On the 26th of September 2019, The Institute of Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS ) hosted a public forum titled “ASEAN Prosperity Forum” at the DoubleTree Hilton, Jalan Tun Razak, Kuala Lumpur. The event saw the launch of 3 reports, namely ‘ASEAN Integration Report 2019’, ’An Evolving ASEAN:Vision and Reality’ and finally, ‘The importance of Intellectual Property rights for progress:A reform agenda for the ASEAN countries.’
Laurence Todd, Director of Research at IDEAS, provided an insight of what the 3 reports had to offer. With respect to the ASEAN Integration Report, he explained that it is designed to highlight issues and raise questions over the development of ASEAN and its role in supporting the prosperity of its member states and its citizens. Subsequently, he gave a summary of the book “An Evolving ASEAN” by elucidating that the book covers a broader perspective of ASEAN and where it stands in its current trajectory towards integration. Lastly, Laurence touched on the 3rd and final report on Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) which is about the status of IPR within ASEAN.
Next, Azam Wan Hashim, Researcher at IDEAS, presented on the success of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC). He argued that while the total trade in goods between ASEAN and the world has increased over time, the rate of intra-ASEAN trade has remained relatively stagnant. A similar trend is also seen in intra-ASEAN trade in services, as from a total value of US$703b of trade in services between ASEAN and the world, only a mere 16.5% of trade in services are intra-ASEAN. He also discussed on investments and FDI flows, concluding that ASEAN members have increasingly flowed towards the manufacturing and services sector. The main takeaways from his presentation was that while ASEAN has been making progress rather slowly, 647 action lines have been fully or partially implemented. This was further supported as ASEAN member states have become significantly integrated into global value chains which have been pretty successful in developing ASEAN as a production base.
Following Azam’s presentation, Dr Jayant Menon, Lead Economist at Asian Development Bank was given the opportunity to unveil his book titled “An Evolving ASEAN: Vision and Reality”. He gave an overview of the 7 chapters of the book and raised several questions, most notably “What were the original motivations for the creation of ASEAN, and what was the original vision for ASEAN cooperation?”. He declared that “ASEAN is the most successful grouping amongst those of the developing world”, commending how ASEAN has transformed in many aspects, especially from a political security organisation to dealing with various issues in the economic arena. He highlighted that there has been rapid economic development in all member states; hence reducing poverty and improving living standards. Dr Jayant then drew attention to the challenges that ASEAN face. Through this, he stressed that ASEAN ought to balance political and economic objectives, strengthen the AEC’s implementation and ASEAN’s institutions and lastly, balance global, regional and national interests. He reinforced that this can only be done provided that relationships are built upon trust, respect and personal friendships between member countries.
In his keynote address, YB Dr Ong Kian Ming, Deputy Minister of International Trade and Industry, acknowledged the importance of the ASEAN Integration Report 2019 in providing information on what ASEAN can truly achieve. He emphasized that the scorecard is a good reference point to track down how ASEAN has progressed. He also commented that there are two indicators that caught his attention- the movement of skilled labor and good governance, which were scored as no evidence in the report. He stressed that these two areas are pertinent in the process of the ASEAN integration that cannot be overlooked to align with the goal of the Sustainable Development Goal.
He mentioned that ASEAN signed a memorandum on e-commerce as a digital economic initiative to push towards greater cross-border trade space. He hoped that intra-countries trade can increase beyond the 25% mark. Regarding Malaysia’s concern on the non-tariff measures (NTM), he suggested the formation of clear guidelines in dealing with the NTM and NTB issue at the ASEAN regional level. YB Dr Ong also shared some speculative thoughts on the impact of US-China conflict on ASEAN. He hypothesized that the US-China conflict could act as a possible catalyst for greater intra-ASEAN trade and investment in the wake of the greater role ASEAN can play in the global supply chain. Quoted from the closing remark of his speech, he said “when these two giants are fighting, we cannot do much to solve it, what we can do is to find a way to maximize the potential benefit that can come for Malaysia and also ASEAN”.
The first panel of the forum was a discussion regarding ‘An Evolving ASEAN:Vision and Reality”, moderated by Dr Jayant Menon, who was joined by Dr. Tham Siew Yean (Senior Fellow, ISEAS- Yusoff Ishak Institute), Encik Mohd Zahid Abdullah (Senior Director, ASEAN Economic Integration Division,MITI) and Bunn Nagara (Senior Fellow, Institute for Strategic and International Studies) as esteemed panellists. Dr Jayant Menon put forward several questions to initiate the panel discussion. The first matter brought up was to assess ASEAN’s performance and whether it has realized its original vision to keep up with the challenges faced. Besides that, he also questioned the role of Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and ASEAN’s relevance in the future.
Dr Tham Siew Yean pointed out that the AEC is still a work in progress as the aspirations of AEC in 2015 have not yet been achieved. She then went on to look deeper into the AEC 2025, suggesting that the idea of an ‘economic community’ has not been fulfilled yet because of the challenges that ASEAN faced in terms of the diversity in political systems, development level, trade and FDI openness and many more. She reiterated that it is important for ASEAN to be able to consolidate in the bigger region. This links back to the RCEP goal and global value chains. To wrap up her thoughts, she concluded that the RCEP agreement will not be a very high level agreement, and if completed, it would need to be upgraded over time to balance the interests of all parties in order for ASEAN to move forward.
Encik Zahid began his opening remarks by referring to the core of ASEAN Integration as ‘trade in goods and services, investments and the movement of natural persons’. He highlighted that the main difference between AEC 2015 and AEC 2025 is just a matter of strengthening the blueprint. As for new elements in AEC 2025, he said that more focus will be given to e-commerce, global value chains (GVC) and regulatory practices. Zahid also addressed the fact that the issue of NTB and NTM have to be given more emphasis on to facilitate trade within ASEAN. He compared the intra-ASEAN trade system to the likes of NAFTA and stated that there is still room for improvement.
Bunn Nagara evaluated ASEAN’s performance by stating that ‘it is as good as ASEAN countries can make it’, given the vast differences in diversity both politically and economically. Although ASEAN has been making considerably sluggish progress, he asserted that ASEAN has not realized its vision and still has a long way to go. According to him, ASEAN’s resilience is what keeps it going and their adaptability to adjust to various economic circumstances propel them to go further. He urged ASEAN to be more unified and cohesive it its efforts to extend their common interest.
Philip Stevens stressed on the importance of Intellectual Property (IP) in today’s economy. Malaysia has undergone from an agrarian economy to a manufacturing economy. It has embarked on some high-tech manufacturing projects today, yet, Malaysia is still stuck in the middle-income state. He said that Malaysia should leverage on the IP to get out of the middle-income trap. He cited the US for example, the intangible service sector taking over the manufacturing sector as the dominant sector in the market today. As a result of the change in the global manufacturing value-chain, more attention should be given to the Intellectual Property Right and that IP protection should be played out especially in the aspects of patent, copyright and trademark. Philip Stevens commented that Malaysia is doing well in the IP protection in Asia but there are challenges to be addressed to improve the whole IP protection system.
The 2nd panel discussion on “Reforming Intellectual Property Rights towards a Knowledge-based Economy” was moderated by Ali Salman as the CEO of IDEAS and attended by Naser Jaafar (CEO of Agensi Inovasi Malaysia). The panellists were Benjamin Thompson(President of Malaysian Intellectual Property Association), Prof. Dr Ida Madieha Abdul Ghani Azmi (from Ahmad Ibrahim Kulliyyah of Laws,IIUM) and Associate Prof. Dr.Tay Pek San from Faculty of Law, UM. Ali started the discussion by elaborating the importance of the IP to the country, it is evident that there is a correlation between the IP protection and the development of the county. Ali also commented that the central argument point between the US-China conflict is still on the issue of IPs. The panellists focused on the existing legal frameworks on IPs and patenting procedures in Malaysia. They highlighted on the robust aspects of the legal system, identifying key areas in the system that needs prioritising (such as domestic IPs), and issues that need more attention.
IDEAS’ CEO Ali Salman closed the panel discussion and the forum by first echoing the sentiments given by the panellists and presenters of the day’s event. Finally, he gave his closing remark by noting that Malaysia’s position and trajectory should be looked at with more optimism.