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Keynote Address by H.E. Mr. Abhisit Vejjajiva Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Thailand “ASEAN After the Global Economic Crisis: Rebuilding Economies, Regenerating Growth” At the ASEAN Leadership Forum 2009 , Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit Hotel  (19/6/2009)

Keynote Address by H.E. Mr. Abhisit Vejjajiva Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Thailand “ASEAN After the Global Economic Crisis: Rebuilding Economies, Regenerating Growth” At the ASEAN Leadership Forum 2009 , Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit Hotel, Bangkok, 19 June 2009.

หม่อมหลวงรัชฎาราศี  ชยางกูร, Chairwoman of AseanAffairs,

Mr. Swarup Roy (สวารุบ รอย), Founder and CEO of AseanAffairs,

Dato’ Dr. Michael Yeoh, CEO and Director of the Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute,


Distinguished Guests,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is an honour for me to be invited to deliver the Opening Keynote Address to this year’s ASEAN Leadership Forum.  I greatly appreciate the joint efforts of the Asian Strategy & Leadership Institute (ASLI) as well as ASEAN Affairs in making this Forum possible.  I also wish to thank all of you—stakeholders in the ASEAN process—for making time to take part in this very important dialogue on the key challenges facing ASEAN.  Indeed, ASEAN does not belong only to governments.  ASEAN belongs to the people—to all of you, who are leaders in your respective fields, and are the real force in moving ASEAN towards the ASEAN Community.  I therefore eagerly look forward to hearing the results of your deliberations.      

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Our region, and the world at large, is currently faced with a number of challenges.  In the span of just one decade, we have had two major economic crises.  In the last five years, we have had a number of natural disasters.  The environment, food and energy security are major concerns.  There are also emerging infectious diseases, such as SARS, avian flu and now, Influenza A (H1N1).  Surely, given all these challenges, no one country can, or should, go at it alone.  Greater regional cooperation is needed to help us overcome both current and future challenges.

The challenge that concerns us here at this year’s Leadership Forum is the current global economic crisis and its impacts.  And because our world is becoming increasingly interconnected, such crises are bound to be more complicated, and perhaps more damaging.  It is time, therefore, for ASEAN to look for a long-lasting solution.  We need to rebuild and strengthen our economies as well as regenerate sustainable growth and development.  My message is that ASEAN is well-placed to do this, but it will have to be a collective effort on the part of governments and all sectors of our societies.  The private sector in particular has an important role to play.  Allow me now to give you three reasons for why I believe that ASEAN can overcome the crisis.

The first is that ASEAN is working towards becoming an Economic Community by the year 2015.  What this means is that ASEAN will become (1) a single market and production base; (2) a highly competitive economic region; (3) a region of more equitable economic development; and (4) a region integrated into the global economy.  These are the four inter-related and mutually reinforcing pillars of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC).  Please allow me now to go into some detail on how this is good news for the region.  It will also bring about greater opportunities for business.

The basic tenet underpinning the single market and production base pillar is simple.  Once the entire Southeast Asian region is turned into a large single market, goods, services, capital, and even skilled professionals can move freely across the region.  Your products and services, as well as your integrated production hubs, will have easy access to markets and consumers across the entire Southeast Asian region.

The highly competitive economic region pillar means ensuring intellectual property rights protection for your goods and services.  It also involves putting into place the necessary infrastructure in terms of ICT, transportation, and energy to support your businesses so that you can keep in touch with your home countries and commercial partners in the region.  Human resource development—investing in our peoples—is one key to success here.  We need to nurture talent and upgrade skills.

The equitable economic development pillar refers to ASEAN’s continuing commitment to making sure that the opportunities from deeper integration will be extended to its newer Member States, Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar and Viet Nam, as well as to the less-developed regions within the original Member States.  Narrowing the development gap is of strategic importance to realising a truly people-oriented ASEAN Community.  Therefore, at the 14th ASEAN Summit in Cha-Am/Hua Hin last February, the ASEAN Leaders adopted a work plan under the Initiative for ASEAN Integration (IAI) that aims to help move forward the community-building process in a more balanced, inclusive and sustainable manner.

This pillar also has crucial implications for small and medium enterprises (SMEs), which form the backbone of our economies.  That is, we will encourage the bigger corporations to help nurture the strength of SMEs within their immediate circle, integrate them into their production chains, and help them in matters relating to R&D, commercialisation of innovations, guidance and training, and transfers of technology.  Our goal is to create a level playing field for SMEs.

Finally, in an effort to integrate into the global economy, ASEAN will further extend market access and production opportunities to our Dialogue Partners through Free Trade Agreements (FTAs).  I am pleased that we have finalised FTAs with Korea, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.  We have also signed the Trade in Goods and Services Agreement with China and are about to sign one with India.  We are expected to sign the Investment Agreement with China this year.  Good progress has also been made with regard to the services and investment negotiations with India.

So the ASEAN region should become an even more attractive business and investment destination.  And you can be sure that ASEAN governments are doing all we can to get our economies out of the crisis, and to create favourable conditions for business and other sectors of society to be able to capture the opportunities and benefits of an ASEAN Economic Community.  ASEAN governments have been undertaking similar policies to stimulate our domestic economies.  We have come out firmly against protectionism because we believe free and fair trade to be an important engine of growth.  We have also stepped up our financial cooperation by multilateralising the Chiang Mai Initiative (CMI), which is a reserve pooling or swap arrangement.   

The second reason for my optimism is that the diversity in the ASEAN region means that it has everything for everyone.  ASEAN comprises nearly 600 million people, which is potentially a very large consumer market.  Our diverse cultures and history also make the region an interesting tourism market.  And for business, diversity provides that unique opportunity to rationalise production processes.  For example, high value-added business services and production could be situated in a more developed Member State, whereas the abundant and productive labour force in a less developed economy could help lower production costs and thereby enhance ASEAN’s overall competitiveness.

The key message here is that each individual ASEAN economy offers unique comparative advantages in a number of sectors.  ASEAN has identified 12 priority sectors for integration, each with investment incentives and related packages.  These include agro-based products, automotives, electronics, healthcare, logistics, tourism, rubber-based products, and wood-based products.

The third reason for my optimism is that ASEAN is located in one of the most dynamic regions in the world, that is, Asia.  This highly dynamic and resilient regional economic environment will act as a push factor for ASEAN.  The focus now will be to make ASEAN ever more responsive to business and the peoples’ needs.  On the sidelines of the 14th ASEAN Summit in Cha-Am/Hua Hin last February, the ASEAN Economic Ministers signed a number of important agreements related to trade in goods and services as well as investment—all aimed at facilitating business in the region.  These include (1) the ASEAN Trade in Goods Agreement (ATIGA), which is aimed at enhancing transparency and predictability in the ASEAN legal framework; and (2) the new ASEAN Comprehensive Investment Agreement (ACIA).

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Governments alone cannot rebuild economies and regenerate growth.  We need the cooperation of the private sector, civil society, academic sector as well as the general public.  All of us must commit to taking serious action and making tough but necessary decisions.  We must be creative in the solutions that we craft.  Given that the private sector is the main stakeholder in ASEAN’s economic integration, it clearly has a vital role to play.  Therefore, let me share with you some ideas on where the private sector could make significant contributions.

The private sector could work with us in fostering win-win public-private, and private-private partnerships throughout the region, pooling expertise, knowledge and resources.  On our part, governments in the region should continue to take measures that will help reduce transactions costs, create economies of scale, and provide appropriate economic space and regulatory requirements for business, as well as basic infrastructure and essential services.

The private sector could also engage in more business matching and networking as well as make concerted efforts to become a truly “ASEAN Business Community.”  You can also consider reaching out to ASEAN’s Dialogue Partners by using ASEAN’s existing Free Trade Agreements with Dialogue Partners to enhance market access, networks and partnerships for ASEAN products and services, and to lay the foundations for ASEAN to forge stronger links with other Asian economies and the rest of the world.

I urge the private sector to continue to take risks in driving ASEAN economic integration because there are opportunities to be had.  I encourage you to take the lead in helping to restore confidence in the region by sustaining your growth momentum, planned investments and employment.  On our part, ASEAN governments should continue to push ahead with our economic stimulus measures to help boost demand, maintain purchasing power and consumption, and strengthen capital markets.  In doing all this, it is crucial that we also modernise our legal systems and put in place credible regulatory frameworks to ensure adequate liquidity for both recovery and sustainable economic growth and development.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The problems and challenges we face today require a strengthened regionalism—not only among governments, but also among our peoples.  Regional cooperation and integration are no longer a luxury, but a necessity.  ASEAN integration is important not only for ASEAN, but also for East Asia and beyond.  And ASEAN has managed to drive regional cooperation quite effectively in East Asia and is well-recognised as a driving force in the evolving regional architecture.  Therefore, as ASEAN Chair, I can say that I am proud of our recent achievements.  On this note, I wish to underscore that, with a combined market of more than half a billion people, a combined GDP of over $ 1.5 trillion US Dollars, and external trade of over $ 1.66 trillion US Dollars, ASEAN is a force to be reckoned with.  Indeed, there are ample trade and investment and other opportunities in ASEAN to be explored and harnessed by all of ASEAN’s stakeholders.

In this regard, we would like you to go forward with us—to participate in, contribute to, and enjoy the benefits from the deepening integration of our economies.  In closing, let me assure you that we will continue to assist you in your quest to grow your businesses and expand your operations.

Thank you.

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