Asean should be on guard against a ‘Brexit’ in region: The Nation

Ministers from Asean attend a press conference on the 18th Meeting of the Sub-Regional Ministerial Steering Committee on Transboundary Haze Pollution in Singapore on May 4, 2016.
Ministers from Asean attend a press conference on the 18th Meeting of the Sub-Regional Ministerial Steering Committee on Transboundary Haze Pollution in Singapore on May 4, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

Despite serious cracks appearing within the Asean over Beijing claiming disputed territory in the South China Sea, it is unimaginable that any member-country would consider staging its own "Brexit". 

There is simply too much to be gained through a unified stance on international trade.

Nevertheless, Britain's decision in a referendum last week to leave the European Union might provide some valuable lessons for Asean.

Consider, for instance, the fact that most of the British citizens who voted to leave the EU are aged, on low incomes and with limited education. 

The sense drawn from this is that the majority comprised those who felt they'd received little if any benefit from European integration since Britain joined the common market in 1973. 

And, while younger people voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU, people without passports, according to the Financial Times, wanted to leave - those for who travel abroad is perhaps beyond their means. 

Britain never was fully integrated into the EU, of course, remaining aloof from the euro currency and the border-bridging schengen visa, but its economy certainly benefited from close ties to the European market. 

Its venerable financial institutions served as the primary nexus for investments, goods and services flowing to the continent. 

More than a million British citizens live and work in other European countries. 

Unfortunately, though, the wealth generated in such arrangements rarely reaches the neediest of people, a reality reflected in the referendum result.

In Southeast Asia, the level of integration has yet to match that of the EU, but the Asean Economic Community is modelled after it and shares its ambitions - a single market and a common industrial supply chain, with freer movement of goods, services and labour.

To its credit, the AEC has from the start sought to overcome the differences among its member populations, with programmes designed to bridge the gaps between new and old and rich and poor nations. 

To its deficit, Asean seems incapable of addressing crucial socio-economic inequalities. 

While Thai corporations can freely invest in any or all of the other nine countries and tap their workforces' skills, only eight specific professions have been cleared so far for the much-vaunted free sharing of labour. 

Farmers and unskilled workers are unlikely to glean any advantage.

In fact a 2014 study by the International Labour Organisation and Asian Development Bank found that theAsean Mutual Recognition Arrangements signed in 2009 tend to benefit just 1 per cent of Southeast Asian workers.

The AEC, which debuted at the end of last year, is keen to let skilled workers move around, but has done nothing to benefit those without recognised skills. 

This is despite the ubiquity of marginally skilled migrant workers across the region and the "Cebu Declaration" - the 2007 Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of Migrant Workers. 

Millions of migrant workers take considerable risk in moving around the region to seek better jobs and improve their living conditions.

And part of the risk they take involves the disdain with which they're treated in countries that are ostensibly good neighbours to their homelands.

Many Southeast Asians harbour biases against fellow Southeast Asians. 

Thais tolerate foreign labourers only as long as they're doing work that Thais prefer to avoid. 

To bring those people in, Thailand has signed bilateral agreements with Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar and Vietnam that manage the movement of their respective citizens, but such arrangements have yet to be made on a regional scale, and yet they're essential for full integration.

As witnessed in Britain, it is the segment of the population feeling "left behind" that is prone to causing fractures in regional unity. 

If regionalism and globalism appear to be of no benefit, nationalism flourishes, and with it prejudice and disharmony. 

Again, Asean is unlikely in the foreseeable future to see any pockets of protest calling for its disintegration, but its leaders should be working pre-emptively, now and continuously, to address the underlying causes.
The Nation is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 21 newspapers.