Every time Malaysia takes up the Asean chair, a number of exciting topics always arise. This occasion is no exception - one such issue is Asean common time (ACT), an old idea which was discussed twice in 1995 and 2005. Singapore raised the idea back in199
The decision in 2005 was succinct. Asean officials took note of its importance along with Malaysia’s position that it would not alter its time zone. [Just for the record, under President Suharto, Indonesia also raised the common time zone in 1985 but it did not fly.]
It is interesting why the Asean chair is coming up with the common time issue now. Is it because the Asean Community (AC) is coming? Or, is it about time the world’s seventh largest economy should get its act together to move goods and services, stock markets, banking, airline schedules - so its integrated economy would benefit in maximum ways?
Apparently, in anticipating the AC arrival, Malaysia wants to push the envelope further by instituting additional commonalities among Asean countries. Three big noble ideas which have been discussed over past decades come to mind — the Asean common currency, the Asean common standards and common time. From the group’s practical points of views, both setting common standards are doable.
The chair is hopeful that as part of economic integration plans, it can further push members to do more to adopt common standards and harmonisation in services – such as customs – to increase their competitiveness as a whole. Under its leadership, Malaysia hopes that Asean will accomplish 95 per cent of all action plans in the Asean Economic Community.
All Asean members follow Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). The local time in Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Bali (Indonesia) belong to the “+8GMT Group” which is one hour ahead of Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar and Western Indonesia – which is the “+7 GMT Group”. Thai time is half an hour ahead of Myanmar. Indonesia alone has three-time zones.
The ACT, which was officially raised at the Asean Foreign Ministerial retreat in January, could be a divisive issue as it impacts on national ways of doing things, especially activities related to religious rituals and ceremonies in the “+7 Group”. It cut across cultural beliefs and divine orders. In certain cultures, time is sacred and cannot be changed to fit a private calendar or stock market.
In Thailand, several attempts to move forward time have been to no avail. Back in 1993, the idea was raised to start stock trading at the same time as the “+8 Group”. But it did not work. Former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra tried again in 2003 to capitalise on the booming Thai stock market. With an hour ahead, investors would make decisions in competitive ways with Thailand included. His plan was dropped as it was hard to move the whole nation to start work one hour earlier. To some Thais, time, as well as certain dates, are God-sent and one must not be disturbed or altered.
For decades, Thailand’s neighbour, Myanmar, has been frustrated with the time difference – even if it is for only half an hour. Business transactions in the late afternoon were not possible for Myanmar with the rest of Asean, Thailand in particular. With economic reforms and growing investment, more commercial hours were urgently needed for Myanmar’s mushrooming business community.
With the new time, Buddhist monks in Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos would have to go for their alms early in the morning.
Monks in Thailand must return to their respective temples before 7am for their breakfast.
In Myanmar, people there would have to move their daily timetable by 90 minutes. It could mean new office hours, which must begin early and end one-and-a-half hours earlier after lunch. That would mean more time with the family in the evening.
In the past, a common time was discussed and ended without any consensus. However, this time around it is different due to the more integrated Asean and other pressing economic factors. With the same “+8GMT Group” time, the whole 630-million community would be in the same time zone with China and Hong Kong.
With the numbers of “+8GMT Group” and “+7GMT Group” equally split, the Asean leaders have to make a decision when they meet at the end of April. A lot more details must be ironed out.
In this case, Indonesia and Myanmar would hold sway with any decision because both countries would have to make numerous adjustments in responding to their new time zones.