With only a few months left before its implementation at the end of this year, the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) is failing to gain status on the national agendas of the member countries.
Speaking before the annual ASEAN Journalists Club Forum in Bangkok on Tuesday, former ASEAN secretary-general, Surin Pitsuwan, highlighted the need for the media to push ASEAN as a common agenda item for its 10 members.
"Today, not all the people in every ASEAN member feels equally excited about ASEAN. You have to elevate that to a level of equal attention. I would like to see that when you have an election campaign, ASEAN would be an issue. When ASEAN leaders talk about the future of their nations, ASEAN should be the framework."
The AEC will start in December this year. This economic integration will transform the region into a single market and production base, allowing a free flow of goods, services, investments and skilled labor and a freer movement of capital across the region.
If the initiative works, ASEAN, with more than 600 million people, will be larger than the European Union or North America. Strong economic performance has made ASEAN one of the world's most dynamic regions. Based on ADB (Asian Development Bank) data, the AEC would be seventh largest economy in the world with a combined gross domestic product (GDP) of US$2.4 trillion (S$3.37 trillion) in 2013. It could be fourth largest by 2050 if the current growth trends continue.
Surin said ASEAN countries needed to capitalize on this potential and these opportunities for the benefit of the people in this region.
The future of the AEC, he added, would rely on the participation of the people of this region. In the past, ASEAN relied on power figures like then Indonesian president Soeharto, then Singapore prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, then Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad and then Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos. Their leadership had been seen as the key for political stability in ASEAN, but now, in a region that has become more democratic, people's support and participation will be the key for the future success of this economic integration.
"The media's role is extremely critical to the success of ASEAN Economic Community," Surin said. The media should empower this integration by moving together toward ASEAN vision, he added.
Suvat Chirapant, deputy permanent secretary of Thailand's Foreign Ministry, echoed the same concern for a greater role of media in encouraging people awareness and participation in the region. "Media is part of the success of the ASEAN Economic Community," he said.
Pichai Chuensuksawadi, the editor in chief of the Bangkok Post, acknowledged the need for media to take an active role in shaping the future of ASEAN. The role requires journalists to have a good understanding of other countries.
"How many of us really understand our neighbors? If journalists don't understand, how can they explain other countries to the readers," he said.