Bringing the Asean Economic Community to the People

As the completion of the Asean Economic Community draws closer the end of this year, the corporate world in the 10-nation association is looking forward to the economic benefits that they believe will accrue to the pact. Asean‘s citizens themselves don’t seem to be interested despite the hype.

The goal of the Asean Economic Community is wide-ranging -- regional economic integration including a single market and production base, a highly competitive economic region, economic development and integration into the world’s economy as well. Areas of cooperation include human resources development, recognition of common professional qualifications, closer consultation on macro and financial policies, trade financing measures and a raft of other provisions.

Nonetheless, a 2010 survey conducted by the Asean secretariat indicated that of the 2,228 members of the public surveyed, 76 percent lack a basic understanding about the Asean community itself although 70 percent of 261 business owners surveyed responded that they at least know what the association is about.

It is crucial for the secretariat to identify means to reduce the gap between the two in order to increase the overall level of awareness. Three areas need to be addressed; increasing awareness, which could lead to an increase in the participation rate and consequently, and, one assumes, controversial to the association’s leaders, alteration of its long-time non-interference policy. Establishing awareness of a people-oriented organization’s existence is imperative. A community which exists in form but not in the eyes and mind of the people is inherently destined to fail.

In cultivating such thought, the secretariat should be equipped with the necessary resources and focus on promoting AEC internally. An outreach program would be possible, particularly in areas where conventional methods of communication are lacking. The secretariat should also consider collaborating with ambitious local corporations that are seeking to become regional players, such as the Malaysia-based CIMB Group, which has made it clear that their aim is to be the leading Asean company.

Mutually beneficial programs and sponsorships could arise between Asean and its chosen collaborators. The secretariat should also contemplate proposing an initiative in which the AEC is introduced as part of school curriculum, or as an after-school activity. Such programs would provide an avenue where the youth can be exposed to, and educated at an early age. In any of the above cases, the objective at this stage is to build awareness and build visibility.

It is commonly agreed that through increased levels of awareness, individuals would then develop the propensity to participate in a particular cause. Through the proliferation of such awareness initiatives, if implemented astutely manner, citizens would be inclined to participate in any regional decision making processes.

Unfortunately as of the moment, there are no institutional mechanisms at a regional level where neither individuals nor civil societies can contribute or comment on any decisions made by Asean leaders. Such platforms can be deemed as critical in building a people-oriented AEC. The secretariat should consider adopting an approach in European Union (EU) called The Citizen’s Initiative, an online petition where EU citizens can propose (or vote) legislation for the consideration of the European Commission. This practice is also embraced in the United States.

In addition to such proposals, another method in increasing participation is via civil societies. Presently, civil societies such as the Asean Civil Society Conference are held independently parallel to the official association’s summit. The secretariat should propose for such civil societies to be part in the decision making process to promote inclusiveness. It is through such platforms that the true AEC spirit can manifest itself, creating a sense of economic regionalism among the region’s citizens.

As a consequence of increased level of awareness, well informed and participative citizens are born, and calls for further integration would follow suit. This could lead to further dissolution of perhaps one of the association’s most contentious policies; non-interference. Although Asean has conceded in recent years the need to alter such policies through the adoption of a “flexible management” approach, the entity and its member states continue to be subject of scrutiny by its western counterparts for its lackluster disposition in collectively conducting policy reforms. Continued practice of the non-interference policy would undoubtedly hamper economic integration through flipflops in policies by member states despite going against the wishes of its citizens.

Further aggravating this is political interference from East Asia seeking support from member states on their domestic disputes with potential repercussions on regional economic integration. A people-oriented AEC, therefore, is inconceivable as long as such policies exist. However, as the secretariat continues to propagate the benefits of a single market, Asean leaders would become increasingly susceptible to pressure from its own citizenry for further policy reforms. The only plausible method for the AEC to be liberalized from the non-interference policy is through calls from its own citizens. The removal of such policies would undoubtedly allow for a speedy expedition of Asean’s transformation into single market.

In remaining pragmatic, some of these measures should be open to scrutiny. Reallocation of resources to the secretariat should not be done evenly rather, the onus falls on more developed economies as they would have more resources to spare. This would allow lesser developed states to focus on reducing their income gap with more developed states. Additionally, empowering citizens through online petitions can only be effective if and only if educational attainment within the region is satisfactory.

Studies have shown that support for a broad-based regime (democracy) is dependent on the level of civic engagement. In addition to this, the removal of the non-interference policy is also hangs on the adoption rate of democracy amongst member states. Taking into account the economic and political fragility of certain member states, the implementation of the above suggested measures should not be done with haste, but rather after several deliberations.

Building a people oriented AEC is certainly a daunting task. Member states must be willing to compromise, and support each other during the entire process. Collectively, Asean leaders should be allowed to work without the impediment of lengthy bureaucratic processes. Though there are numerous risks involved in pushing for such actions, the benefits could outweigh any potential pitfalls if planned and executed correctly. It is critical to develop a people oriented AEC in order that people may not only participate in the process, but also understand the benefits it may entail to their own state and community.