Has Asean lost that loving feeling?

This is written by my boss, Shahriman Johari. Although his view is squarely on what bankers themselves can do to achieve "a single market", my 2 sen worth opinion is ...Asean's agriculture sector actually deserves more say, due to its sprawling value chain.

In moving towards a single market, Malaysians need to stop under-estimating our neighbours strengths and treat our brother countries with due respect.

Many estate managers and agronomists from Malaysia are already recruited by Indonesian planters. The private sector of the agriculture community is the prime mover of quality goods and talent within Asean.

In emulating the spirit of Asean that planters practise, it is time for Malaysia's civil service to be more open to collaborative efforts and not go on governing with silo mentality. Malaysia's oil palm, rubber and timber industries, which raked in more than RM100 billion in exports last year, have much to gain (and nothing to lose) if our policymakers put aside their ego and prioritise closer brotherly ties with Indonesia and Thailand.

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IT IS not easy to convince one government, let alone 10. But this is what Datuk Seri Nazir Razak, chief executive of CIMB Group Holdings Bhd, has been trying to do for the past few years.

It seems like he is on a lonely crusade. Although CIMB is what he calls a truly Asean organisation with its multi-Asean board of directors and large business presence in the region, Asean is not reciprocating.

There is no preferential treatment from Asean nations when CIMB wants to make the region its home market. It is still difficult to move people, capital and information between countries in the region. This is the context of Nazir's lecture at Universitas Indonesia in Depok, Jakarta, earlier this week.

The funny thing is, Asean actually wants to make life easier for business by creating a single economic market known as the Asean Economic Community (AEC).

It is a great vision. With 600 million people or almost 9 per cent of the world population, an economic size of US$1.8 trillion (RM5.4 trillion), and its strategic location, the AEC would be Asia's third largest economy. People, goods, and money can move around with little or no economic barriers.

The deadline is 2015, but the business community doesn't appear to be buying it.

Indonesian Glenn Yusuf, a CIMB group director, said there is a serious "disconnect" between Asean's plans and what business leaders believe. Nazir cited a survey where less than a fifth of businesses have any plans for AEC but more have plans for China.

Although he disagreed, I felt that his talk was rather scathing because he took aim at Asean, its business community and even the logo. "... let's face it, the 'hour glass' logo of Asean today is well past its 'sell-by date'; it's like seeing the Atari logo in a room of X-boxes".

He feels the Asean machinery is not ready, in need of a radical upgrade and a bigger budget. Again, he makes the call for a minister to promote Asean, an often misconstrued statement that people take to mean he has political ambitions.

While governments and logos make easy targets for criticism, Nazir also took a shot at his private sector brothers. Conventional thinking may place the responsibility of AEC squarely at the feet of governments, but it is actually Asean multinational companies that should be the change agents. Now, they are just bystanders to the AEC process.

"We cannot wait for the completion of multilateral agreements instituting an Economic Community before we invite businesses to come in. We need their cross-border activities and regional expansion to catalyse the economic integration planned and agreed by governments".

Truer words have never been spoken. Ask not what Asean can do for you but what you can do for Asean. The question is, who else wants to throw their hat in the ring?

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