Thursday, January 22, 2015

When Is ASEAN Common Time?

This week Kavi Chongkittavorn, with whom I have been honored to appear on several panels, writes in the Nation that Malaysia as ASEAN Chair has been revisiting several old ideas to promote the ASEAN Community. Among these ideas are the ASEAN business travel card, ASEAN common curriculum and a single ASEAN time zone, known as “ASEAN Common Time.”

I’ve covered ASEAN visa-free travel and regional education efforts in this blog before, but when a reader asked about ASEAN Common Time, I had to dig back a bit.

In 1995, it was proposed that ASEAN follow a single time zone, to promote trade and business links in the region. As the below map indicates, ASEAN currently has four time zones:

Indonesia has 3 time zones (UTC + 7, UTC + 8, and UTC+9).  Singapore, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines follow UTC + 8, while Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos follow UTC + 7.  Myanmar follows UTC + 6:30.    These time differences contribute to scheduling and planning difficulties. The idea behind ASEAN Common Time is that aligning into a single time zone would eliminate such difficulties within ASEAN. 

ASEAN Common Time, however, was shelved because ASEAN member states could not agree on which time zone would become the standard.    Adopting UTC + 8 would align ASEAN with China and Western Australia. However, it would mean that Indochina would have to move forward by 1 to 1:30 hours, and most of Indonesia would have to move both forward and backward.  Adopting UTC + 7 would mean that half of ASEAN would have to move back 1 hour, and the linkage to the China time zone would be gone.  Either way, there would be the inevitable complaints about going to school in the dark or waking up earlier in countries who have to shift time zones. 

Hence the idea was shunted off for further study, only occasionally coming up since then.   Presumably these same arguments raised in the 1990’s would be raised again if ASEAN Common Time were put back on the agenda this year.  We could also expect the predictable argument that aligning ASEAN with UTC + 8 would be at least a symbolic or prosaic sign that ASEAN is falling under dominance by China.  However, going by that reasoning, Detroit would be dominated by Washington DC’s influence because both cities are in the Eastern time zone of the US, outweighing any historical and cultural ties to the rest of the Midwest.  That’s not the case.

In any event, having a common time zone is helpful to the ASEAN Economic Community, but not critical.  After all, the EU has three time zones and the NAFTA countries have eight time zones and both regional blocs seem to operate just fine. 

The real value of ASEAN Common Time, as with most ASEAN initiatives, lies in the process of the proposal rather than the end point.  It is not necessary that ASEAN be covered by a single time zone.  Perhaps reducing the four zones into two or three zones, with keeping the extreme western (e.g., Myanmar) and eastern (e.g., Indonesia and Timor Leste (one day)) areas of Southeast Asia in their own time zones would achieve the same economic benefits. 

Rather, the process of engaging ASEAN leaders and citizens in formulating ASEAN Common Time or ASEAN Central Time would strengthen ASEAN identity as the ASEAN Community develops after 2015. This would be useful for all three pillars of ASEAN, not just the AEC, and particularly if done in conjunction with strengthening the ASEAN institutions.