Why an ASEAN High Level Special Commission is needed

By Tan Sri Dr. Munir Majid | 15 June 2020

Why an ASEAN High Level Special Commission is needed

Originally published in TheEdge Malaysia, 15 June – 21 June 2020.

The ASEAN High Level Special Commission (AHLSC), proposed by the ASEAN Business Advisory Council (ASEAN-BAC), the ASEAN Joint Business Councils (JBCs) and their partners, is necessary to fast-track health and economic recovery from the ravages of COVID-19.

It does not replace existing ASEAN bodies, committees, working groups and task forces, but is intended to cut through the layers of processes that take time and would not place ASEAN in a good position for recovery to protect lives and save livelihoods.

It is a fit-for-purpose and ad hoc body that will still source for support and information from existing joint consultative committees and institutions such as the Senior Economic Officials Meetings (SEOM).

The difference is, comprised of the most senior ministers in ASEAN governments closest to the ASEAN leaders, the AHLSC would have the authority to speed up decision-making, not just at the regional level, but also within member states, where often cross-ministerial power and authority cause ASEAN proposals not to move forward as well as ASEAN decisions not to implemented.

The terms of reference proposed for the AHLSC are:

  • To improve ASEAN‘s collective response (to the COVID-19 crisis) by facilitating decision-making and execution of immediate, concrete and practicable measures;
  • To build capacity at the national and regional levels for the comprehensive handling of any future and similar events; and
  • To make recommendations to the leaders for a collective medium- to long-term ASEAN-wide approach for post-pandemic recovery through the development of an Economic Recovery Plan.

It is also part of the AHLSC proposal that a special business advisory board (SBAB) be created to attend and provide inputs to the AHLSC in its deliberations. This board, it is proposed, will comprise representatives from ASEAN-BAC, ASEAN JBCs and other private sector bodies, relevant international organisations and CIMB ASEAN Research Institute (CARI) as the knowledge partner.

ASEAN-BAC, as the apex business organisation in the region, is vacating its central position to the SBAB in the interest of more effective and focused representation of ideas to get urgent decisions made for the people and economy of the region.

As is known, ASEAN-BAC has “exclusive dialogues” with ASEAN leaders, the economic ministers and, now, also finance ministers and central bank governors, where rather agreeable and scripted exchanges take place that do not result in speedy or material outcomes. In the context of serious challenges confronting lives and livelihoods in ASEAN, a way had to be found to get faster and better results.

Neither ASEAN official processes nor ASEAN-BAC centrality is being replaced or duplicated. What is being proposed, if all parties believe an urgent response is necessary to save ASEAN peoples and economies from being knocked out by COVID-19, is just the mechanism for such a response. Delay means death. Delay means suffocated livelihoods.

The people of ASEAN deserves better. Their lives must be saved. Their livelihoods must be secured. The public and private sectors must work together to achieve this at a time of greatest need.

Individual ASEAN states taken extraordinary steps and measures to contain the COVID-19 epidemic and restart their economies. Why should ASEAN not do so at the regional level?

In the statement following its special summit on 14 April, ASEAN leaders emphasised “the critical importance of a coherent, multi-sectoral, multi-stakeholder and whole-of-ASEAN Community approach in ensuring ASEAN’s timely and effective response to pandemic”.

The leaders wanted intensified cooperation for adequate provision of medicines, essential medical supplies and equipment, and specifically encouraged the development of regional reserves of medical supplies as well as utilising relevant ASEAN reserve warehouses to support the needs of ASEAN member states in public health emergencies.

On the recovery front, the leaders reaffirmed their commitment “to take collective action and coordinate policies in mitigating the economic and social impact from the pandemic, safeguarding the people’s well-being and maintaining socio-economic stability”.

Indeed, this year’s theme under the chairmanship of Vietnam is a “cohesive and responsive” ASEAN.

The AHLSC will be the enabler to execute what the leaders plainly want in a timely manner at this unprecedented time in ASEAN’s history. The private sector has made the proposal to achieve this, working together with existing ASEAN machinery including the ASEAN Coordinating Council and the ASEAN Coordinating Council Working Group on Public Health Emergencies, but with the premium on making things happen fast.

Hence the proposed high level representation of the AHLSC: ASEAN ministers who are the next to the ASEAN leaders. They can of course source for support and information from any institution within ASEAN or in their own countries.

ASEAN-BAC, working together with the ASEAN JBCs from around the world and other business organisations, with CARI as the knowledge partner, has compiled over 300 proposals that are being thematically prioritised in a matrix. It hopes to put forward these proposals to ASEAN leaders when they next meet, we understand on 26 June. These are detailed proposals that will have to be worked through, which only an ad hoc arrangement of the AHLSC with the SBAB, can process.

At the special session with ASEAN Economic Ministers (AEM) on 4 June, I presented ASEAN-BAC’s proposal. There was no opposition to the setting up of the AHLSC.

The Indonesian minister supported it as long as it was understood that it would be ad hoc, which is the case to combat COVID-19. There was strong support from Malaysia, Myanmar, Brunei and Cambodia. The others wanted further discussions to take place to ensure there was no overlap or duplication with existing “work streams”.

ASEAN-BAC will be getting into it with the ASEAN Secretary General, who has undertaken to coordinate the process of consultation. We shall put it to him that time is of the essence.

The AEMs were also given a foretaste of some of the urgent issues to be taken forward. Foremost, the need to protect and save lives – the imperative for an exponential increase in affordable, reliable and accessible mass testing capacity. The private sector can be mobilised to help governments raise funds while governments equally should source support from partners (such as the ASEAN Plus 3) to expand capacity for mass testing. There should also be ASEAN set standards for face masks, personal protective and other medical equipment.

It was also emphasised that ASEAN must prepare now to procure vaccines for its peoples when they became available, as a group comprising 650 million people and not leave the smaller and weaker states behind.

The issue of disrupted supply chains too has come up in the crisis. Systems therefore must be developed to achieve unhampered flows particularly of essential goods and services by identifying choke points and establishing “green zones”.

Leveraging technology to provide many innovative solutions was another point emphasised to the AEMs. It ranges from the most immediate needs such as contact tracing to wider trade-related facilitation such as electronic documentation for customs clearance to minimise physical contact between people.

For the broader economy, it was emphasised to the ministers that as much as two-thirds of global demand has collapsed, and this is on top of continuing US-China trade war, increasing protectionism and near-shoring of supply chains. Globalisation is under attack and in retreat.

ASEAN- the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) – is a regional proposition that can part-compensate for contracting markets, but the full potential of the aggregated US$2.8 trillion (RM11.9 trillion) economy remains a future prospect and not a current reality because of so many barriers to intra-ASEAN trade and investment.

The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) remains unfulfilled. It will create the world’s largest trading bloc and account for a third of the world economy. All private sector groups are in unison that the RCEP must come into being in this most critical year.

ASEAN is under attack from all sides in the short to medium term. It needs to respond cohesively and quickly. The proposed AHLSC is intended to drive this response at this critical time of health and economic emergency.

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