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Slow start, but future remains bright for ASEAN Economic Community: Analysts

SINGAPORE: Saturday (Dec 31) will mark the first year anniversary of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC).

Conceived as a single market and production base, the AEC is part of broader efforts to integrate ASEAN economies. But one year on from its inception, about 74 per cent of Singapore companies polled in a recent Singapore Business Federation (SBF) survey said they do not think the AEC has benefited them.

Associate Professor Simon Tay, chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA), said bigger companies have the capabilities to take advantage of opportunities from the AEC, but smaller business may not be so well equipped to do so.

“So the big test in the longer term will be whether the SMEs (small- and medium-sized enterprises) will be able to also play across the region,” he said. “And not just Singapore SMEs, (but also) Filipino SMEs, Indonesian SMEs.

“It will take some time because the integration is not just as deep. (There’s) still too much bureaucracy and rules standing in the way. The tariffs, I think are gone, but these non-tariff measures are almost like barriers to deeper integration.”

RHTLaw Taylor Wessing’s deputy managing partner Azman Jaafar agreed that the lack of resources is a stumbling block for smaller companies. However, he added that it “just means that you have to be a little more ingenious”.

IMPORTANT TO CHANGE MINDSET                             

ASEAN’s market of more than 600 million people, and almost US$ 3 trillion in combined GDP, represents vast opportunities for companies from the city-state of Singapore. But Mr Azman, who is also chairman of the law firm’s ASEAN Plus Group, said local companies could have traditional business models that limits the extent of their expansion outside of Singapore. 

“Local SMEs who want to benefit from the AEC must rethink how they are doing their business, and how they should change their mind set, and apply quite different rules of engagement,” he said.

Governments can also help to change these attitudes. Said Assoc Prof Tay: “Sometimes, SMEs, not just in Singapore but other countries – they are really on the defensive. Say (they) don’t let people in, because I can’t compete in my own home market.

“I think increasingly, governments have got to reassure SMEs that as the AEC opens up, they will be given assistance by ASEAN, by governments on the whole, to also go out and become more competitive, become more efficient on the whole about boundaries.”

There is also the cultural diversity of the 10 member countries in ASEAN to consider, said Mr Azman. “When our local businesses are able to appreciate these differences, they are probably better placed to get into these markets,” he said.

LONG TERM OUTLOOK BRIGHT

Observers agree that it is premature to write off the AEC despite its slow start. “There’s a right to get a bit disappointed with the AEC in the first year,” said Assoc Prof Tay. “But what makes me slightly optimistic is that, at the national level, different key economies have already started to see the need for reform.”

Mr Azman emphasised that the push for the AEC to succeed must not come from just the governments, but other key stakeholders too. “It’s easy to say that the government has got to push this. But at the end of the day, a lot of things happens without government assistance.

“Within industries and within countries, if we keep discussing this, we open up the discussion across borders. This creates a level of awareness that’s very different from the level of awareness in a local forum.” 

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