Sunday, March 10, 2013

ASEAN Connectivity: Planes, Trains and Automobiles

The Master Plan for ASEAN Connectivity and its proposals for improving linkages within the ASEAN Economic Community have been a hot topic.  However, the real impact of improved ASEAN connectivity is often lost among the statistics and funding figures thrown around.  This week, I had the unique opportunity to experience the issues related to ASEAN connectivity during travels from the south to the north of ASEAN.  This crystalized ASEAN’s connectivity issues for me. 

Here’s a summary of what I went through this past week:

Monday – Starting in Singapore, I took an Air Asia flight to Jakarta’s new but already quite full Terminal 3.  After getting into a taxi which got lost, I finally made it to a meeting with my client, the Indonesian Ministry of Trade.  After the meeting, I was caught in a rainstorm. Fortunately, a young boy with an umbrella walked me to the street and helped me get a taxi; I tipped him US$ 1 for his assistance. My taxi to the airport then got caught in a flash flood and we had to circle around Jakarta to finally get to Terminal 3.  I got on another Air Asia flight to the Low Cost Carrier Terminal in KL, then took a bus to KL Sentral.

Tuesday – I took a taxi in heavy traffic to meet a client in downtown KL.  After the meeting, I took a return taxi and rode the KLIA Ekspres train to KLIA. Then I took a Jetstar flight back to Singapore.

Wednesday – To get to an Amcham Singapore meeting on Myanmar, I called two Singapore taxi companies simultaneously for 40 minutes but failed to reach an operator.  That meant a 15 minute walk to the main road, where I finally caught a taxi.  The taxi driver claimed that the drivers are too busy picking up passengers on the road to take phone or internet bookings, despite the higher fees involved.   The driver also claimed that it was my fault for living in a “bad neighborhood” for taxis. 

Thursday – With my sister, I flew on Singapore Airlines to Yangon (my wife’s cousin Wilson was the pilot).  After arriving, we promptly got stuck in extremely long immigration lines at the gleaming new international terminal, and then traffic jams in downtown Yangon, both due to Myanmar’s new popularity.

Friday – We left at 5 am to catch a 6:20 Air Mandalay flight to Mandalay.  After boarding, the turboprop plane reached the runway, stopped for a moment and quickly returned to the decrepit domestic terminal.  We then sat there for 5 hours with no information; I had to call the travel agent to talk with the airline. Finally, Air Mandalay used an incoming plane for our flight and delayed the later flights by an additional 4 hours.

Saturday – We visited one of Myanmar’s ancient capitals, Inwa (Ava).  This required taking a small boat ferry to cross the river. Then we took a horse-drawn carriage to get to the ruins of the capital.

Whew!  That I can make this post from Mandalay shows how much internet connectivity has improved in Myanmar.  However, telecoms are still very expensive here and the debacle with Air Mandalay illustrates how undeveloped the tourist infrastructure remains. Clearly there needs to be more funding for improvements in terminals, air traffic control, telecommunications networks, ports and other physical assets in ASEAN.

Yet improved connectivity in ASEAN will be useless without improved human infrastructure as well.  Singapore has the most developed mass transit system in ASEAN, yet it can utterly fail due to attitudes like my taxi driver’s or neglect of physical infrastructure by a society which views construction and engineering as matters for the foreign guest workers to handle, and not Singaporeans (which has resulted in recent subway snafus).  Conversely, I had no problems getting a horse cart or ferry boat in Inwa, because the Burmese people were willing to work with what they had, despite their poor infrastructure!

However, for me the little boy with the umbrella outside the Indonesian Ministry of Trade symbolizes both the failures and the potential of ASEAN. Clearly, that boy should have been in school, and not hanging around a government ministry with an umbrella. That needs to change.  On the other hand, the boy had the initiative to see a market opportunity (my need to avoid getting wet) and filled it with his umbrella.  If we can connect that human initiative with better opportunities (e.g., education, improved infrastructure) then ASEAN and its people can reach their full potential.