More needs to be done to explain the AEC to various stakeholders as deadline approaches
IT was the first engagement with about 100 representatives of the civil society organised by the International Trade and Industry Ministry on the Asean Economic Community (AEC).
At the session, which ran for more than two hours last Wednesday, it was a revelation indeed for the minister and officials that there was a lack of understanding and information on what the AEC is all about.
Despite feeling a bit under the weather, Minister Datuk Seri Mustapa Mohamed looked at ease when answering some hostile questions from the floor. He hardly asked for help from his officials present in the hall.
It was the minister himself who had insisted on arranging the meeting with the civil society NGOs, to brief them on the state of Asean economic integration and post Asean Economic Community 2015.
The AEC is scheduled to be launched at the end of next year, with the aim of grouping Asean countries into a single market and production base.
Consumers would have access to a cheaper and wider range of goods and services and enjoy a more extensive consumer protection.
The session with the civil society was a continuation of Miti’s engagements with the private sector, university students and the media this year. The objective was to explain what could be expected when the AEC comes into effect and also to get input from various sectors.
Based on the questions raised, it was either that the representatives who took to the floor hardly had any knowledge of what is going on in Asean or they did not know how to channel their ideas and views on the AEC. For example, although Miti handles the economic pillar of the AEC, a representative from the Persatuan Pengguna Islam Malaysia spoke about ethnic cleansing of the Rohingyas in Myanmar, asking Asean to put more pressure on Myanmar and insisting that the message must be stated when Malaysia assumes the Asean chair next year.
Another spoke of uncontrolled inflow of unskilled labour flooding the local market once the AEC comes into effect, a subject raised when Miti met university students.
A representative from the Malaysian Aids Council called for improving the government’s engagement with the civil society while the spokesperson from the Women Aid Organisation said the Asean women caucus had done a good analysis on women, the economy and their rights in Asean and asked who to submit the paper to.
Mustapa, being the ultimate gentleman, quickly responded: “You can give it to me.”
The subject on the movement of professionals within the region was raised several times during the question and answer session with the speakers expressing concern over the fate of local workers and their confusion over the terms of reference of skilled labour.
In response, Mustapa allayed fears that Malaysians would find it tough to get jobs once the AEC comes into effect as its Mutual Recognition Arrangement (MRA) would be limited to certain sectors.
“Strict controls are also in place to regulate their movement and protect local workers,” he said.
Employment sectors currently included in the MRA are engineering services, architecture, accountancy, nursing, surveying and medical and dental practitioners.
With Malaysia sorely lacking accountants and engineers, officials say that the AEC would help meet Malaysia’s shortage.
Time and again, Miti found itself having to repeatedly remind the audience that the AEC was a not a new initiative but a process that had taken more than two decades to materialise. The meeting with the NGOs was proof that more needs to be done by the Government to explain about the AEC to all sectors.
Mustapa admitted that it was not going to be easy and that time was too short to hold more sessions. His ministry is just handling the economic pillar, one of three pillars of the AEC for a cohesive Asean community.
What about the other two pillars handled by other ministries - political-security and socio-cultural?
The Asean chair would be officially handed over to Malaysia from Myanmar when Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak attends the Asean summit next month.
Mustapa said he would need to talk to his Cabinet colleagues on engaging the various parties.
“It is a big embarrassment if we keep on talking about AEC but many people in Malaysia do not know what Asean is all about.”
How do you explain to them that the AEC is not a monster to be feared but to be embraced, as many aspects of it are already part and parcel of us for some time now?
Meanwhile, the clock ticks as 2015 approaches.