Raising citizens' awareness of Asean benefits a challenge

One of the next big challenges in Asean integration involves raising awareness among citizens about the benefits of the regional economic community, according to a round- table discussion yesterday.

Panellists said more community- based initiatives are needed to build connections and promote more understanding between countries.

They also noted that while concrete steps have been taken towards deeper economic integration at the government-to-government level, it will take a longer time for the reality on the ground to reflect this.

The Asean Economic Community (AEC), which is due to come into force by the year end, aims to create a single market and production base across the region, with minimal barriers to trade and investment.

While progress has been made, for instance in lowering tariffs and non-tariff trade barriers, panellists at the event organised by the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute said more work is needed to make the AEC a reality in practice.

During a discussion moderated by Singapore's Ambassador-at- Large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Professor Tommy Koh, former Asean secretary-general Ong Keng Yong said Asean faces three key challenges: mustering enough political will to implement ideas; raising awareness among people about the AEC; and remaining open to others who want to participate in the region's growth.

"Every member state has to grapple with its own domestic issues and priorities... but there should be some space (for Asean).

"So far we have not been able to demonstrate, in a simple way, the benefits of Asean membership to citizens," he added.

Mr V. P. Hirubalan, the Deputy Secretary-General of Asean Political-Security Community, said there has been talk of introducing a high- profile event that ordinary people in the region will be able to identify with, such as an Asean version of the Eurovision Song Contest.

Governments should not be expected to organise all of these activities, said Mr Ong.

Instead, "we should look to other well-intentioned and well-organised segments of society in South- east Asia", such as civil society, non-governmental organisations and the wider community.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 15, 2015, with the headline 'Raising citizens' awareness of Asean benefits a challenge'. Subscribe