November 23, 2016 2:30 am JST

ASEAN should step up connectivity efforts, experts say

CK TAN, Nikkei staff writer

Participants from the public and private sector discuss ways to enhance regional connectivity on Tuesday in Kuala Lumpur.

KUALA LUMPUR -- Southeast Asian policymakers should accelerate integration projects in the pipeline, such as infrastructure development and digital innovation, to meet a 2025 target, experts argued at a roundtable Tuesday.

Meeting to discuss the private sector's role in the Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity 2025, participants agreed that with barriers to integration substantially eliminated, the next step is to kick off projects already outlined by the 10 member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

"Let's step it up," said Ravidran Palaniappan, a senior director at Malaysia's Ministry of International Trade and Industry, referring to the 40 infrastructure projects identified by the ASEAN Secretariat for implementation across the region. These projects are being handled under public-private partnerships but have not taken off, primarily because of a lack of funding.

The 2025 master plan was adopted by regional leaders in September, succeeding one that ended in 2010. It focuses on five strategic areas: sustainable infrastructure, digital innovation, seamless logistics, regulatory excellence and people mobility.

ASEAN has estimated that an annual $110 billion in infrastructure investment is needed to bridge the gap between developed and emerging economies within the region. The master plan is positioned as the answer to the funding problem -- a scheme that will help draw investors to the projects.

For example, the master plan is studying ways to boost tourism in the region by providing travel information on an internet portal and simplifying the visa application process.

"We are considering e-visa for travelers," said Lim Chze Cheen, head of the ASEAN connectivity division at the regional secretariat. The ASEAN Business travel card proposed by the private sector has apparently been put on the back burner, as some countries oppose it for security reasons.

One official who participated in the discussion said, citing examples of how such smaller countries as Singapore and Malaysia would find it burdensome to accommodate an influx of travelers from China or India using such a card.

"We cannot monitor these travelers once they are in the country," he said, adding that the cost of issuing the card is another issue to be dealt with.

Another topic on the agenda was a mutual agreement to let professionals work freely within the region.

Hanim Hamzah, regional managing partner at the ZICOlaw Network, a law firm with offices across ASEAN, said member countries need to integrate visa procedures for white-collar workers in her profession.

"If we are not aligned, we can't row the boat to move forward," she said.

ASEAN Tourism Association CEO Flora Loh Abdullah proposed a one-stop center for e-visa applications. Her 40-member group, consisting of hotels, airlines and other tourism-industry players, is mulling discount deals to attract more travelers to the region.

Meanwhile, insurance companies are urging ASEAN to hasten digital innovation under the master plan to enable cross-border transactions.

"Cross-border insurance claims will increase the dynamic of business," said Raymond Kwong, CEO of financial technology company Silverlake Axis. He added that the development of digital space is crucial to retain talent, or else these professionals will leave for China or the U.S.

The roundtable was organized by the CIMB ASEAN Research Institute and the ASEAN Business Club. Munir Majid, who heads both organizations, chaired the meeting attended by about 30 experts from the public and private sectors.

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