On 18th March 2015, Southeast Asia Network for Development (SEANET) co-organised a briefing on ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) with the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) at Doubletree by Hilton Kuala Lumpur. Chairman of ASEAN Business Advisory Council Tan Sri Dr Munir Majid, and Secretary General of the Ministry of International Trade and Industry Datuk Dr Rebecca Sta Maria were present at the event as guest speakers. The briefing was attended by representatives from 30 civil society organisations (CSOs).

Wan Saiful Wan Jan, Chief Executive of IDEAS and Director of SEANET commenced the briefing by giving an introduction of SEANET to the audience. SEANET, which is a project of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS), co- organised the briefing to raise awareness about ASEAN Economic Community (AEC). AEC aspires to create a single market and production base with a free flow of goods, services, investments and skilled labour across ASEAN. However, there still appears to be widespread concern over the expected implications and the long term effects of AEC in the region.

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Datuk Dr Rebecca then presented on AEC by addressing the historical background of the ASEAN community and focused on the economic sector. She affirmed the strength of ASEAN as one of the emerging markets and then continued to elaborate further on ASEAN`s achievements with respect to economic integration. Datuk Dr Rebecca asserted that the guiding principle for AEC is progressive liberalisation and emphasized that the journey of economic liberalisation cannot stop. AEC is essentially a work in progress according to her.

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Tan Sri Munir then took the floor and presented on the impact of AEC on small and medium enterprises (SMEs).He elaborated further on impact of AEC on SMEs and the problems faced by them. He also quoted the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) as examples of open market platforms and urged the SMEs to accept the competition through those platforms. The various initiatives undertaken by ASEAN Business Council (ABC) to facilitate the process for SMEs were also mentioned. Tan Sri Munir also emphasized that it is essential to have a common ASEAN identity to materialise the efforts undertaken.

After the speeches, Wan Saiful then opened the floor for questions. Wan Saiful commented that he favours trade liberalisation but prefers unilateral trade agreements. Datuk Rebecca responded by explaining that unilateral trade implementation was difficult in Malaysia and emphasised the benefits of bilateral and multilateral trade agreements instead.Watshlah Naidu from Women’s Aid Organisation Malaysia (WAO) then questioned on “People Centred ASEAN” and strengthening the role of people in it, and also mentioned the negative impacts of trade liberalisation such as land grabbing and displacement of people. Datuk Dr Rebecca responded by emphasising the need to increase youth and women participations and also explained about the conflict of interest in terms of land matters between federal and the state government.

Cynthia Gabriel from Centre to Combat Corruption and Cronyism (C4) then raised some questions on the impact of AEC on domestic taxation laws and priorities in terms of licensing permits. Tan Sri Munir responded by affirming corporate governance as the answer especially through enforcement. Datuk Rebecca on the other hand acknowledged the shortcomings of MITI in terms of lack of engagement with the CSOs on such matters and added further there more consultations should be done in future.

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In essence, both guest speakers agreed that liberalisation benefit small businesses. Wan Saiful further added that “With the backdrop of Malaysia serving as chair for ASEAN this year, we hope to help bridge civil society, business and governments. He concluded the briefing by mentioning that it was the first of many other engagements on AEC and further engagements is necessary.

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