The Commonwealth Observer

Malaysia chairing ASEAN, has major ambitions to change it for the better

Making the ASEAN Economic Community a fact by the end of the year is to be the main goal of Malaysia’s 2015 chairmanship of the international Pacific-centred body.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations is a political and economic organization of 10 Southeast Asian nations, three of which are members of the Commonwealth.

It was formed on in August 1967 by Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand. Since then, membership has expanded to include Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar (Burma), and Vietnam. Its purpose is to speed economic growth, social progress, and sociocultural evolution. It also strives to preserve regional peace and stability, and affords its members and to sort differences peacefully.

A recent essay by Mustapa Mohamed, Malaysia’s minister of international trade and industry, provides subtle but significant indicators of the government’s leadership objectives and the approach to accomplish this. The essay in no way represents a definitive official policy, but it does afford encouraging affirmation of the growing need to address non-tariff measures (NTMs) and to galvanize the concept of an ASEAN identity.

First, Mustapa makes clear that Malaysia will not avoid the crucial and politically sensitive task of addressing protectionism of other ASEAN members. If successful here, Malaysia’s effort could help set expectations for a new standard of behavior. This would help ease a significant challenge that impedes realizing ‘free movement of goods, services, investment, skilled labor, and freer flow of capital’.

Protectionism in ASEAN is rampant, which is remarkable. Binding tariff elimination commitments under the ASEAN Trade in Goods Agreement has resulted in duty-free treatment for more than 90of tariff lines. And members have little recourse to shield unprepared or nascent local manufacturing industries from exposure towards the AEC.

Consequently, the non-tariff has increased distorting intra-regional trade. Malaysia’s plans to prioritize this issue can help set the tone and momentum for ASEAN to conduct a serious and honest examination of NTMs.

Second, as Mustapa rightly highlights, misinformation means there is persistent skepticism — especially from industry — about the tangible benefits (and costs) of liberalization measures under the AEC. Consequently, Malaysian PM Najib Razak says that under Malaysia’s leadership, ‘the people must understand what actually ASEAN is… and doing’.

It is unrealistic to expect Malaysia to overcome years of delays and disagreements over non-compliance in the AEC implementation process. But MITI’s clear perspective on the leadership ASEAN needs provides a basis for optimism that the body can focus its will and resources to implement the last mile integration measures the region needs in 2015.

Source — Daniel Wu, Pacific Forum analyst in EAF

About the author

Murray Burt

Murray Burt

Murray Burt has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, starting as a cadet reporter in New Zealand, and doing two stints with wire services on Fleet Street before settling in Canada in the newspaper business. He is a retired managing editor of the Winnipeg Free Press, and former city and national editor of The Globe and Mail in Toronto. He is a past-president of the CJA and has been a life member since 2003, participating in each of its conferences and CPU’s conferences since 1990. He is a director of the Advisory Council of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, based in New Delhi; president of Manitoba’s newly-reconstituted Royal Commonwealth Society; and has directorships in the Duke of Edinburgh Awards and the Canadian Forces Liaison Council (western Canada).

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