The Jakarta Post
With only four months remaining until the planned launch of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), economic and trade ministers from the Southeast Asian nations gathered for a four-day meeting in Kuala Lumpur, pledging to stay on track despite current economic uncertainties.
Malaysia's International Trade and Industry Minister, Dato' Sri Mustapa Mohamed, who chaired the event, said that Southeast Asia's economies currently faced more challenging economic problems than ever before. Among these challenges were the fall in the oil price, the present volatility of ASEAN currencies and slower growth.
'Despite these challenges, we all agreed that there will be no turning back on regional economic integration programs, that we'll stay the course,' he said in his opening remarks at the 47th ASEAN Economic Ministers (AEM) meeting on Saturday.
The event, which started on Aug. 22 and will last until Aug. 25, is set to discuss a number of hurdles that ASEAN countries must confront in launching a single economic community by the end of this year.
Among high-level officials attending the event were Indonesia's Trade Minister Thomas Lembong, Singapore's Trade & Industry Minister Lim Hng Kiang and Vietnam's Industry & Trade deputy minister Nguyen Cam Tu.
'They [trade negotiations and meetings] are part of a multi-year process to progress bit by bit, year by year, and I think I can sense a key message that this year we'll do our fair share,' said Thomas in a brief interview.
The current economic slowdown and an atmosphere of market turbulence presented an opportunity for all governments in ASEAN to show exceptional leadership, he went on to say.
Indonesia, which is the Southeast Asia's largest economy, has seen its economic growth hit a six-year low of 4.7 percent in the first quarter of this year, and 4.67 percent in the second quarter.
Malaysia's local currency, meanwhile, is the worst performing currency in the region, hitting a 17-year low to around 4.18 Malaysian ringgit per US dollar.
Mustapa said that the development gap among ASEAN member countries was also an issue that should be addressed together.
Voicing a similar view, Thomas said that ASEAN countries would be much stronger in confronting external headwinds if they were unified together as opposed to confronting these challenges individually.
The AEC, which is set to create a free flow of goods, services and people within the region, will form a giant block of 620 million people with a combined gross domestic product (GDP) of US$2.7 trillion.
The combined GDP of the member countries is expected to rise to a total of $4.7 trillion by 2020, according to Mustapa.
Total trade and investment in the ASEAN region has also been expanding as the member states have increasingly worked on trade barrier reductions.
The region's trade surged to $2.53 trillion last year from $2.51 trillion in 2013, with around 24 percent attributed to intra-ASEAN trade.
Last year, ASEAN attracted $136 billion in foreign direct investment (FDI), with around 20 percent coming from intra-ASEAN investment.
For Indonesia alone, Malaysia became the biggest foreign investor in the country, with total investment standing at $2.6 billion, or 18.6 percent of Indonesia's total FDI in the first half of this year.
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