ASEAN: What communicators need to know
In 2007, the leaders of The Association of South East Asia Nations (ASEAN) agreed to work towards an ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), a vision to create a common market by 2015 that allows free flow of goods, services, investments, skilled labor and capital. This single market would make the region more competitive, accelerate economic integration between industry sectors, attract more foreign direct investment (FDIs) and close the development gap between member countries.
ASEAN is a 10 member association that encompasses most of the nations in South-East Asia, namely Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Brunei, Lao PDR, Myanmar and Cambodia. With a population of more than 600 million people, it forms the third biggest population centre in the world, behind China (1.35 billion) and India (1.2 billion), but ahead of the European Union and United States. ASEAN’s nominal gross domestic product (GDP) of US$2.31 trillion makes it the 8th largest economy in the world and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) projected that the real GDP growth rate in the Southeast Asian region will average 5.4% per annum over the next four years. These figures point to ASEAN being an attractive region for businesses to expand and invest in.
Yet closer economic integration in such a diverse region is not without significant challenges. A joint statement after the 20th ASEAN Economic Ministers retreat in Singapore in February, acknowledged that the timeframe for creating an ASEAN Economic Community could slip beyond the 31st December 2015 target date. Experts from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) have pointed out the low level of awareness of AEC 2015 amongst business decision makers across the region as one of the main impediments towards achieving that vision.
A diverse landscape in ASEAN.
(Top: A laid back small town, Vang Vieng, in Laos. Bottom: Iconic Marina Bay Sand that has reshaped the Singapore skyline.)
While ASEAN can certainly be imagined as a single region, it can also be viewed as an amalgamation of 10 diverse markets with significant development gaps and wide economic disparity. Annual GDP per capita for Myanmar stands at US$861 for example compared to US$52, 069 for Singapore. Infrastructure issues in areas such as transport plague most of the ASEAN members. Cambodia does not have an official public transport system at all. Indonesia’s capital Jakarta, with a metropolitan population of over 28 million people, does not have an integrated system of public transport and has only just begun constructing its first Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system in order to reduce chronic traffic congestion.
How ASEAN decides to bridge these gaps, amongst many others, will be crucial towards the region’s integration.
Nevertheless more and more companies are waking up to ASEAN’s potential.
From a communicators perspective that presents a number of challenges although none quite as daunting as the task in front of the region’s politicians.
The first task is to create a compelling narrative which communicates ASEAN as a distinctive and exciting growth market in its own right. Companies also need to develop strong messaging about what they are trying to achieve in the region and importantly what they will do to benefit it.
In order to resonate with local audiences companies need to adopt a local perspective. What is important in the US or Europe may not be the top story for ASEAN financial stakeholders. Think instead of the developments taking place on the ground which will impact the business environment directly and take that into account when creating thought-leadership topics and story angles.
Finally firms seeking to do business in ASEAN need to show a commitment to the region and a willingness to listen and to learn. Western companies can bring their perspectives on the benefits of closer integration but they should also be mindful of local concerns, views and expertise.
Despite the diversity and the challenges companies should not be put off. ASEAN is an exciting and dynamic region which will increasingly play a greater role in the world economy over the next decade. As global firms continue to seek for more opportunities in emerging market and more Asian firms looking out of their own domestic markets, it is perhaps time to think about putting an ASEAN strategy into the communications mix to further differentiate from competitors.
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