I participated at the Asean Business and Investment Summit 2012 held last week in Phnom Penh, capital of Cambodia. Asean is an acronym for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and comprises 10 Asian countries – Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, Philippines, Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.
Asean was founded in 1967 primarily for mutual security and as a forum for neighboring Southeast Asian to discuss differences peacefully. In 2007, just before the start of the global financial crisis, Asean members took the decision to become integrated as an economic community by 2015.
The event that I attended is the business sideshow of the official meeting of Asean leaders and the annual meeting of the East Asia Summit taking place in parallel. Attending the East Asia Summit are leaders of several neighboring countries including China and India. President Obama attends the East Asia Summit as part of his Southeast Asian tour, which starts in Thailand and culminates with the historic visit to Myanmar.
Like other business conferences, the program of the business event that I attended has keynote speakers and panel sessions where speakers interact more actively with other participants. I was a speaker at the session on “The potential of renewable energy in Asean”. I spoke about solar energy, which should be highly relevant to Asean whose member countries straddle the equator and enjoy sunlight all year round.
Solar energy is right for Asean
I made three points on the advantage of solar energy, even in comparison with other renewal energies. Firstly, the supply of solar energy in unlimited. According to experts, energy from the sun that reaches the earth in one year is greater than all the available sources of non-renewable energy available in the world. Secondly, on-going and dramatic innovations on solar technology are increasing the efficiency while lowering the cost. This will make solar energy increasingly competitive with energy from the grid, even without government subsidies. Thirdly, solar energy is very flexible. Its applications range from massive power plants, individual buildings, to such consumer goods as solar bulbs that could make a huge difference to the life of Asean’s poorest people who do not currently have access to electricity.
The business conference hosted a number of keynote speakers from many multilateral organizations with a stake in the success of Asean. They included the Executive Secretary of UN ESCAP, General Secretary of Asean, Deputy Secretary of OECD, Special Advisor to the ADB Institute, and IFC Director for East Asia and Pacific.
Asean can be rich
The message from these keynote speakers is one of hope. Asean has learnt well the lessons from its experience of the 1997 Asian financial crisis and has proved to be resilient in the current environment of global uncertainties. The region, which would be the world’s ninth largest economy if it were one entity, is expected to continue to grow over the next five years. It offers an integrated market of 600 million consumers who enjoy rising purchasing power. Asean has the potential to reach in 2-3 decades the level of today’s income of OECD countries, provided its members undertake deep structural reforms at the national level.
The reforms to be taken include the development of infrastructure for greater connectivity, and implementation of policies that promote green growth, proper governance, competitiveness, and inclusiveness – to share the prosperity and create opportunities across the region. Without the reforms, Asean countries could get stuck in a middle-income trap with stagnant or negative growth.
Asean has a bright future but that is not a given; it depends on Asean and its members doing the right thing.