THE Asean Community will be a reality come Dec 31, the 2015 Kuala Lumpur Declaration on the Establishment of the Asean Community having been signed by the 10 Asean leaders yesterday. Built on the three pillars of a Political and Security Community, an Economic Community and a Socio-Cultural Community, the Asean Community is slated as “a politically cohesive, economically integrated, socially responsible, and … truly people-oriented, people-centred”.
Beginning with the Bangkok Declaration almost half a century ago, the organisation intended to foster the security of Southeast Asia, reaped the dividends of the resulting regional peace and stability to become today’s area of economic prosperity. Friendship and cooperation being the cornerstone of Asean, this has naturally meant that going ahead as a community is inevitable given its collective natural advantages. Together, the member countries have a combined population of 630 million, though diverse and disparate, it is larger than Europe (500 million) and North America (444 million). It is currently the seventh largest economy of the world with a Gross Domestic Product of US$2.4 trillion which is expected to double by 2020, and by mid-21st century it would rank fourth globally. Asean has, therefore, enormous potential economically as a combined entity. Already the Asean Free Trade Area (Afta) has seen tariff barriers coming down and the advantages are evident. As Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak pointed out, Afta has been a cost-saving exercise for the manufacturing industries of the region and has improved its global competitiveness.
As stated, Asean’s success rests on its security pact which has brought peace to a region threatened with conflict. The example of the Philippines’ claim to Sabah during the lead-up to the formation of the Federation of Malaysia is an obvious example. Also, the initial partners of the region have forged ahead economically given half a century of peace and the newer members, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam — are catching up. Myanmar, meanwhile, is making strides with the recent elections won by the populist Aung San Su Kyi. If then, there is an area needing much work it is to form a cohesive socio-cultural community, which the PM describes as “something special” that “binds us, making our citizens feel that Asean courses through their veins”.
Undoubtedly a massive challenge in the face of the need to maintain national boundaries, firstly, not least because of the still uneven development between countries. Secondly, current cross-border crimes which are becoming increasingly more rampant will inhibit any intention of allowing freedom of movement. Thirdly, the patriotism thus far developed is not easily eroded for an Asean identity that is beset with restrictions. Member states, as the PM urged, must therefore “realise a politically cohesive, economically integrated, socially responsible” Asean. Only then can the people perceive of Asean as the entity delivering the benefits and thus create the attendant sense of belonging to the larger community. However, Asean’s economic successes thus far give cause for optimism. Once the comparative advantage between members is properly exploited to optimise far-reaching growth throughout Asean, the community will ensue.