Plans for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to achieve economic integration by 2015 have had its ten member countries in a state of confusion, excitement and fear for several months.
The ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) will come into force next year but much of the knowledge of its implications is still confined to the leaders involved in the negotiations and discussions — and it has yet to trickle down to ordinary citizens.
Jayant Menon, lead economist at the Asian Development Bank, said at a book launch in March that even the private sector is ill-informed about what individual governments are planning, or have agreed on, with respect to economic integration.
It is important to clear the air and emphasise how science could be a significant factor in making integration successful for the ASEAN countries and their people.
Slowly does it
For a start, referring to integration “by 2015” is a bit misleading, since integration will not officially begin until 31 December of that year.
Also the planned integration has little in common with the European Union model, where there is a single currency, judiciary and parliament — it only covers the free flow of goods and cross-border investments, labour and services.
While there will be a scorecard on compliance, there will not be a penalty for failing to hit targets, as the ASEAN takes a non-confrontational approach and works on consensus building on these issues.
The planned changes are thus less dramatic than is portrayed by analysts and the media, at least initially. Progress towards more complete economic integration will trickle in over the next five to ten years.
But nondramatic changes withstanding, the idea of integration makes perfect sense. ASEAN is a big market, comprising 670 million people; it is larger than the EU (520 million) and more than double the population of the United States. Together, the ASEAN countries represent the sixth largest economy in the world — and one that is growing fast, led by Indonesia.
A tightly knit regional group could make the region relevant on the world stage amid the rise of neighbouring economic giants China and India.
Crucially, ASEAN leaders have recognised the role of science and technology in promoting economic growth, and how it can help the process of integration. Discussions to date have included the role of science in cooperation and setting research priorities.
For instance, roundtable discussions have thrashed out the details on technology cooperation and commercialisation. There are also continuous negotiations on ‘mutual recognition arrangements’: discussions on the movement of professionals — accountants, dentists, doctors and engineers — within the region through standardised licensing and registration.
And science could help certain sectors or countries become more financially competitive. This is something badly needed in the Philippines, for instance, where the cost of doing business is high, bureaucracy cumbersome and traffic bad.
Another area of concern is the harmonisation of standards on policies that promote healthy competition, intellectual property rights, and customs procedures, as well as laboratory testing and certification of exported products.
ASEAN members must agree on scientifically accepted technologies and procedures to manage the flow of goods between them. This would apply to numerous agricultural products from the region, in particular bananas, mangoes, pineapples and tiger prawns, that were banned by certain countries in the past due to unacceptable levels of harmful pesticides or chemical residues, even though they were deemed safe by the exporting countries.
Without ASEAN members agreeing to standards that can be used across the region, and are accepted globally, more powerful countries will continue to exploit trade-barrier schemes such as excessively stringent limits on certain ingredients — a problem that will persist even within the integrated ASEAN community.
Benefits and readiness
Key sectors where cooperation on science and research will be crucial under the integrated community include disaster management and preparedness, education, healthcare, industry and IT.
Science can also play a big role in energy security by making the most of the region’s abundant biofuel crops and sunshine. Cooperation could begin by countries working together to realise an ASEAN power grid, for example, a concept that has been discussed for more than ten years without any significant progress.
Integration could also benefit young scientists and researchers pursuing graduate degrees by increasing the availability of financial support for internships outside their home countries and by offering opportunities to do coursework in prestigious institutions within the region. This could help soften the impact of the brain drain on the region.
Realising these benefits will, however, be a challenge. Harmonising policies is difficult and cumbersome — ASEAN bureaucracy is even worse than the bureaucracy within individual governments. And the political hurdles are high.
There is also the real issue of readiness to integrate. As the start date for integration approaches, there is growing concern amongst the poorer ASEAN members that they will not be able to compete against the stronger economies of Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand.
To make them more competitive, individual member countries must strengthen their research and development capabilities where they have advantages, for example human resources in the Philippines, and make sure that local concerns are not neglected over regional ones.
And for science to make a really meaningful contribution, each country needs to understand and clarify the demands that integration would put on their various economic sectors and development concerns. This would make it easier to clarify the role of science and research in meeting those demands.