Full integration will take time, say forum participants

Malaysia's Minister of International Trade and Industry Mustapa Mohamed is seen at the meetings for the Trans-Pacific Partnership in Hawaii on July 29, 2015.
Malaysia's Minister of International Trade and Industry Mustapa Mohamed is seen at the meetings for the Trans-Pacific Partnership in Hawaii on July 29, 2015. PHOTO: REUTERS

THE wish list of business leaders and social groups alike for the Asean Economic Community (AEC) is long but its launch in November will be no magic wand that fulfils their desires all at once.

Instead, economic integration will be at a pace that all members are comfortable with, given their need to balance domestic interests with regional ones, said government and business leaders at the World Economic Forum on East Asia yesterday.

As a reality check, Malaysia’s Minister for International Trade and Industry, Mr Mustapa Mohamed, stressed at a session yesterday that there would be “freer movement” of goods, services and people rather than “free movement”, as the business community would have liked.

The AEC, when implemented, is envisioned to give the region the impetus to become an economic powerhouse, gathering as it does a population of 600 million people with a collective gross domestic product of more than US$2.4 trillion (S$3.2 trillion), making it the seventh largest economy in the world.

While 91 per cent of measures under the AEC blueprint have been put in place and most of those to reduce non-tariff barriers are expected to be in place by its launch, many did not expect change to happen overnight.

“The AEC is moving at a pace that the political leaders want it to. The speed is dictated by the political process and the balance that the leaders want to have between their national policies and the greater common good,” noted Mr Ho Hsing Chan, group managing director-Asean, Du Pont Company (Singapore).

Still, as Myanmar businessman Serge Pun said, compared with five years ago, the commitment to move integration forward could be seen. “It could do better by going faster, but that’s just a wish.”

That wish list is long: better human rights, closing the gap between rich and poor states, freer movement of labour across borders, even an Asean-wide visa to facilitate tourism.

Indonesian banker Budi Gunadi Sadikin, for one, would like to see more equitable economic development in Asean, with richer countries like Singapore and Malaysia trying to bring states like Indonesia and Vietnam closer to them.

“If the focus is to make ourselves bigger, that will create unsustainability, because rich countries will become richer, and poor countries will stay poor,” he said.

Human rights activist Evelyn Balais-Serrano would like to see a balance between economic growth and social, cultural and human rights development. “Unless there is a balance, there is always a tendency to have growth but also more inequality, as the price of growth is paid mostly by people who are marginalised, disadvantaged and... displaced because of this development.”

While acknowledging that the AEC will not be perfect, AirAsia boss Tony Fernandes said “it will simplify business, raise standards and bring prosperity” to the region.

Additional reporting by Wahyudi Soeriaatmadja