Editorial Notes

Formation of Asean Economic Community is a historic day in South-east Asia: The Nation

Flags of the Asean member states are displayed in a conference room at the Prime Minister's Office in Brunei.
Flags of the Asean member states are displayed in a conference room at the Prime Minister's Office in Brunei. PHOTO: ST FILE

Let the fireworks proclaim the birth of the Asean Economic Community - neighbours moving forward together as equal partners.

The much-anticipated Asean Economic Community (AEC) comes into being today amid high hopes that the new economic bloc will loosen business restrictions and enhance trade opportunities for the 10 member-countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).

The AEC now becomes a reality in the seven countries prepared for it, while Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar have been granted a two-year extension.

For Thailand, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam, this is an important milestone in a regional grouping founded 48 years ago.

A recent survey by The Straits Times newspaper of Singapore and members of the Asia News Network found that citizens across the region are generally upbeat amid expectations of increased work and travel opportunities and other improvements in lifestyle.

The opinion poll did uncover concerns about the challenges lying ahead. These focus mainly on protectionist non-tariff import measures, regulations that might block the free flow of skilled labour, and the speed of integration, given current realities. Such fears could in themselves pose an obstacle to integration, but they will only be overcome through progress that is visible to and accepted by all.

Meanwhile only a quarter of the respondents in the survey believe that the AEC will bring Asean closer to becoming a "community". More than a third are convinced it will not. The rest are uncertain.

Singapore ambassador-at-large Ong Keng Yong has said, more optimistically, the survey indicates general acceptance that having the 10 countries working together will improve everyone's lot, but he acknowledges "insufficient awareness" among the public of how the nations can forge a cohesive system that will do so. That insufficiency also needs to be addressed.

It is of course natural and understandable for countries to protect their sovereign interests and native industries. Being overprotective, however, carries a cost for the grouping as a whole. This is the rationale behind giving less-developed Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar extra time to prepare.

They must be well prepared for the machinations of the AEC in terms of trade freedoms and labour in order to not only safeguard their people but assist them - and then to contribute further to Asean's success.

This is not to say that Thailand and the other countries are fully prepared as yet. Thais could do much better in terms of understanding foreign languages, for example, and in bracing for the inevitable influx of skilled workers. We need to be open-minded about unfamiliar cultures and beliefs. The success of the regional endeavour depends on everyone being ready to do business openly and with confidence.

In 2016, as the AEC settles down to that business, we trust that the governments and people of Southeast Asia will find ways to work together for the mutual betterment of all.

Rather than seeking merely to enrich states and entrepreneurs, the AEC has as one of its chief goals the eradication of poverty, or at least its significant reduction, and that alone would be a noble accomplishment. In pursuit of this aim, the politicians, the bureaucrats and the deal-makers must keep the welfare of ordinary people steadfastly in mind. The law must specifically protect migrant workers so employers cannot take advantage of them. Expatriates from elsewhere in South-east Asia must in turn respect the law and customs of their host countries.

In addition to the AEC, with its focus on business and the economy, Asean has two other community "pillars" on which it seeks to mount its ambitions for unity and harmony. One is the political-security community, the other the socio-cultural community. With these in place down the road, animosity and conflict between member-nations can hopefully be avoided, replaced by an unshakeably peaceful coexistence.

For Asean to reach that epochal stage in its half-century journey would be a remarkable achievement. It can only be gained through tolerance and mutual respect and by honouring "the spirit of Asean" - neighbours moving forward together as equal partners.