Asean must act, not just talk, on cooperation post-Covid-19, say experts

Asean heads of state during the online Special Asean Summit on Covid-19. (AP pic)

PETALING JAYA: Asean countries need to do more than just promise to improve cooperation among member states, experts say.

They say the regional grouping needs to fast-track initiatives drawn up in the past to benefit any post-Covid-19 economic recovery and food supply plans.

Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS) director Laurence Todd said Asean was known to make promises but was slow to implement policies.

“Any move for better integration is welcome as Malaysia is a trading nation,” he told FMT.

At an Asean Special Summit on Covid-19 held by video-conferencing on Tuesday, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin proposed a regional-level economic plan to strengthen the social welfare safety net, boost food security and improve education in the member countries.

Todd said better integration was possible but the member states need to follow up their announcements with action.

He said the economic diversity within Asean, with Singapore on the one hand and Laos on the other, showed the diversity of the grouping

Less developed nations could employ expertise from Singapore and Malaysia to boost their supply chain and productivity but the reality on the ground was the opposite, he said.

“If they want to cooperate, they need to fast-track their previous agreements.”

Todd said Asean members could work on food products as it did not involve a complicated supply chain and Malaysia imported 70% to 80% of food from overseas, including from Vietnam.

“When it comes to food, we need to prioritise this,” he said.

He also said that while maintaining good relations with its Asean colleagues, Malaysia would also gain by having stronger ties with China, Taiwan and Japan.

This is because trade between Asean states and countries such as China, Japan, the United States and Europe remained higher than trade among Asean member nations.

Economist Yeah Kim Leng said Asean countries had drawn up initiatives in almost every sector in the past.

“They need to fast-track these plans and initiatives in sectors, ranging from banking, aviation and food supply to public health and climate change, which affect the food chain,” the Sunway University Business School economics professor told FMT.

He said working together post-Covid-19 would be a good start as the pandemic would cause shortages in food and equipment.

“The first area to fast-track efforts would be on public health as Covid-19 has shown how interconnected each country is.

“We can expect such incidences to recur as Southeast Asian countries consume wildlife. We can look at ways to ban this,” Yeah, an external member of Bank Negara Malaysia’s monetary policy committee, said.

“It is also time to implement plans on climate change to secure food production. We need to share information on diseases that affect livestock and food production in farms.

“If there is any outbreak that could wipe out crops, we could curtail that quickly by enhancing capability among the Asean countries.”

On food security, Yeah said all 10 member states needed to come up with inter-government agreements to release food stocks when the need arose.

“The pandemic has shown the world the possibility of food shortage if countries do not cooperate,” he said, citing as an example Vietnam’s suspension of rice exports to Malaysia just after the Covid-19 outbreak.

“There needs to be government-to-government agreements to release food stocks to other Asean countries who may be in dire need of items, especially rice,” he said.

Yeah said Asean countries could also work on boosting the regional airline industry, which was one of the hardest hit by the pandemic.

He said better cooperation was needed to enhance future prospects of the airline industry.

“Each Asean country has its own strengths. Everyone needs to bring their expertise to the table. We would need it post-Covid-19,” he said.

“We need to share information so that we can pool our resources to act as a single market.

“The slow pace of economic integration and mistrust needs to be replaced with trust and action as soon as possible.”

Asean’s 10 member states have a combined population of more than 600 million.

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