Excitement and jitters over AEC

Some look forward to greater collaboration while others fear more intense competition

An Indonesian vendor waits for customer as he sells onions and chilies at a market in Bogor, Indonesia, Dec 17, 2015. PHOTO: EPA

People in Asean countries are keen to embrace a region where it is easier to move around and do business - and they feel some excitement and trepidation over the competition the Asean Economic Community (AEC) would encourage.

These sentiments sum up the responses of the 655 respondents who took an online poll by The Straits Times that is supported by the English-language Asean newspapers of the Asia News Network.

The poll, titled Are We A Community?, was conducted ahead of the Dec 31 date when the AEC officially comes into being.

Some respondents are hopeful that the formation of the AEC will improve education and infrastructure and lead to more sharing of knowledge and innovative practices in the region.

Others hope that eventually the AEC will bolster Asean's identity and ability to hold its own in a multi-polar world, without necessarily needing to rely on the superpowers.

Along with those who are enthusiastic about the change, there are others who spoke about how turning the regional grouping into a real community will not be easy and political will is necessary to push through the changes.

A minority fear that given Asean's track record and mode of working thus far, the experiment of bringing the 10 economies closer together could well be just a pipe dream.

Mr Kong Ming Lai, of Malaysia, is among those who are optimistic.

"With the inception of AEC, there will be plenty of opportunities in business ranging from development of agriculture to infrastructure, energy, affordable housing, transportation, manufacturing and telecommunication to transform a living population (of) 625 million from 10 countries."

Leading emerging economies such as Singapore, Brunei, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia will have opportunities to invest in the other five economies of the region, he said.

Taking a similar view, Mr Albert Tabilog, from the Philippines, said: "Doing business will be easier with less constraints. The idea that we are one community is an absolute joy."

Mr Archicco Guilianno of Indonesia wrote: "The Asean Community would certainly bring a new hope, and new opportunity to be explored. It also comes with a new challenge, and a whole new level of competition. This can only mean for me to start (to) level up, and keep upgrading my skill and knowledge, and, as people say, 'the best is yet to come!'"

Thai respondent Danai Pattaphongse wrote: "Ways of living will be much more dynamic. Changes are the rule rather than the exception. Everyone has to be active and be prompt to ride on the Asean waves. Nothing can stand still. Let's be part of it."

From Singapore, Associate Professor Mak Yuen Teen hoped the formation of the community would lead to more interest in research and thought leadership related to Asean.

"As an academic, my sense is that academic institutions are laggards in this regard, with not enough interest in developments in this region," he remarked.

Other expectations canvassed from respondents included hopes that:

• It will lead to better connectivity and a seamless travel network

• There will be more affordable health opportunities

• Quality of life will be better

• More job opportunities will emerge

• Businesses will face less red tape

• Asean will see more international companies emerge

Some see all these adding to the regional grouping's weight in the global community. As Mr Rajesh of Singapore said: "AEC will be one voice to the global community, leverage economies of scale with better negotiating power. Today, Asean is marginalised under the visibility of India and China."

Still, there were those who said the declaration of the community will be just the beginning, and it will be an arduous road ahead. Said Malaysia's Mr Danny Apple Seef: "What is actually AEC? 625 million people. You think can come together n form One community... 101 different ideology... Culture... Customs.. 100 years of grievances... no trust... non language communication.. can they integrate into one?"

Thai respondent Wongsiri Miyaji remarked: "I don't think the AEC will change my life at all, at least not in the foreseeable future. I would like to see the AEC bring about common standards across the region, such as environmental standards, labour standards, etc, in a similar way to the EU but I can't imagine this happening any time soon.

"In the meantime, the huge disparities between the member states, in areas such as GDP per capita, wages, productivity, etc, will ensure that certain members will continue to protect their own economies and people by whatever means they can. This type of protectionism won't die easily, in spite of the elimination of tariff barriers."

And Mr Taufan of Indonesia said: "I am not sure whether the AEC will bring more harm or benefit to the region." Easy connectivity could be a great advantage but he feared it could mean much competition for countries such as his.

"If the AEC could be delayed five to 10 years more when each country could find its own speciality in industry and commodities then the AEC would be in much better benefit," he wrote.

• Additional reporting by Dhurga Ramesh

• For more information, go to https://www.straitstimes.com/tags/aec

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 21, 2015, with the headline Excitement and jitters over AEC. Subscribe