Who are minding the store?

COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva1 (The Philippine Star) - October 29, 2014 - 12:00am

While everybody else is busy with popular issues and headline-hogging activities that many leaders and members of the 16th Congress indulge in for obvious reasons, Senator Loren Legarda took the Senate floor last Monday to deliver a rather ho-hum privilege speech. This was because it was not about any controversy or scandal, nor demand for Senate investigation of alleged anomalies in government, or about any officials reportedly questioned for irregular transactions.

But it was a subject matter of national significance that would affect Filipinos from all walks of life. Legarda aptly described this in her privilege speech entitled: “What does an ASEAN Economic Community mean for our people?” 

ASEAN refers to the Association of South East Asian Nations that is composed of ten member states. This regional bloc includes the Philippines and the rest of its members, by alphabetical order: Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore and Vietnam.

The ASEAN Economic Community can be likened to the European Community of the European Union, or the borderless economic and free trade activities among EU member economies. Such a very exotic-sounding subject matter of Legarda’s privilege speech, unfortunately, did not merit much media attention.

However, we have been feeling all this time the pinch of this economic integration of countries being formally organized in this part of the world. But its full brunt will kick in by December next year yet.

A former broadcast media personality herself, Legarda failed to elicit interest among former colleagues in media to give her privilege speech airtime in the prime newscast on television and radio and neither was it given space in newspapers the next day. I got to know though about her privilege speech sent to my e-mail by her staff.

Worse than media not giving it due attention were her fellow senators who obviously did not bother to listen at all but turned deaf ears to her. No one from the senators present interpellated Legarda. Her privilege speech was referred to the Senate committee on trade and commerce for what it’s worth to look into in aid of legislation.

As to when it will be calendared for public hearing, if ever it is taken up, will have to be done after the 16th Congress goes on recess for Undas this week. They will resume sessions on November 17.

In the meantime, President Benigno “Noy” Aquino III is set to attend the ASEAN Leaders’ Summit Meeting to be held in Myanmar on November 9-11. This year’s theme of the ASEAN Leaders’ summit is “Moving Forward in Unity to a Peaceful and Prosperous Community.”

To her credit, Legarda has been taking up national issues and concerns even as these matters do not always get her on the front pages of newspapers or played up in radio and TV news. This obviously does not deter her from pursuing her advocacies that are not controversial enough for media’s attention. She keeps busy promoting her pet projects from highfalutin subjects like climate change and disaster risk reduction to ethnic weaving and promoting the rights of local indigenous people.

At the outset, Legarda stated, she has nothing against the vision of an ASEAN Economic Community, or AEC for short.

In fact, she urged, Filipinos should collectively strive to ensure the AEC should not fail, for all our sake. Legarda is a member of the Senate committee on foreign relations which she used to chair in the previous 15th Congress.

Legarda rightly noted, however, the lack of knowledge and awareness about the AEC, not just by many Filipinos but businessmen in ASEAN as well are not fully aware of its impending full implementation starting in December 2015.

A survey done by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in 2013 showed 55% of businesses in ASEAN are not aware of the AEC. The ADB study thus concludes: “There is a general lack of awareness of ASEAN Economic Community 2015.” More alarming, Legarda cited, is the result of a survey done by ASEAN and the Japan-ASEAN Integration Fund which says 76% of the people in ASEAN member-states lack a basic understanding of ASEAN. There is huge familiarity of the name ASEAN but the people’s knowledge of ASEAN stops there. 

Thus, she prodded the Philippine government to ensure that the country’s micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) must be ready to be part of the AEC. So the learning process must start with them. In pursuit of an AEC, ASEAN operates on the assumption that with open borders and free trade, more investments will come in and therefore improve the region’s competitiveness.

In her privilege speech, the senator asked valid questions begging for answers, right here, right now.

“How is ASEAN integration possible given the reality that its people barely understand what an ASEAN Economic Community is all about?  How can the impact of AEC redound to the benefits of an uninformed and unengaged ASEAN public?”

These realities, she stressed, bring to light the question: “Does free trade, free flow of goods and services, mobility of people across economies in the region, single market and production base, investment liberalization, among other things that an ASEAN Economic Community seeks to realize, matter for the region’s poor?”

The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) reported that as of 2010, duties have been eliminated on 99.2 percent of tariff lines for the ASEAN-6 Member States, including Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. In the case of Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar and Vietnam, tariff has been reduced to 0 to 5 percent on 97.52 percent of tariff lines. This is partly the reason why there is a significant level of goods from other ASEAN countries in the Philippine market today, Legarda pointed out.

“For the consumers, this can mean wider choices, lower product costs, and exposure to ASEAN brands.  For Philippine MSMEs that are not able to bring their production costs down and compete against well-supported MSMEs of other countries, this development can spell the end,” the senator warned.

While other senators may not have listened attentively to Legarda’s privilege speech, hopefully, there are more responsible officials in the Executive branch taking note of the urgency of these national concerns for proper actions. Are there people minding the store? Or, is it again the typical Filipino mentality to wait for last-minute before doing anything until the AEC takes effect.

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