Asean: The next 50 years

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THE organizers of the Asean Business and Investment Summit have also asked me to speak on the issue of human capital movements with regard to our prospects for integration. Asean integration is supposed to provide the opportunity to any country in the region. We have Mutual Recognition Agreements in eight areas. How have the snags on the issue of human capital been resolved? Or has it remained one of the major bottlenecks?

Let me refer to a major bottleneck on a human capital issue that I addressed during my time as President and during my chairmanship of Asean 10 years ago. That year, 2007, I used my general prerogative to push for the Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers. It was a most contentious chairman’s initiative in the 2007 summit because in Asean, we have members who send workers and we have members who receive workers, and of course they had deep differences of opinion. But we invoked our chairmanship to push that initiative on account of so many Filipino workers overseas.

Protection of migrant workers
In good times and bad, overseas Filipinos in Southeast Asia and elsewhere keep our nation resilient. I know that that is not a sacrifice joyfully borne. That is work where it can be found—among strangers with different cultures. It is lonely work, it is hard work. That is why we worked doubly hard to create good paying jobs at home, so that overseas work will just be a career choice, not the only option for a hardworking Filipino.

But for the foreseeable future, we will continue to be heavily dependent on overseas worker remittances. On that basis, we are duty-bound to protect our citizens wherever they are. When I was President, my government worked hard to strengthen workers’ protection at home and especially overseas and that is why I pushed for the protection of our migrant workers in 2007.


Among the provisions in the declaration is one that tasked the relevant bodies to develop an Asean instrument on the protection and promotion of the rights of migrant workers.

The next step now is to sign that Asean instrument. I am gratified that at the summit’s opening, President Duterte heralded the landmark signing of the Asean Consensus on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers. It is the fruition of what we started in 2007.

Mobility of human capital
Now the bottleneck is the mobility itself of human capital. It is taking time for the Mutual Recognition Arrangements to be fully implemented. One of the Asean members observed that it is because member countries are apprehensive of the fully integrated sector.

Similarly, the mobility of shared services and outsourced labor is feared for its impact on the locals. Because of technology, there is so much mobility in shared services and many countries fear what would happen to their locals, their own workers, their own managers. When that issue was brought to me, I said the Philippines had a comparative advantage in this area, so personally I never felt threatened if shared technology workers come here. We do experience distortions when our skilled labor like IT workers or nurses are pirated by neighbors like Singapore. The answer to that distortion is to train more IT workers and more nurses, as enabled by the Nursing Act that I signed into law in 2002. It is not the issue of the locals but a distortion of our labor market. But with such distortion, we just have to produce more knowledge workers, more nurses. As far as this is concerned, I have been promoting science, math, education and the training of new hires. That is why in 2002, we passed a law, the Nursing Act, in order to have more nurses.

To realize the region’s full potential as a major global economic force in the next 50 years, we need to be fully integrated by 2025. We need to have broken down non-tariff barriers and implemented the Mutual Recognition Agreements.

If we hurdle Vision 2025, by 2067, we will be in position to benefit greatly from the prosperity, driven by technology, peace and cleaner environment that we foresee and to reduce income disparity, prevent nuclear proliferation, prevent terrorism from expanding and mitigate climate change.

The world of the next 50 years is still a world with great technological advancement and artificial intelligence. In such a world the way to reduce income disparity is to create more jobs, not destroy them by isolating ourselves. We must continue to attract investments from our own countries, from our integrated community and from outside.

Don’t forget safety nets
Asean integration provides for more foreign investments. As the sixth largest economy in the world and the world’s fourth largest trader, the Asean community stands to attract enterprises from within and outside. The Philippines can lure such ventures, playing on our competitive strengths in educated, skilled labor, topnotch management, IT-enabled services, vast mineral resources, and attractive, less expensive expat living standards.

With Asean integration, though, there may be sectors left holding the bag. We must not forget their essential safety nets: health, education, social protection. But beyond that, we must help them empower themselves.

From security concerns at the beginning, Asean has transformed into an economic community. Are we coming full circle when we foresee more nations with nuclear capability 50 years from now?

The challenge for Asean is to look after each other in terms of common security by cooperating to counter, prevent and suppress terrorism. That is why I pushed so hard during my Asean chairmanship in 2007 to finally sign the Asean Convention on Counter-Terrorism so we have a way to fight terrorism all the way to the future.

Ascendance of socio-cultural
Meanwhile, some Asean analysts foresee the ascendance of the sociocultural community even as economic integration deepens. I am happy about that because when I was President of the Philippines it was our country that pushed the socio-cultural pillar in the Bali II Concord on the Asean Community.

The ascendance of the socio-cultural community is especially called for because in the next 50 years, we see the continuing challenge of global warming. Asean addresses the issue in the Socio-Cultural Community Blueprint. In the coming years, it needs to take concrete and coherent actions to implement that blueprint.

The future belongs to those nations that seek common ground to resolve common problems. This is true in virtually every aspect of our lives: economy, social justice, security.

From consensus to majority rule
It is asked: how are we going to be deciding looking for solutions to common problems in the next 50 years? Will we transform from consensus, transform into majority rule? I think so. I think we really should. I myself found difficulty with consensus when I was President. I felt compelled to break away from consensus on Aung San Suu Kyi and support the United States instead.

As Asean matures and if it wants to be a global leader, the majority rule may arise in economic, social and environmental concerns, where national interests often differ because of disparate geography, population, and economic and social conditions. At the same time, majority rule does not mean the tyranny of numbers, for Asean has clout because it is 10 unified nations speaking and dealing with the world as one.

Though made up of small nations, Asean commands respect because we know how to advance and sacrifice for the common interest. And that may well catapult Asean to global leadership among the panoply of nations far below the gaze of big power giants. But for us to succeed in that in 50 years, we first need to achieve full integration by 2025.

All the hope and anxiety about the future leads us to one conclusion. We must all press for ever closer cooperation if we are to collectively benefit from the good and collectively tackle big challenges together.

The place to start is building stronger regional entities like Asean and expanding their political, economic and security influence to other partners around the globe.

(The article is an excerpt from a speech delivered at the Asean Business and Investment Summit, Solaire Resort and Casino, 14 November 2017.)

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