in terms of Malaysia’s success by the end-2015 from the last time we played host in 2005.

The work plan must be relayed to all the member countries by now if we want to roll out the activities from the start of the year.

All three Asean pillars involve all the ministries and numerous agencies, which means a quick education process is needed for all their officers in every nook and corner so as to get them all on board.

Many would be unaware of the theme and logo or even that the chairmanship has been handed over to Malaysia followed by the handover of the chairmanship of Asean Business Advisory Council.

Being at the helm enables Malaysia to realise the Asean Economic Community (AEC) and in developing the community’s post-2015 vision.

Malaysia will be able to steer Asean closer to the Southeast Asian people by making it part of their daily lives and creating a truly people-centred Asean identity.

Unlike before, Malaysia’s profile has edged up measurably be it in terms of growth, transformation programmes for the economy and government, as well as global rankings.

With the exception of Singapore, some of the rankings places us enviously above others in the region, and these include occupying the 18th position in terms of ease of doing business by the World Bank, seventh most attractive country for infrastructure, third top offshore location in A.T. Kearney’s ranking, top 20 in most business-friendly location and 12th in global competitiveness ranking.

The government senses the impatience in the tone of the private sector during meetings as the latter believes that many of the liberalisation measures, including those for services, should be exercised sooner so that AEC can be realised the end of the year.

There is a lot of catching up to do over the next six months as Malaysia’s sixth ranking in the implementation of the total 436 measures does not speak well of our public initiatives to set up a single market.

In the private sector realm, it is the aviation and banking sectors which have already carved their names in the region, as well those from the plantation, telecommunications, oil and gas or construction sectors, to name the main few.

Some — touted as supranational corporations — have honed strong branding skills lending towards national identities. Which is where many of our Malaysian brands from the likes of Maybank, CIMB, Air Asia, Axiata Nelson Corn in Cup and Marrybrown have strong market share.

But their frustrations stretch deep as they find non-tarriff barriers (NTBs) continue to impede the expansion of their businesses and, in the long run, the effectiveness of the AEC.

NTBs will stay on the shelves for longer periods than envisaged as each country continues to protect its prized domestic industries.

Businesses tend to draw comparisons with the EU trading bloc and question why the Asean way seems more difficult to realise, and why frameworks for the various industries are still forthcoming. One banker described the Asean Trading Link as still stuck in the first gear.

Again, in meeting the people-centric goal, Malaysia will face challenges in the mobility of people across the region.

Malaysia’s foreign policy has placed Asean regional cooperation as its cornerstone and the common effort of the region has enabled its success in facing various challenges, such as international terrorism and economic slowdown.

Hopefully, Malaysia can also come up with initiatives that will bring the peoples of Asean closer as this would in turn raise the energy of the region to live up to global expectations.