With the December 31, 2015, effective date for the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) coming up, all of the ASEAN member states are holding conferences and symposia on ASEAN integration. Hence this report from the Star newspaper in Malaysia on a public outreach event held by the Malaysian Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) was particularly exceptional, mainly because it reflects a general lack of understanding of the AEC in Malaysia. This is remarkable because Malaysia is the 2015 ASEAN chair, the lead country on ASEAN institutional reform, and the home of two of the ASEAN companies most supportive of ASEAN economic integration, Air Asia and CIMB bank.
According to the article, last week MITI minister Datuk Seri Mustapa Mohamed gamely dealt with about 100 representatives of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) who either did not understand or did not want to understand the AEC process:
Given that readers from Malaysia rank #7 in page views among the readers of this blog, far behind those from Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand and even behind Cambodia, I am more inclined to be charitable and say that the former is more likely. Here are some of the claims made by the NGOs:
A representative from the Persatuan Pengguna Islam Malaysia spoke about ethnic cleansing of the Rohingyas in Myanmar, asking Asean to put more pressure on Myanmar and insisting that the message must be stated when Malaysia assumes the Asean chair next year.
Comment: at first glance, this is not an AEC matter but a political-security pillar matter. However, the basic issue of movement of natural persons across national borders in the AEC, and the fundamental rights created by such movement, is a long-term issue for ASEAN. Hopefully ASEAN leaders can understand this as the AEC process continues.
Another spoke of uncontrolled inflow of unskilled labour flooding the local market once the AEC comes into effect.
The subject on the movement of professionals within the region was raised several times during the question and answer session with the speakers expressing concern over the fate of local workers and their confusion over the terms of reference of skilled labour.
Comment: again the issue of movement of natural persons comes up. In the short-term the issue of unskilled labor movement is not ripe, as the ASEAN Movement of Natural Persons Agreement only deals with skilled and professional workers, and not unskilled workers. But in the long run, movement of persons across national borders in the AEC will have far-reaching consequences for ASEAN and its member states.
A representative from the Malaysian Aids Council called for improving the government’s engagement with the civil society while the spokesperson from the Women Aid Organisation said the Asean women caucus had done a good analysis on women, the economy and their rights in Asean and asked who to submit the paper to.
Comment: these issues fall under the socio-cultural pillar of ASEAN and thus not within the immediate ambit of the AEC. On the other hand, these comments do raise concerns about governance of ASEAN and the interaction between the private sector and the ASEAN institutions, another long-term issue for ASEAN.
The minister (and the reporter) summarized the sentiment from the meeting as follows:
“It is a big embarrassment if we keep on talking about AEC but many people in Malaysia do not know what Asean is all about.”
How do you explain to them that the AEC is not a monster to be feared but to be embraced, as many aspects of it are already part and parcel of us for some time now?
And therein lies the problem for Malaysia and other ASEAN member states as end-2015 approaches. How will they deal with the increasing anxiety about the AEC? As the above comments indicate, many of these fears are not about the AEC itself, as they deal with non-economic matters. However, to the extent that they deal with general issues of governance regarding all of the ASEAN Community, they will eventually have to be resolved, including but not limited to strengthening the ASEAN institutions.
Thus, December 31, 2015, is not the end of the AEC process, not even the beginning of the end but merely the end of the beginning. What happens after December 31, 2015, requires much greater consideration by ASEAN member states and their constituents because that is the true test of whether ASEAN can deal with its many challenges.