BY PETER LAVIÑA
In late 2012, I spent three weeks in Thailand and Cambodia studying small-farm systems of growing oil palm. I noticed that in many places where I went into in these two countries, the ASEAN emblem flies alongside their national flags.
Every night as I scanned their TV stations, I came across programs on the ASEAN. Mind you not just in one station, as in our case only at the government-owned PTV, but in a number of other commercial TV channels as well.
I observed the same spirited public information drive in Malaysia and Singapore when I visited these countries in 2013.
Our neighbors were really serious in preparing their people for the ASEAN integration by all these public information programs. The contrast was so stark in our case and I wondered then how our country was preparing us for the onset of the borderless ASEAN at the end of 2015.
The plan for the economic integration of the 10-member ASEAN was agreed upon as early as 2007 when ASEAN leaders adopted the blueprint for the ASEAN Economic Community.
It opens up our borders for the free flow of goods, services, capital and investments, and select skilled labors. How are we prepared for this new political, socio-economic and cultural environment?
Sometime on June 2013, in my own little way, I set up the Davao ASEAN Club and created a website as a forum to help inform and educate our people, particularly here in Davao. Angel Abella, then with Philexport Region 11, lent a hand later by extending our social media presence with a Facebook page.
We did little headway though because of the limited and volunteer nature of our efforts. It would have been the responsibility of our government to undertake this huge task. Unfortunately, within the bureaucracy only the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) was active in this regard as if the regional integration was only about trade or investments. It is not. It certainly is more than that. It would have been ideal had the President himself led the preparation of our country for this new regional regime by mobilizing both public and private sectors.
It is no surprise therefore that during the past two years, we have been in a catch-up mode doing our customary last minute frenzy. Haven’t you noticed how in almost all conventions of many government, business, professional, civic and sectoral organi-zations of late the theme on ASEAN has become the fad?
At the Mindanao Business Conference (Minbizcon) in Dipolog this week (September 2-4), the theme is “Winning the ASEAN, Gaining the Global Market.” Former Socio-economic Planning Secretary Cielito Habito is the main discussant on the topic on how to position Mindanao in the integrated ASEAN market.
Mindanao, because of its proximity and cultural roots with our ASEAN neighbors with borders with Indonesia, Malaysia and near Brunei, is expected indeed to play an important role for our country. It needs, however, to prepare well for this challenge. If the Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines-East ASEAN Growth Area is an indication, then we are headed nowhere. Launched over two decades ago, this sub-regional experiment unfortunately did not really have much headway into economic cooperation and complementation.
In the middle of writing this piece, I was able to tune in and watched two former government officials discussing ASEAN integration. Former DAR Secretary William Dar was guest at former Senator Joey Lina’s tele-radio program at dzMM.
(I had to pause and ponder at this point: why it appears more former officials are noisy about ASEAN than incumbent ones? Last month at the Manila Times 2nd Business Forum at Dusit in Makati, I was seated beside former Finance and Energy Secretary Jose Isidro Camacho, now Singapore-based as Vice Chair for Asia of Credit Suisse. He spoke about investment opportunities in the ASEAN, but he was skeptical about the preparedness of the whole region.)
Lina and Dar were talking about winners and losers in the borderless regional economy, and in what sectors where we are competitive and where we will be at the disadvantaged. The two were batting for our people to prepare as if we were going into war.
There is truly a lot of re-thinking and preparations needed on how we must take advantage of the regional integration. Mindanao’s agriculture-based economy will certainly be a hit with its high cost of production, low productivity, and lack of volume, among others, compared with our ASEAN neighbors.
We need to identify champions that we can promote among our neigh-bors. In the same way, our ASEAN neighbors would also be pushing for their own. We need to embrace the reality that the common market is here already. It will take many years to find genuine fruition for this common market concept. There will be many twists and turns, ups and downs as what is happening in the European Union. Our preparatory work would spell much our boom or doom.
We need new heroes. We need Filipinos with ASEAN thinking and ASEAN atti-tudes to be our role models.
Go figure yourself. Are you ready to be an ASEAN citizen?