With just two years left before a 2015 deadline, business leaders gathered at the 6th ASEAN & Asia Forum said progress has been made, but a true ASEAN integration is still a long way off.

SINGAPORE: ASEAN member states have been working for more than a decade on integrating the 10 countries into a single and seamless marketplace known as the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC).

But with just two years left before their 2015 deadline, business leaders gathered at the 6th ASEAN & Asia Forum on Thursday said progress has been made, but a true ASEAN integration is still a long way off.

A big part of creating one ASEAN economy is ensuring seamless, cross-border trade and investment.

But with just two years left before the December 2015 deadline for an integrated ASEAN economy, some business leaders said those perks still aren’t in place.

Charon Wardini Mokhzani, CEO of CIMB Investment Bank, said: “If we were to go to any country in ASEAN and say we want to do business there, they don’t say, ‘Oh, you are from ASEAN, therefore you get X,Y,Z.’ They say, ‘You are a foreign bank and therefore we will treat you like any other foreign bank.’ In fact, sometimes you get treated worse than any other foreign banks because some countries have signed treaties with… the US or Europe.”

He said the 2015 deadline won’t be hit, and while big companies seem to realise that, the smaller companies with limited budgets don’t.

He said: “While the AEC deadline hasn’t changed, I do not think come January 2016, suddenly we will have an open market in ASEAN. So if an SME (small and medium enterprise) starts gearing up and investing thinking that is going to happen, it will be very unfortunate for the SME.”

Other panellists said bottlenecks still revolve around moving goods – and at times people – from country to country, and tightening regulations in places like Indonesia aren’t helping things.

Heinrich Jessen, who is the chairman of Jebsen & Jessen (SEA), said that if ASEAN governments want to truly integrate by 2015, they need to do three things – become more dedicated, increase the budget and talk with the private sector.

He said: “I think it would be very good if governments start talking to companies, big and small, from other ASEAN companies. That dialogue should happen.

“It is not just speaking, it is also money. For all the infrastructure we need in ASEAN, it is trillions. You need ASEAN companies to be attracted to the idea of ASEAN integration so the money can flow for big companies, to make available big resources for big projects.”

Panellists said hitting that 2015 deadline could help ASEAN become more competitive in a world economy that still faces strong headwinds.

– CNA/ms