Friday, August 19, 2011

Improving Virtual Connectivity in ASEAN

The ASEAN Economic Ministers (AEM) meeting in Manado also discussed the ASEAN Single Window (ASW).  The ASW is supposed to provide companies with a single data entry point (e.g., a single “window”) for submitting customs clearance documentation and data to ASEAN government authorities.  The agreement on the ASW was signed in 2005, with full implementation within ASEAN by 2012. 

In theory, the ASW should improve intra-ASEAN operations by enabling for electronic data submission, thereby avoiding the need to go to several government agencies to obtain approval for customs clearance.  However, the ASW itself depends on the establishment of national single windows (NSW) at the ASEAN member state level, which, given the diverse state of economic development and infrastructure, is problematic for some countries.

Thus, although the overall parameters for full administration of the ASW have been established, actual implementation of the ASW will be initially limited to the submission of ASEAN Common Declaration Documents and Form D origin documentation.  Furthermore, the initial implementation will be limited to a pilot program involving the seven ASEAN members who have already established NSWs (or soon will): Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. The pilot program is supposed to be in place by September 2012.

Even this limited application of the ASW will help companies, especially if the data interchange on a regional basis ends some of the continuing confusion over Form D documentation.  However, I hope that the lessons learned from establishing the ASW will be brought forward to other, fundamental aspects of connectivity among the ASEAN institutions, as they really need improvement. 

For example, most ASEAN members’ national ministries impose firewalls that prevent the use of official e-mail addresses for communications outside their country or even outside the government ministries.  Officials in these jurisdictions usually use Gmail or other web-based e-mail accounts established under their personal capacity to communicate with officials in other ASEAN governments.  Yet on several occasions, such e-mail communications have not been recognized by these officials’ own governments as having any binding effect or even recognized as coming from their own ministries because they came from a webmail account.  ASEAN connectivity, a priority item for the AEC, could thus be assisted just by adjusting or improving firewalls, or adopting a common IT solution such as a central server or cloud computing.

Not all problems with improving ASEAN connectivity, whether physical, virtual or personal, can be addressed so easily.  As noted by the ASEAN connectivity master plan, correcting these problems will require significant investment in time, funds and resources.  Nevertheless, establishing the AEC requires better connectivity; improving virtual connectivity would be a good first step.