Asean to raise awareness of grouping and its benefits among citizens

The Asean flag as well as flags of Asean member states on display at the Prime Minister's Office Building Complex in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei. -- PHOTO: BT FILE
The Asean flag as well as flags of Asean member states on display at the Prime Minister's Office Building Complex in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei. -- PHOTO: BT FILE

NAYPYITAW, MYANMAR - Asean on Tuesday night came out with a guide on how all 10 members can spread the message on the group's work to its citizens, ahead of next year's launch of the Asean Community and the grouping's golden jubilee celebration in 2017.

Asean secretary-general Mr Le Luong Minh told senior diplomats from all 10 member states at the launch of the Asean Communication Master Plan (ACMP) that it was important to get across to citizens of Asean member states how Asean integration would benefit them.

"The peoples of Asean need to understand what it means to be part of an integrated region where there are shared, equitable opportunities for personal, business, and community growth," Mr Minh said in Myanmar's capital, one day before the Asean Summit and related meetings start.

The master plan, titled "Asean: A Community of Opportunities", comes amid concern from quarters in some countries that Asean integration may disadvantage them, and lead to greater competition for jobs and resources.

The three-year plan advises member states to communicate "the character, structure, and overall vision of Aseann" to targeted communities in each country, such as to youths, businesses and civil society groups, using both traditional media like television and radio, as well as by tapping on the Internet and social media. It also calls for the use of word-of-mouth and seminar-style messaging to dispense information on Asean to rural communities.

The plan, crafted with the help of public relations firm Hill and Knowlton Strategies over a six-month period, also recommends that each member country train and appoint an Asean spokesman to be the face of Asean to the media, at community events and government seminars.

Every member state, even Singapore, can benefit from the ACMP, Hill and Knowlton's chairman for Asia-Pacific Mr Vivian Lines, who was at the launch, told The Straits Times. In Singapore's case, this includes educating small and medium enterprises (SMEs) on opportunities to expand outside of the island with the formation of the Asean Community by end 2015, as well as informing students on opportunities for university education or exchange stints in Asean neighbours that can give graduates a unique leg-up as Asean countries gain in economic clout.

Calling the ACMP a "living plan", Mr Lines said: "The plan enables each of the member states to adapt what is going to be right for them, because the challenge is that the diversity of Asean makes it difficult for something one-size-fits-all."

Illustrating this point, the launch featured a video clip with citizens of member countries - including rural folk, professionals and students - sharing in their own language how Asean and its policies had improved their lives, such as a market to sell their produce and opportunities for work and travel. Similar videos and TV programmes may be aired in all Asean countries nest year.

Analysts said that tackling the issue of communication and media was a shrewd choice for outgoing Asean chairman Myanmar, given the extensive media reforms it has implemented over the last two years.

"It is a nice synchronicity of events, as Myanmar has consciously identified a theme that resonates with the reforms going on in the country," Ms Moe Thuzar, a lead researcher with the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies' Asean Studies Centre, told The Straits Times.

But Mr Hans Vriens of corporate political analysis firm Vriens and Partners said that without concrete measures that member states have to implement, the communication plan will be "no more than a PR exercise".

"It is difficult to sell the electorates on these rather abstract issues," he said. "Asean has to try, but it will not be enough."

A 2012 survey conducted in all 10 Asean capitals showed that while about 80 per cent of those surveyed were familiar with the Asean name, three in four did not have a basic understanding of what Asean meant or did.

Some feel the plan will help address weak spots like this ahead of key Asean milestones. Said Ms Moe Thuzar, who is a former Myanmar diplomat: "The most visible outcome.. would be more information and discussion on the expected benefits and outcomes of ASEAN integration."

yanliang@sph.com.sg