Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Examining Attitudes Towards ASEAN (Updated)

NB: This is an update of an earlier post on this blog's readership statistics. Happy New Year!

Last week ASEAN released a Survey on ASEAN Community Building Efforts.  Not surprisingly, the survey showed that the overall understanding of ASEAN by its own citizens is relatively low.  While 81 percent of those living in the capital cities of ASEAN can recognize the name of the regional grouping, 76 percent lack a basic understanding of what ASEAN actually does.  The survey blames this perception gap on language barriers and differences in educational levels among member states.

Of note to the ASEAN Economic Community, the survey, funded by the Japan-ASEAN Integration Fund, found that

In terms of perceptions, businesses and the general public both perceive ASEAN integration as having positive impacts to ASEAN. Businesses express a view that AEC will improve the overall ASEAN economy and this will aid them in competing within the global arena. The general public, on the other hand, believe that the integration will create more employment opportunities and allow them to travel more freely within ASEAN. Furthermore, they believe moving towards ASEAN Community will help bring peace and security throughout the region. However, there are some negative perceptions of ASEAN integration. Businesses and the general public are afraid that labour migration might be intensified to the extent that it could cause local employees to lose their jobs. Another concern is that local producers could face greater competition from companies of other ASEAN countries and beyond.

These findings are consistent with media coverage and my own anecdotal experience, as I often describe in this blog.

Statistics from this blog also indicate that interest in ASEAN varies widely among the ASEAN members and the world at large.  Here are the top ten countries in terms of page views (as of end 2013):

United States
United Kingdom

As I am based in Singapore, that Singapore would be ranked first is no surprise. The posts on stamp duty on property purchases by foreigners have been the most viewed pages.

Thailand is third, reflecting the “Thai anxiety” that has manifested itself in that country’s insecurity regarding its competitive position within ASEAN and with other countries.

Indonesia’s high ranking is consistent with the ASEAN Secretariat’s location in Jakarta and with Indonesia’s historical leadership of ASEAN as the largest country in the grouping.

Cambodia is surprisingly high, but perhaps not so, given that Cambodia served as ASEAN chair in 2012.

Myanmar, Laos and Brunei, with their low internet penetration and/or small size, don't show up in these statistics at all.

What does surprise me is that readership in Malaysia and the Philippines is much lower, almost as low as Vietnam’s readership. Both countries have wide internet penetration, good English language capabilities and an active media.  These attributes are not shared by Vietnam, yet the three countries are at the same apparent interest level.  The relatively low interest level in these two founding members of ASEAN in the blog, and presumably, the AEC, is something I will continue to study.

Finally, among non-ASEAN members, the United States has a keen interest in the blog. Yet ironically, it is not a bilateral FTA partner with ASEAN as a grouping.  Of such FTA partners, only India appears in the top 10.  Korea, Japan, Ausralia-New Zealand and China do not appear (although blogs are blocked in China).  Because the blog software does not consolidate data for the EU countries, its presence will be understated.

Thus, I would agree with the Survey on ASEAN Community Building Efforts that understanding of ASEAN is inconsistent within the region and elsewhere.   The interest in this blog is motivated by both optimistic and pessimistic views of the regional grouping. In fact, the much lower readership in Malaysia and the Philippines perhaps reflects indifference towards the AEC in general.

I would also agree with the authors of the survey that greater efforts need to be made to engage businesses and the general public in ASEAN.  For businesses, there needs to be a clear policy on the free flow of goods and services, the differences in competitiveness among member states and the impact of free movement of skilled labor.  For the general public, ASEAN needs to strengthen its organization and its ability to bring peace and security to its citizens, improve its economic situation and create more job opportunities. 
In other words, it is not just the message that needs to be improved, but the ASEAN “product” that needs to be improved.  Only by doing so will ASEAN’s people be best served by the ASEAN Community.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

How I Learned to Stop Fearing Myanmar as 2014 ASEAN Chair

Yesterday I attended a symposium on Myanmar as 2014 ASEAN Chair held by the ASEAN Studies Center at American University, Washington DC.  The symposium was conducted under Chatham House rules so I can’t discuss the details of the presentations and discussion.  Suffice it to say that the focus was more on Myanmar and less on the ASEAN institutions. 

Furthermore, nothing I heard today has significantly changed my view on Myanmar as ASEAN Chair, which I wrote about earlier this year here.  I think the Myanmar government has invested sufficient time and resources in human and physical infrastructure, and all parties in the country have committed to showing Myanmar’s political reforms to the outside world during its term as ASEAN Chair.   All of this means that the ASEAN meetings to be held in 2014 will probably go off without a hitch, at least on the logical side of things.

Substantively, as I wrote earlier this year, the relative lack of expertise among most of the Myanmar government in ASEAN matters means that the technical aspects of the ASEAN Economic Community will be left to the ASEAN Secretariat.   What cannot be resolved at the technical level, e.g., any political-security matters such as the South China Sea and more critical matters on the AEC, will most likely be back-stopped by the past and future ASEAN Chairs, Brunei and Malaysia. Both countries are well-experienced and capable, as evidenced by Brunei’s drama-free 2013 as ASEAN Chair.  Under this “troika” approach, any difficult matters will probably be left to Malaysia as 2015 ASEAN Chair to resolve (this is why it was so important to have Laos delay its stint as ASEAN Chair from 2015 to 2016, and why perhaps it would have been good to have had Indonesia and Brunei shadowing Cambodia in 2012).   

In any event, it seems that having Myanmar as ASEAN Chair in 2014 will also be drama-free, barring any “black swan” events.  Let’s hope it works out that way.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

ASEAN Infrastructure Fund Makes First Loan

Today the Asian Development Bank (ADB) announced that the ASEAN Infrastructure Fund (AIF) had issued its first loan. The US$ 25 million loan will help finance improvements in power transmission between Java and Bali in Indonesia.  The ADB and Government of Indonesia will finance the remainder of the US$ 410 million cost of the project.

I wrote about the creation of the AIF in 2011 here and I still think much the same, e.g., that the AIF needs both more funding and institutional support. The AIF has an annual loan portfolio of US$ 300 million, so its resources could easily be consumed by a single project the size of this Indonesian power transmission project.  Hence the AIF needs much greater funding if it is serve as a primary lender. On the other hand, if the AIF is to serve as a keystone lender, i.e., the initial source of funding that will attract other financing from private and public sources, then its institutional support has to augmented.  

In any event, today is but another small step in the creation of the ASEAN Community. However, that step needs to be followed up with additional financial and institutional support.