On September 14, 2015

Tony Fernandes

(Group CEO, AirAsia Berhad)


What is ASEAN to you?

The image that immediately comes to mind is of one region – 600-million strong, diverse, vibrant, dynamic, geographically located at the crossroads of East and West, and rich in heritage.

Is it easy enough to do business across ASEAN? Do ASEAN governments or institutions limit business opportunities across the region?

It depends on the relevant industry. Many business sectors are still regarded as being of “strategic national interest” and as such, the rules and regulations are much more difficult to navigate. But generally speaking, ASEAN governments are changing the way they view the corporate sector. They are now more willing to consider the private sector as genuine partners in achieving the vision of the ASEAN Founding Fathers of one community, peaceful and progressive and prosperous. It’s still evolving too slowly for my taste, especially at a time when the world is moving at warp speed. But the political will is there, it’s the implementation down the line that needs to be ramped up. Sometimes, I wish that governments would just get out of the way and allow the private sector and other non-state actors to lead the initiative to integrate the region. Governments ought to get out of involvement in business. Set the rules, enforce them impartially and allow everyone else to get on with what they do best, helping the region prosper and progress in the process. In short, governments ought to be the referee, not the player.

What difference will the AEC make to your business?

It will be massive, if implemented as envisioned. As always, the proof of the pudding is in the eating All the ASEAN governments have signed on to the plan for the AEC. If it is implemented fully, it will catapult ASEAN as a regional bloc that commands a much bigger share of the world’s attention. For the airline business, in particular, it would be tremendous. Just one example: the free movement of human capital across the region would ensure that there would be no national barriers in hiring of expert staff such as pilots from anywhere in ASEAN. And another: the regularization of standards and rules for aviation would be an immense boon for us.

What is the single biggest thing that will make it easier to do business across borders in ASEAN?

A change in the mind-set of those who set and implement the rules. There is still too much nationalist thinking, and not enough of a regional mind-set among policy-makers, policy implementers and those charged with enforcing the rules. Yes, we all know that all politics is local (to quote former US House Speaker Tip O’Neill), but “local” takes on a whole new meaning when the world, or in the case of ASEAN, the region, is your back
yard. A less parochial approach to resolving the issues facing the region as a whole would go a long, long way to making ASEAN integration a reality – and, no small feat, making ASEAN much more relevant to the Aseanites and Aseanitas of this region we all call home.

What is the most promising sector in asean in the context of ASEAN as a bridge between east and west?
Ultimately, a bridge only serves a purpose if people actually use it. The ASEAN Connectivity initiative, for me, is the most promising, not just in the context of ASEAN serving as a bridge between East and West, but also in the context of actually integrating ASEAN as a region. The ASEAN Connectivity initiative is not just about the “hardware” of improving the infrastructure for trade and travel, but also about the “software” of enabling easy communication through an ASEAN Infobahn and of leveraging on ASEAN’s diversity and heritage to much more deeply inculcate an ASEAN ethos.

Do you think that “ASEAN brand” has been sufficiently defined? How should it be defined?

No, I don’t think the ASEAN brand has been sufficiently defined. What happened in 1967, when the ASEAN Founding Fathers signed the declaration setting up ASEAN, was momentous for the region. It was a powerful message to the world that we, the people of this region, were determined to take control of our own future and shape our own destiny. To me, the ASEAN brand marks a clear demarcation from the political and other baggage associated with the term “Southeast Asia”. Yet, while ASEAN as a brand may have gained some traction in elite circles, it still has a long way to go to become a recognised brand for the region. Heck, we don’t even do enough to promote the brand within the region – for instance, we still call our regional sports competition the Southeast Asia (or SEA) Games rather than the ASEAN Games! We need to define ASEAN to reflect what we are as a people in this region: independent, diverse, vibrant, increasingly prosperous.

Is ASEAN and its institutions sufficiently democratic? How well do they represent their citizens?

Well, let me respond by asking another question: Is ASEAN as an organization and institution sufficiently perceived by the people of this region as relevant to their daily lives? I believe the answer is obvious. I applaud and fully support the initiative to make ASEAN more “people centric,” but much more needs to be done to make ASEAN relevant to the people. For a start, perhaps there needs to be much more resources devoted to communicating to the people about how they benefit from their nations being a member of ASEAN. And I mean benefit in real terms, where it matters – their pocketbooks. Despite all the outreach efforts so far (and there have been some commendable attempts), ASEAN is still perceived as an elitist organisation and institution. We need to change that perception if we are to realise fully the dream of the Founding Fathers.

What are the particular challenges for the airline industry in the region? is there enough progress on open skies?

We are all hoping that when Open Skies takes effect in 2015, it will create a massive incentive for travel and tourism within the region. But already there are some indications here and there that governments, while voicing support for Open Skies, may attempt to circumvent the spirit of Open Skies in pursuit of national interest. We’ll see. Personally, I believe that ASEAN can be home to many more Low-Cost Carriers than there are at the moment. Look at the reality: We are a region whose peoples are divided by large bodies of water. Unlike Europe or the United States with their road and rail links, affordable air travel is the easiest way for people to move around in ASEAN. Indonesia alone is an archipelago of over 17,000 islands!

What is your image of ASEAN in 2030?

A thriving, vibrant, progressive, peaceful and prosperous region whose peoples are united in pursuit of a shared destiny.

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