by Mai Hien
I carried out a small, informal survey on my own recently.
I spoke to students from several universities in Ha Noi about ASEAN, wanting to learn a bit about what they thought of the concept and ideal of the ASEAN Community (AC), which is expected to materialise in 2015.
Every student knew the name ASEAN, but most did not know much else. They did not know much about its history, its aims and so on. Some of the students could not even list all the member states that make up the bloc.
If this was the level of awareness among college students, the same would be true of much of the general public in the country, just two years before the grand ambition of ASEAN Community (AC) is to be realised, I thought.
And what about populations in other ASEAN countries?
The results of surveys done in 2012 on "ASEAN Community Building Efforts" were released by the ASEAN Secretariat recently.
They found that 81 per cent of the general public in the capital cities of member states were familiar with the name, ASEAN, but as many as 76 per cent lacked basic understanding about the regional bloc.
"Businesses amongst these cities have a relatively better understanding with a handful of them in the process of preparing themselves with activities related to the promotion of ASEAN integration," a report on the surveys said.
Both businesses and the public are supportive of ASEAN integration in general, with the former believing it would boost their international competitiveness, create more employment opportunities, allow freer travel, and most importantly, foster peace and security in the region.
However, significant sections of both the general public and the business community were also concerned about the negative impacts of integration.
The surveys found that there are fears that free labour migration would see local employees lose their jobs and local firms would face greater competition from within the region and beyond that could force them out of business.
Another concern expressed was that existing development gaps among the nations would widen. Respondents felt that the more developed nations within the bloc are better placed to reap the benefits of integration, and they could leave behind the less developed ones, especially the CLMV (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Viet Nam) group.
"The ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) will bring in large opportunities and challenges but Vietnamese enterprises have a modest awareness of this," Tran Thu Huong, director of Viet Nam Chamber of Commerce and Industry, was quoted by the Vietnam Economic News as saying at a recent workshop.
A survey by the Network ASEAN Forum showed only 20 per cent of Vietnamese businesses are fully aware of future AEC opportunities and challenges. This is not a good sign because local firms have very little time to adapt to the integration process and ensure that they strengthen their hold on the domestic market, Huong said.
At a seminar held in Ha Noi last December, ASEAN General Secretary Le Luong Minh said lack of knowledge about ASEAN among businesses and general people is a significant hurdle.
Although ASEAN members have reached a lot of agreements, one of the biggest challenges is the delay in incorporating the content of regional agreements into national action plans, strategies and laws, Minh said.
But the bigger question still remains: How can awareness of the AC be raised to a level where it really matters to the people?
Nguyen Nam Duong, Deputy Director General of Institute for Foreign Policy and Strategic Studies under Diplomatic Academy of Viet Nam, says ASEAN has basically been an inter-governmental organisation and this will remain true even after 2015.
This means that the integration is happening more at the governmental level rather than through increased people-to-people contacts and exchanges, he said.
However, he also said that it can't be denied that the role of people, civil society and non-governmental organisations in ASEAN connectivity is increasing as a result of efforts made to build the ASEAN Economic Community and ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC).
The visa waiver between ASEAN countries, removal of tariffs, encouragement of intra-region investment as well as flagship events like the Southeast Asian (SEA) Games and ASEAN Football Federation Cup have helped strengthen people-to-people contact.
These are very important steps, but have they given the people a stake in the AC?
Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung recently approved an action plan that seeks to raise public awareness of the ASEAN Community – its concept, objectives, values and interests.
The plan mentions increased media coverage, fact-finding trips for journalists, seminars, regional contests and other initiatives. It says Viet Nam will continue strengthening the legal framework on the principle of making it people-centred. It will also ensure that national laws are compatible and in harmony with international norms in order to effectively carry out regional integration activities in Viet Nam.
Will all these steps prove sufficient?
I think the findings of all recent surveys show something very important.
They show that there is low awareness of the AC initiative in general, but also that there are concerns about the process.
They show leaders of all ASEAN nations that they have not succeeded in communicating the concept and ideal of regional unity effectively to both the business community, especially small and medium enterprises, and the general public.
But even before the communication lacunae are addressed, it is important that the leaders take seriously the legitimate concerns that people have about the integration process.
It is not enough that the leaders offer rhetorical assurances. They should set out clearly the steps they are taking or will take to ensure that the fears of the business community as well as the general public are redressed.
In saying this, I have a bigger concern.
Are the leaders themselves aware of the implications? Have they studied well the benefits and problems that other blocs have faced in their integration process?
My guess is that they have, but have not been able to communicate their understanding, not just to the business community and the general public, but also to officials at all levels that are tasked with fostering the integration process.
Given that there is not much time left, governments should act without delay in giving the public a voice in the regional integration process, creating transparent space and opportunity for them to ask questions and offer opinions.
This will give people a greater stake in the process, remove bottlenecks, enhance understanding and ensure long-term viability and success of the ASEAN Community. — VNS