A slowing economy needs smarter, not more, regulations

A slowing economy needs smarter, not more, regulations
PHOTO: Grab

As ASEAN countries seek closer economic integration by eliminating tariffs and boosting trade, some member nations have come up with more regulation that can slow down co-operation.

There has been a four-fold increase in the number of non-tariff measures (NTMs) in ASEAN - from 1,634 to 5,975 - between 2000 and 2015.

Some of these NTMs are unnecessarily bureaucratic.

For example, Indonesia demands that imported fresh fruit must be refrigerated for 17 days, at 2.8° Centigrade, before the supplies can make their way into local markets.

This arbitrary provision imposes additional costs on foreign suppliers and makes their products less fresh and appealing compared to local produce.

In Thailand, it is mandatory for all imported goods to be labelled in the Thai language.

This raises the cost of doing business from other ASEAN countries because they have to redesign their packaging just for Thailand.

While regulation is necessary to protect consumers, the rules should serve a practical benefit rather than become a source of unnecessary cost that ultimately makes the products more expensive to consumers.

This is even more critical in a slowing global economy with rising uncertainties from a Donald Trump-led United States, a Europe in the midst of Brexit (Britain's vote to leave the European Union), and a rising China.

What the world needs is smarter, not more, regulations.

We need regulations that help lower barriers and boost trade, not deter it.

Smarter regulations should legalise ride-sharing services such as Grab and Uber rather than relegating them as pirate taxis in the hope of protecting traditional taxis.

Technology-driven new industries operating in the sharing economy offer new opportunities, and they must be met with a new regulatory outlook that will allow consumers choice instead of protecting old ways of working.

The Philippines was the first country in Asia to do so and, today, there are designated Grab passenger pick-up points around some Manila malls.

Some Grab "stands" have also appeared in neighbouring Malaysia's Malacca.

It is good that Malaysia and Singapore are also putting in place legal frameworks to regulate such ride-sharing services.

Smarter regulation should also allow companies to list dual-share structures, which is a major attraction for big technology startups.

The top 25 dual share-structure companies including Facebook, Google and LinkedIn in the US have a combined market capitalisation of US$927 billion.

COMPLICATED PROCESS

Singapore gave the green light last September.

But the concept is still a no-go in Hong Kong - which had cost the city Alibaba's listing.

The largest online shopping and e-payment platform chose instead to list in New York in 2014, in a US$25 billion initial public offering that was the biggest that year.

Alibaba's Jack Ma recently said Hong Kong should reform its listing rules to attract new-economy businesses such as financial technology (fintech) services to remain relevant as Asia's financial hub because many of its regulations predate the Internet era.

Admittedly, the regulatory regime is a complicated process with many different stakeholders to consider.

This results in tension and seemingly contradictory rules.

For instance, the authorities in many countries know they should strengthen intellectual property (IP) laws to encourage local businesses to innovate, thereby creating more jobs.

Yet countries such as Australia and the United Kingdom are doing the opposite when they introduce laws that compromise trademarks such as getting tobacco products to be placed in plain packaging without any brand distinction.

Singapore and several other countries are also considering this proposal.

Yes it is important to protect public health.

But smarter regulators should find ways to do so through education rather than setting a bad precedent by robbing companies of their IP rights.

More worryingly, with the growing trend of a more health-conscious population, there is also a discernible shift towards regulating lifestyles and limiting citizens' freedom to choose.

The targets these days are products that are perceived as health hazards such as tobacco, sugar and trans fat.

Activists are campaigning for governments to dissuade people from smoking and snacking, through regulatory measures that range from packaging rules to taxation.

TAXING SUGARY BEVERAGES

In some ASEAN countries, Singapore and Malaysia included, there is talk within the bureaucracies about taxing sugary food and drinks as part of their war on diabetes.

It is unfathomable how such a policy can be implemented in a way that is equal to all actors, a key element of rule of law.

Or will we see populist practices, such as taxing only multinational corporations but ignoring the very sweet teh tarik (milk tea) or the high-carbohydrate mixed-rice served in kopitiams?

If stricter regulation is deemed necessary, it is useful to follow the 2012 recommendations of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

This includes engaging the relevant stakeholders such as business communities and consumer groups to reach a consensus on new regulation, introducing a regulatory impact assessment to identify policy goals, evaluating if regulation is necessary or other approaches are more ideal, and publishing reports on the performance of regulatory policies.

Has legalising Grab and Uber led to less public transport woes and satisfy consumer demands?

Has plain packaging for tobacco products prevented people from smoking or led to more counterfeit cigarettes?

Has the war on diabetes worked or raised the ire of white rice producers who see a dip in sales?

These are important questions that regulators should seek to answer.

In an environment of a slowing economy, it is not wise to have regulations that increase the costs of production and slow economic growth.

What we need are smarter rules that encourage innovation, drive up growth and enhance consumer choice.


This article was first published on December 29, 2016.
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