Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong says much work is still needed to establish the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), a single market for trade and development in 2015.
“From what our officials told me, I think on the economic side, we have 80 to 85 per cent of the work done,” Lee told reporters at an ASEAN program in Singapore last week.
“The rest of it depends on how urgently the countries see this as a priority.”
Lee, head of the most advanced economy in the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, said agreements have yet to be reached on rules for investments, services, market access and opportunities for professionals moving from one country to another.
“Singapore is a small member of ASEAN, a small country, and we’ll do our part to encourage all the others to come along and to help to reach a constructive understanding and to move ahead."
When asked how Singapore will contribute to reducing the development gap between itself and emerging markets such as Myanmar and Cambodia, he said several programs will be available.
“In terms of development, we have initiatives, like the initiative for ASEAN integration. We have human resource development programs, we have technical cooperation programs where many officials from the new members of ASEAN come and get exposed in Singapore to our developments, our work, how we are doing things, and pick up ideas which they can implement back home,” he said.
Cambodian economists had mixed reactions on prospects for economic integration, when borders across the region come down allowing for the free flow of labour, goods and services.
Kang Chandararot, director of the Cambodia Institute of Development Study, said businesses in the country aren’t equipped to compete with the rest of ASEAN, and that problem should be solved locally first.
“If you look at the private sector, I haven’t seen that they are strong enough. The entrepreneurial reputation is still at the level of family businesses,” he said. “It is not a happy time for us while rule of law is not in place, and you may know all international business standards demand rule of law,” Chandararot said on Monday.
But Sok Siphana, head of the Cambodia Development Research Institute and former secretary of state for the Ministry of Commerce, said he’s bullish on economic integration.
“I am looking at a macro policy instead of a micro issue. This is a golden opportunity. We will not be talking about 15 million Cambodians. We will consider us part of a market of 600 million people,” he said.
Siphana argued that once Cambodia’s economy is interwoven into ASEAN’s, Cambodia can absorb any company that wishes to partner with local businesses for production and export.
He dismissed concerns that endemic corruption would hinder the ASEAN plan.
“We don’t need a headache about corruption. Come on, corruption is everywhere and you should be aware that whether investors want to invest in your country or not depends on the advantages they get, the money they make and the market availability to sell their products,” Siphana said, capping his argument with a metaphorical flourish.
“I think by 2015, Cambodia will become the daughter of a rich family. We will no longer be the daughter of a poor family that no man wants to marry with.”