By Chuang Peck Ming
In a way, it's a chicken and egg problem. Asean wants the private sector to help get its connectivity projects moving.
But Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday that investors want 'certainty and assurance' before they plonk their money in projects such as railways, highways and telecommunication services - projects that are needed to physically connect the 10 member states but also will take a long time before investors get to see any returns.
'The difficulty is not only in finding the money to make the investments but also to have the certainty and assurance that the rules will enable the project to succeed and over a very long period of time,' Mr Lee said at the end of the 20th Asean Summit leaders' meeting.
Investors have to be assured that policies, rules, laws and taxes will not change over time or with new governments that will sour their investments.
'You have to say the right thing, do the right thing but, really, you got to demonstrate over a long period of time that you can maintain this and that the system can maintain this, so that even (if) the president changes or the industry minister changes, or the telcommunications minister changes, the policy will still be consistent and so people can rely upon it - and that's the challenge,' Mr Lee said.
In fact, that's where Singapore has an advantage, according to him. 'We've been able to maintain policies, consistency over many, many years and the investors have come to rely on that,' he said.
So the question for Asean is one of credibility, which Mr Lee said cannot be built overnight. Yet he told the Singapore reporters that the 10-member grouping's credibility may ride on getting the Asean projects off the ground.
'Unless Asean shows that we are able to deliver on the projects which we are doing, especially the major ones, I think people will start to wonder what the seriousness of the organisation is,' Mr Lee said when asked of the urgency in putting the Master Plan for Asean Connectivity into action.
Mr Lee said that the Master Plan is one of the major projects that will boost Asean integration - and 2015, when the Asean Community is supposed to happen, is not far away.
Also, Asean wouldn't want to be left behind as the world, especially China and India, moves on.
Still, Mr Lee said that there's time to work out specific agreements such as civil aviation, open sky and services through negotiations - and to get things going over the long haul. '2015 is not the end of the world, but we would like to get things started.
Of course, even the infrastructure is something that we are just starting now. I mean, countries have been talking about it for quite some time.'
So maybe it's time for action? 'It's never too early to act', came Mr Lee's reply.
As Asean's chairman for 2012, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen yesterday reported that 67.9 per cent of the projects spelt out in the Asean Economic Community blueprint have been implemented and progress has been made in facilitating greater trade and investments in Asean.
This article was first published in The Business Times.