Regional grouping Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) has the potential to become the fourth largest economy in the world by 2050, provided the 10 member nations strengthen their close ties and remove barriers to trade.
Prime Minister Dato’ Sri Najib Razak, in acknowledging the neighbourliness and unity within the bloc, said Asean must become “People-Centred” and work for the benefit of all in the region.
“Our potential is great. We already have the third largest workforce in the world. We have a largely youthful, talented and increasingly skilled population of over 600 million people.
“International trade has almost tripled in the last 10 years. Our current combined GDP is US$2.5 trillion and that figure is expected to rise to US$4 trillion in just five years.
“The OECD predicts overall annual growth of 5.6% over the next four years and if current trends continue, Asean is set to be the world’s fourth largest economy by 2050,” he said in his speech at the opening ceremony of the 26th Asean Summit in Kuala Lumpur.
This year’s two-day summit is split between Kuala Lumpur and Langkawi. Leaders from the 10 nations, namely Brunei, Indonesia, Myanmar, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand, are attending the summit.
In his speech, Dato’ Sri Najib (pic) said it is essential that measures to establish the Asean Economic Community continue so as to remove barriers to trade.
He added that Asean must become “people-centred” and work for the benefit of all in the region.
He added besides reducing tariffs, Asean must also focus on eliminating non-tariff barriers, such as overly burdensome regulations that hamper free and fair trade.
Such reforms, if enacted, would be transformative. It is estimated that if intra-Asean trade was boosted from the present 24% to 40%, the incremental impact on the Asean economy could be US$2.5 trillion dollars annually.
Differences and cooperative engagement
But in order to accomplish such goals, there is a need for a strong and united Asean that is friendly and believes in cooperative engagement with its neighbours, said the prime minister.
He added that there will always be differences and he hopes the 10 nations that make up the grouping would find ways to iron out any differences of opinion amicably.
“An Asean characterised by internal conflicts could never aspire to be a true community. To be a community, we must address internal conflicts within our region,” he said.
Dato’ Sri Najib stressed that there is a need to peacefully manage differences closer to home, including overlapping maritime claims in the South China Sea without tension increasing.
In his speech, the premier also touched on the growing threat of the so-called Islamic State, saying citizens who have joined forces with those in Syria and Iran to commit atrocities in the name of Islam are tragically misguided.
To counter this, he said we must put forward a positive narrative of moderation, of hope and peace.
To this end, it is important for Asean to promote good governance, higher standards of living, sustainable development, empowerment of women and greater opportunity for all people, he added.
Asean faces many challenges in the globalised world. Thus, it is important for the bloc to adhere to its founding declaration to promote freedom, social justice and fostering good understanding, good neighbourliness and meaningful cooperation among its member countries.
Dato’ Sri Najib used the recent troubles in Yemen to underscore the cooperation that binds Asean nations.
“In the ongoing turmoil in Yemen, many Malaysians found themselves trapped on the ground. We had to undertake a dramatic evacuation, transporting our citizens from Aden to Djibouti and subsequently to Jeddah on a Malaysian army aircraft.
“We evacuated our people alongside Asean nationals from Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Indonesia.
“I am happy to report that all are safe. But more than that I am gratified that similar exercises were carried out by the other Asean governments as well, each rendering assistance to the other’s citizens, as one. That is the spirit of Asean,” he said.
Dato’ Sri Najib stressed that a people-centred Asean would make citizens feel that they are Asean, and its future is their future. As such it is vital to engage with the people and listen to them.
To this end, he said Asean’s Leader’s Programme initiative will interact with different segments of society, representing youth, civil society organisations, business groups and Parliamentarians.
He added that Malaysia has put in place more people-centred programmes including the Asean Business and Investment Summit, the 1Asean Entrepreneurship Summit, the Asean SME Showcase and Conference and the Asean Young Leaders Summit.
“We are also thinking about our next generation of leaders and have started a Masters scholarship programme to allow students to study in well-established Malaysian public universities and thereafter make significant contributions in their own countries on their return,” said the prime minister.
All these initiatives and programmes are geared towards strengthening Asean and helping it grow to its full potential.
Dato’ Sri Najib concluded by saying that some economists are calling this the Asian Century. If the Asean member nations work together, they can ensure that is also becomes the Asean Century.