Asean entered this year as a community. The regional grouping, which had been founded in 1967, was one even earlier, but a diplomatic community. Its purpose and functioning attested largely to the political and strategic interests of its member-states, less so to the needs of its economies, and least to the day-to-day lives of its peoples. The diplomatic imperative remains important because it has created norms of inter-state behaviour conducive to peace and security in South-east Asia. Indeed, it is Asean's internal coherence as a regional association that gives it the credibility to deal with its global partners, such as the United States, Europe, China, Japan and India.
However, it is incomprehensible that a grouping of 622 million people, which had a combined gross domestic product of US$2.6 trillion (S$3.7 trillion) in 2014, should not possess a commensurately sharp economic profile. This is the challenge facing the Asean Economic Community (AEC). Its establishment could lift aggregate output by 7 per cent annually by 2025 if it is fully implemented. By that year as well, it could generate around 14 million new jobs. Hearteningly, Asean's "high politics", revolving crucially around the avoidance of war, has now expanded to include economic integration. The AEC promises to transform Asean from a collection of economies to a region with free movement of goods, services, investment and skilled labour, and freer flow of capital. Singapore businesses, especially small and medium-sized enterprises, will have greater opportunities to expand their operations across the region, one of whose greatest assets is the growth of the middle class. Greater urbanisation, accompanied by rising demand for blue- and white-collar workers as the region becomes more attractive to investors, could boost household disposable incomes and drive the consumption of goods and services.
Much more needs to be done on the socio-cultural front to give citizens of Asean, particularly the young, a sense of regional identity in addition to the national identities that make up South-east Asia. This will not be easy. Even the European Union, the most advanced regional grouping in the world, has to contend with residual national loyalties. However, these loyalties have become less parochial and abrasive over the decades because of youth travel and student exchange programmes that encourage Germans or Italians to realise their quintessential Europeanness. Well-funded Asean-wide scholarship programmes, wider scope for the work of the Asean University Network, and cheap travel options under the open skies policy would give the young concrete reasons for looking at an old region with new eyes. More communication, closer interaction and the growth of pan-Asean networks, including non-governmental organisations, will help to make the Asean Community a lived reality.