Asean – just a five-letter word?

ASEAN celebrated its 50th anniversary on Aug 8. For many Malaysians – particularly those who are 40 years or younger – the regional group remains a five-letter word. Possible reasons for the regional bloc's recognition deficiency in this country include three negatives.

First, Asean's biggest achievement is a negative. Despite decades of distrust and divisive issues that continue to bedevil a few Asean members, there has been no armed conflict in Southeast Asia for 50 years. This peace has enabled Asean to focus on economic development.

Second, Asean lacks powerful institutions of governance. Unlike the European Union, Asean doesn't have a directly-elected Parliament – the Asean Inter-Parliamentary Assembly comprises parliamentarians from member countries.

Also absent is the equivalent of a European Court of Justice that interprets EU law and ensures its implementation and the European Court of Human Rights that ensures compliance with the European Convention on Human Rights.

Although there is an Asean Inter-Governmental Commission on Human Rights and the Asean Commission on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children, both institutions facilitate, rather than compel, compliance with human rights.

Similarly, the Asean Secretariat lacks the clout of the European Commission; the latter has the power to initiate legislation and to sign treaties.

Third, also missing is visa-free entry for Malaysians to all Asean countries. Malaysians require a visa to visit Myanmar. Additionally, the free movement of labour within Asean remains a laggard work in progress.

Despite the negatives, there have been some successes. One example is tariff reduction. Brunei. Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand have cut intra-regional tariffs for 99.2% of their tariff lines while Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam were given until 2018 to slash intra-regional tariffs to 0%, Tham Siew Yean wrote in Today newspaper recently.

However, "this has been partially offset by a rise in non-tariff measures, which increased by more than three-fold between 2000 and 2015," Jayant Menon, lead economist in the Economic Research and Regional Cooperation Department, at the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and Anna Cassandra Melendez, an ADB consultant, wrote jointly in Myanmar Times recently.

Some commentators claim comparing Asean with the EU is inappropriate. Asean opted for a shallow, rather than a deep, integration, an article titled "What lessons can Asean learn from the EU?" published by Wharton University of Pennsylvania suggests.

"For a long time, due to the enormous heterogeneity, including political rivalry, among its countries, any form of institutionalised integration proved to be a non-starter in Asia," the Wharton article says.

The Asean Secretariat is not "weak" compared to the EU Commission; it simply has a different function. As long as members insist on the sovereignty of national bodies in decision-making, Asean is confined to "shallow integration", the Wharton article points out.

Additionally, the EU had a head start over Asean. When Asean was established in 1967, the EU's predecessor – the European Economic Community formed 10 years earlier – had already eliminated intra-regional tariffs on most industrial goods and agreed on common tariffs on these goods against non-member countries.

Furthermore, the failure of regional groupings that attempted to follow the EU – the Latin American Free Trade Association, the East African Economic Community and the Central American Common Market – suggests Asean's less ambitious approach was a more feasible option.

Britain's proposed exit from the EU, popularly known as Brexit, underscores the merit of Asean's slow-and-steady approach. That Brexit negotiations have become increasingly ill-tempered – centred on the quantum Britain must pay to leave the bloc – suggests exiting is far more onerous than entering.

Going forward, Asean must deepen regional integration. Maximising the benefits of regionalisation requires member states to eliminate non-tariff barriers and to accelerate standardisation of administrative processes.

Because the next steps could trigger heated protests from local vested interests, strong political will is needed for the regional bloc to move forward decisively and significantly.

Among member countries, Malaysia's need for deepening regionaliasation is greatest. Singapore's advanced economy has carved a niche in services. Populous member countries – like Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam – with huge populations and abundant natural resources are enjoying rapid growth and will continue to attract foreign investment regardless of their membership in Asean.

With an estimated population of 32 million, including non-citizens, and a shortage of Malaysians willing to work in factories, building sites and plantations, this country depends on large numbers of foreigners to do jobs shunned by its nationals while its small population could limit this country's appeal to foreign businesses seeking to expand their export markets.

Given these constraints, regionalisation for Malaysia is a necessity rather than an option. Malaysia must accelerate efforts to convince member countries to deepen regional integration so that Asean will have further cause for joy 10 years later.

Opinions expressed in this article are the personal views of the writer and should not be attributed to any organisation she is connected with. She can be contacted at siokchoo@thesundaily.com