KUALA LUMPUR – Leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations will push for more engagement with the private sector to narrow the gap among their countries as the bloc strives toward a common market by the end of this year, according to a draft declaration set to be adopted by the leaders at a summit later this month.

Leaders from the 10 member countries in ASEAN are expected to meet in Kuala Lumpur for their annual summit on April 26 before heading to the northern island resort of Langkawi for an informal gathering the next day.

Malaysia plays host at a crucial juncture in ASEAN developments as this year marks the deadline for the formal establishment of the ASEAN Community, a project which entails closer integration through political security, and closer economic and socio-cultural relations.

On economic ties, the leaders agree to “encourage more engagement and interaction between ASEAN leaders and business leaders including small and medium enterprises to narrow the gaps within and among ASEAN as well as promote the free movement of peoples and skilled labor,” according to a draft obtained by Kyodo News titled “Kuala Lumpur Declaration on a People-Centered ASEAN.”

The ASEAN Economic Community blueprint envisaged an integrated market and production base with free flow of goods, services and investments, skilled labor and capital.

But there is a startling development gap among member countries. For example, Singapore’s gross national income per capita is 56 times bigger than that of Cambodia.

Skeptics have long voiced doubts over ASEAN’s ambition for closer integration given the grouping’s sacred stance on sovereignty and the increase in protectionism as national interest trumps regional ambition.

But host Malaysia has a plan to integrate the private sector, helping companies to expand across borders.

At the ASEAN economic ministers meeting last month, Idris Jala, minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, presented his “pathfinder project” proposal to the ministers where each country identifies 10 companies and gets all 100 to sit together and thrash out their problems trying to expand in other ASEAN member countries.

“Those are basically companies from ASEAN countries that want to expand but have encountered problems such as with approvals and other nontariff barriers. You will only know if you look at it company by company,” the official news agency Bernama quoted Idris as saying.

In addition to the Kuala Lumpur declaration, the ASEAN leaders are also expected to adopt the “Langkawi Declaration on the Global Movement of Moderates.”

The declaration calls for “a commitment to democratic values, good governance, equitable economic growth and adherence to social justice” as a way “to counter and address the root causes of terrorism, violent extremism and radicalism,” according to a draft obtained by Kyodo.

Southeast Asia has not been spared by extremists’ violence. Groups like the Indonesia-based Jemaah Islamiyah and the Abu Sayyaf based in southern Philippines have wrought terror.

And now, the latest threat is the growing influence of Islamic State militants. Officials say dozens of people in Southeast Asian countries have headed to Syria and Iraq to join IS.

ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. –Vivian Ho, Kyodo

==Kyodo