ASEAN’s national borders, many of which were set by colonial powers, have always been relatively porous. Long stretches of interior frontiers in Indochina are surpassed by the miles of coastline in the archipelagic states of Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines.
Thus, it should come as no surprise that migration within ASEAN, temporary and permanent, has been a recurring issue. The incursion by armed Filipino militants into the Malaysian state of Sabah, eventually resolved through air strikes and commando raids, is an extreme example. More prosaic is the current debate in Singapore about the presence of foreign workers, many from Malaysia and the Philippines. Nor is the issue a new one; recall the Vietnamese boat refugees of the 1970’s.
In international trade parlance, migration issues come under the rubric of “movement of natural persons.” In a fully functional market, both consumers and producers of services, e.g., people, would be able to cross borders at will. This is largely the case in the European Union, for example.
In ASEAN, there is a much more limited Movement of Natural Persons Agreement that applies only to temporary residence for managers and professionals on assignment (this agreement has not yet been fully ratified). Full movement of natural persons within ASEAN would be extremely controversial, as the above examples from Malaysia and Singapore illustrate.
Yet the movement of natural persons issue demonstrates how the three pillars of the ASEAN Community interact. Economically, workers would be displaced by incoming migrants. From the socio-cultural point of view, migration would affect health, environment and other issues. Perhaps most importantly, from the political-security point of view, would free migration within ASEAN for economic purposes come with legal and political rights? For example, in the EU, EU nationals resident outside their home countries have such legal and political rights, such as voting in European Parliament elections. Would ASEAN leaders be willing to give internal migrants similar rights? Recognizing the fundamental nature of this issue, U.S. Ambassador to ASEAN David Carden identified the natural movement of persons as the most important issue facing ASEAN integration during one of my NUS Law seminars.
It is doubtful that ASEAN will be willing to address this issue anytime soon, because of the difficult nature of the associated side-issues. Even in more mature regional economic integration projects, the free movement of natural persons is a controversial issue. The EU does not have complete freedom of movement, and immigration remains a hot-button issue in the major NAFTA member, the United States.
Because it touches so many key issues for regional integration and development, the movement of natural persons will be the last major hurdle for the AEC and other regional economic integration projects. However, because of the less mature political and social development within ASEAN, it will take that much longer to achieve in Southeast Asia.
Again, this illustrates why ASEAN leaders are correct in prioritizing the development of the AEC as a single production base rather than the creation of the AEC as a single market. The production base will deliver more benefits to ASEAN’s citizens on a faster basis. Nevertheless, ASEAN needs to keep an eye on this long-term goal of free movement of natural persons. Just don’t expect to see ASEAN leaders address this “third rail” of regional integration any time soon.