Help for SMEs as Asean economies integrate further

Asean will aim to implement outstanding measures in the AEC 2025 blueprint, including a focus on small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), non-tariff barriers, and modern business needs, in the next decade.

Asean members agreed on this yesterday when they presented an update on progress towards achieving a fully integrated Asean Economic Community (AEC).

The blueprint is a set of broad directions adopted at the 27th Asean Summit in Kuala Lumpur last November. It aims to integrate the Asean economies by 2025.

Singapore Trade and Industry (Trade) Minister Lim Hng Kiang spoke at the Asean Conference 2016 at Suntec Singapore Convention and Exhibition Centre yesterday. He updated members of the conference on the AEC's key achievements since last November.

He said the Asean-6 (Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand) have eliminated import duties.

The AEC has also opened up more service sectors to businesses in the Asean states, implemented stronger investment rules, and allowed greater connectivity in aviation through the Asean Open Skies Agreement signed last year.

"Asean has collectively completed about 93 per cent of high-priority measures in the AEC 2025 blueprint," he said.

Over the next decade, the AEC will continue to work on integrating the different economies.

One area of focus is to help SMEs trade in the Asean region. An upcoming cross-border electronic exchange of information among Asean states - called the Asean Single Window - can reduce transaction time and costs for SMEs by expediting Customs clearance. The faster clearance of goods may reduce business costs, a concern for many small businesses, owing to their limited economies of scale.

Another focus is on eliminating non-tariff barriers, such as cumbersome import-licensing procedures. A third focus is on addressing new areas relevant to the needs of modern businesses such as e-commerce, which may lower barriers to entry and reduce operating costs, especially for SMEs.

On the sidelines of the conference, Singapore Business Federation chairman Teo Siong Seng highlighted difficulties to achieving an integrated AEC. These include the differing standards of development across the Asean economies, and the different degree of openness of business practices.

The Asean Conference is an annual event organised by the Singapore Business Federation, United Overseas Bank, Rajah and Tann and RSM Chio Lim. Yesterday was the second time it was held.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 01, 2016, with the headline 'Help for SMEs as Asean economies integrate further'. Print Edition | Subscribe