Association of Southeast Asian Nation (ASEAN) was founded in 8th of August 1967, guided by the principles of cooperation, respect for justice and rule of law between founding members. Today, the group has grown into ten strong members countries and that’s not including the ASEAN +3 together with our Japanese, South Korean and Chinese partners. Together, they represent a bloc of countries with a collective GDP and trade higher than all Eurozone countries combined. If considered as a single entity, ASEAN can be regarded as among the Top 10 largest economy in the world.
This year, it will be a memorable year for ASEAN because this bloc will start introducing solid action plans to achieve a single market for goods, services, capital and labour in this region. Such economic integration will bring much prosperity to this region of over 600 million people, as the majority of the working force are relatively young and the middle class population is rising rapidly.
As the chairman of ASEAN for Year 2015, Malaysia has embarked in many initiatives to raise awareness and also to strengthen the relationship between member nations. One of the main thrusts in my country’s agenda is to promote peaceful measures of diplomacy and restraint to prevent conflicts from escalating in ASEAN. Last year, for the first time in many decades of insurgency in Mindanao province of Southern Philippines – a long and lasting peace can finally be achieved with the signing of final annex of peace agreement by Philippines Government and MILF rebel representatives. This negotiation was facilitated by the Malaysian government. Without any unnecessary hindrances as the result of armed conflict, residents will finally be able to move freely in their daily endeavours and participate in the economic development there.
Recently, the exodus of Rohingya communities in rickety fishing boats seeking refuge to other countries, mass graves near borders and cross-border human smuggling were another big challenges faced by the ASEAN community. Although reluctant to accept these refugees in the beginning, Malaysia took the matter seriously and tried accommodating any refugees who arrive at our shore in the spirit of ASEAN friendship. To address future issues on people trafficking and smuggling in ASEAN, Malaysia and its neighbouring countries have agreed to increase cross border cooperation and intelligence sharing to prevent loss of lives.
On the other hand, to increase cultural and knowledge sharing between ASEAN member states, Malaysian government and many Malaysian companies are actively working hand in hand sponsoring students from ASEAN countries to study in our local universities. Such initiative spurs both Malaysian and ASEAN member students to understand each other better, thus, fostering long lasting friendship. Once graduated from Malaysian universities, some choose to continue staying and working in Malaysian companies, indirectly bridging the gap between the local and its overseas subsidiaries whilst contributing to the economy. As it has always been the Malaysian government’s policy to encourage foreign nationals to have access to tertiary education here, foreign nationals who wish to study here are able to apply student visa easily. To date, Malaysia is currently hosting over 130,000 foreign students in universities nationwide. Moreover, qualified professionals regardless of nationalities are free to work anywhere in Malaysia.
Ease of banking among ASEAN member States is also among the policies undertaken by the Malaysian Government. To expedite integration into ASEAN community, Malaysia is beginning to liberalize its banking sector and granting more licences to foreign operators. Now, foreign investors are allowed a bigger ownership stakes in Malaysian banking sector. This incentive will further increase competitiveness among such entity. These days, it is not uncommon to see overseas ASEAN bank branches like Bangkok Bank or OCBC Bank of Singapore in your vicinity in Malaysia. At the same time, many Malaysian-owned banks such as CIMB, Maybank and Public banks are also actively opening branches and exploring other opportunities in many ASEAN countries. Customers – foreigners or Malaysians alike are already benefiting through this ease of cross-border banking transactions without paying the extra charges normally imposed for withdrawing from different banks.
Although citizens of ASEAN come in all colour and shapes, the road to regional integration is not very far from sight. As the economies of ASEAN members are in the state of liberalizing gradually, the ultimate goal of ASEAN as a single market is undoubtedly achievable. Continuous understanding of the differences in culture and way of thinking will further accelerate all nations to be united as one. Are you ready for it?
By KYLE TAN JIN SOON, ASEAN Correspondent from Malaysia