Getting Closer, Yet Still Worlds Apart

Recently, another high point in relations among Southeast Asian countries was forged in the form of an international agreement that allows visa-free and unimpeded travel between the Philippines and Laos. At present most of the member countries of ASEAN does not require visa when its citizens move from one country to another within the region, including Singapore, its most economically advanced member. This would mean that mere passport holders could gain entry into most of the ASEAN countries without any need for visa, just like when one travels to Hong Kong. For me, this is one very positive benefit that we have gained ever since five southeast Asian countries have decided to band together in 1967 to form ASEAN, a conglomerate of states joining hands together to aim for more social and economic cooperation.

This is entirely refreshing---this visa-exemption among ASEAN countries---knowing fully well how difficult it is for most of us to gain entry to many other countries (especially rich countries like the United States and countries in Europe) without the visa requirement; one document that is beyond the access of most Filipinos. This situation somewhat infuriates me, where richer countries require so much from travelers from poorer nations, asking for wealth here and properties there to show before any issuance of visa as if only the rich have the right to travel, and while their citizens could easily gain access to our territories without any difficulty whatsoever. On the other hand, we all have to fall into long and tedious lines just in order to have a hand on that ever-rare visa, like mongers on a night market bargain extravaganza. It is not extravaganza in any sense to me.

But here in Southeast Asia, among countries sharing similar debacles both social and political and having the same general economic level of prosperity, travel is unimpeded and no one is turned away like an unwanted visitor. Of course, Malaysia and Thailand are not exactly Los Angeles or Copenhagen, but it helps to think that many from Los Angeles and Copenhagen travel all the length of the world just in order to be in Thailand or Singapore when they aim to have temporary but sublime pleasures in paradise or paradise-like enclaves.

ASEAN has gone a long, long way and one of its laudable objectives is the freer flow of business (of goods and capital) within the region in about a decade’s time and possibly, a more integrated social life among the inhabitants similar to that appertaining in the European Union. There were some buzz before that a single currency may be used in the entire region sometime in the future although at this point, this is a little difficult to visualize knowing how the different economies in ASEAN are so disparate at many significant points despite of me saying earlier that they all share the same general economic prosperity. A singular currency demands more than what could be achieve now; like the need for a central monetary agency, price index commonality, interest rates stability, uniformity in inflation, unvarying reserves for each nation, absence of or minimal foreign debts and many other factors. Maybe in fifty or so years from now, ASEAN will be more contiguous and united in economic terms. We have gone closer in many ways, but still worlds apart in some.

The aim for a single currency in ASEAN may be farfetched at this time but a shared market is not and is already in motion while we speak. Our grocery stores are now---if you just have noticed lately---filled with goods from Thailand, Indonesia or Malaysia, and this presently reflects the stronger economic ties among ASEAN countries. This economic unity may not appear to be relevant to many of us but if we take a closer look, we are actually looking towards a far more expanded market where our producers will not only be contemplating a market of 80 million Filipinos but possibly, a gigantic market of nearly half a billion inhabitants of the ASEAN region. The potential for growth in productivity is unimaginably enormous and not only on goods but also in services where there will come a time in the future that our accounting graduates could look forward to a career in banking and finance Malaysian style. Already, many Filipinos are hired as executives in many financial and industrial companies in Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur and our teachers are teaching English in many Thai colleges and universities.

If European states found out that they are far better off if they banded together more tightly, I think Southeast Asian countries ought to do the same. A united herd is far more virile and surviving than an escalated one. In unity, there is always strength.
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