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Moving Asean into the spotlight
Publication Date : 14-08-2014
It was another long day for Mustapa Mohamed.
The international trade and industry minister looked tired and he was also feeling a little upset.
It was Asean Day last Friday and no one had alerted him.
“My people are failing in their duty to alert me that today is Asean Day,” he said, glancing quickly at several ministry officials present before turning his attention to us during a media chit-chat.
“It is a big day and next year will even be bigger – Malaysia is chairing Asean.”
Mustapa rarely shows his irritation but one can understand his frustration.
Asean coverage in the media is not getting the mention it deserves, especially when chairmanship of Asean is just months away.
Moreover, prime minister Najib Razak had shown his dismay that a survey done by the Asean secretariat in 2012 showed that only 34 per cent of Malaysians had heard of the Asean community, compared with 96 per cent of Laotians.
For Mustapa, one of the few cabinet members who has excellent rapport with the media, it is a missed opportunity for leverage on Asean as Malaysia takes over the chair in 2015. The chair is rotated among the 10 members.
It is an important year as that is the year the Asean Community will be declared, creating a region where there will be free flow of goods, services, investment and skilled workers. With a market size of 600 million and relatively young population, Asean is one third of Malaysia’s market.
What it also means is that 2015 will be a logistic and security headache as Malaysia will host two summits in April and November.
The first summit involves the Asean-10 leaders while the second will see them meeting their counterparts from China, the United States, Russia, Japan, South Korea and Australia among others.
Numerous meetings at ministerial and official levels will also be held.
As officials are awaiting for 2015 with great trepidation, reaction from the ground has been rather muted.
In April, opening the National Colloquium on Malaysia’s chairmanship of Asean 2015, Najib said the country would be the centre of attention when the Asean Community (AEC) was established.
What was the outcome of the colloquium? It was useful, some new ideas, some old ones and some far-fetched.
“Not all ideas are practical and even for practical ones, you must remember Asean works on consensus.
“For example, Asean lane at immigration checks. It is an old idea but how many countries actually implement it?” said an officer.
Najib said this situation of lack of awareness must change and had directed Wisma Putra, Miti and other agencies working on an aggressive campaign to promote Asean in Malaysia.
Why does there seem to be a problem of low awareness of Asean among us?
One university professor told Mustapa that eight out of 10 of his students hardly had any inkling of what was Asean.
“That is very disturbing. This information comes from an international relations professor,” Mustapa related.
Mustapa believed there was lack of communication, especially with men on the street.
And he felt it was not just on Asean but also on other important national policies too.
“I met a group of Asean youth yesterday but the men in Jeli, Gua Musang or Kanowit know nothing about Asean,” he said.
“We have to make it simple so that they will understand. Communication with the grassroots is important.
“And for Miti, it is not just Asean but other important policies too.”
Leading one of the biggest ministries, Mustapa said it was his job to actively engage the various stakeholders, especially on moving forward with government policies.
Mustapa has directed his staff to have more outreach programmes to engage people on the ground and also the media on the issues and policies involving the ministry.
Officials said they had lined up almost 80 outreach programmes on Asean alone this year involving university students, the private sector and NGOs.
An essay-writing competition on Asean, offering 3,000 ringgit (US$942.95) as first prize, is being organised in universities but the response has been very poor with only 50 entries.
Still, it is never too late to build greater rapport and create more awareness of Asean among the people and the media.
Perhaps other ministries should take heed of what Miti is doing in engaging all parties involved.
Mustapa was busy scribbling as the media was giving feedback to promote better relations and understanding on issues involving Miti.
“My officers and I will be more open to explain and make sure the media have a better understanding of our work,” he said.
But the promotion of Asean must not be the sole responsibility of the government.
The NGOs, youth movements and private sector must chip in.
It is after all the government’s aspiration to fulfil the vision of a “people-centred Asean” in 2015.